Monday, August 28, 2006

Books might be better than people: Some thoughts on Rick Moody

So there's the matter of Rick Moody. Last week, I was browsing at the exceptional Santa Cruz bookstore Logos when I noticed an attractively-designed paperback copy of Moody's first novel, Garden State. Because I have always meant to read Rick Moody and because I liked the cover design and because I can be a sucker for stories of slacker disaffection (especially right before school starts) and because I thought it might be enjoyable to picture Zach Braff as the novel's protagonist just as he was in the movie adaptation (more on this later) I bought the book (for $7.20 plus tax--an odd price now that I think about it). Now, having read only this novel in Moody's oeuvre, I offer some thoughts about Garden State and Rick Moody.

1. He can be a really good writer. There are some excellent sentences in this novel--epigrammatic sentences, like the one that I've quoted as the title of this post. It certainly encapsulates the question I've been weighing for years (but the "might be" leaves plenty of wiggle room).

And how can you not love a sentence like: "Ghosts were the New Jersey state bird."? Change that sentence to present tense and you have as perfect a sentence about New Jersey as has ever been written.

2. Sometimes good ideas get trapped in really bad sentences. For example:

"Human bonds all broke up, fragmented, shattered, exploded, she thought right then, resolution or no resolution, according to whatever explosives were at hand, and that was what she really wanted to tell Lane, but she didn’t see that it had much to do with him, especially since it was she, Alice, who was a breaker of bonds, a violator of families, a dead soul on the eternal Garden State Thruway of dead souls."

Now there are things I like about this sentence: "Garden State Thruway of dead souls" is a pretty good line. And I like the idea that, while the breaking of human bonds is inevitable, the means by which this process occurs are improvised and contingent ("according to whatever explosives were at hand"). This seems true to me.

However, "according to whatever explosives were at hand" is a pretty clunky phrase. Is "according to" really the right prepositional phrase here? Wouldn't "with" work better?

3. This book would have made a terrible movie. I haven't seen the movie, so as I read the novel, I kept asking myself questions like "how could this have been adapted into a coherent movie?" or "how did the director deal with that scene?" Luckily, as I discovered later, the movie Garden State is not based on the novel Garden State (although some inevitable similarities seem to exist).

However, I do think it is a worthwhile exercise for the reader of the novel to picture Natalie Portman and Zach Braff as the main characters in the book. This improves the likeability of said characters by a full standard deviation.

4. According to (note the appropriate use of the prepositional phrase!) the concordance for the novel compiled by, the word "fucking" occurs in the book more frequently than the word "home." That's hot.

5. I've been stalling, but finally I have to say it: sometimes Rick Moody is not a good writer. This is the paragraph that I hated most in the whole novel:

"She decided to take a sleeping pill. Before she had even finished making the decision she was in the bathroom, over the medicine cabinet. Maybe she liked the sleeping pills a little too much. She noticed how the paint was peeling in the bathroom, along the ceiling, as she swallowed. Back in her bedroom, a house fly made impossible right angles unable to find the inch of open window to freedom. Scarlett set the jar of sleeping pills on the floor beside her bed. Angels smiled on the well-rested. God loves sleepers and those who wake."

But then again, I could just as easily have chosen this paragraph:

"The buzzer sounded. Harsh and unexpected. Scarlett moved the bass and stepped over the television cord dangling between the table and the wall. But then she advised herself to stay put. She snatched up the martini, sipped it, replaced it on the table. She decided to establish the identity of the intruder. She stuck her head, again, out the window. Breezes blew."

[I'm going to ignore some obvious questions, like "was it really a 'jar' of sleeping pills?"]

I don't think that I've chosen uncharacteristic paragraphs to criticize: Moody's style is to write paragraphs like these, with a mix of indirect discourse, free indirect discourse, strangely out-of-place references to other styles of writing (such as the police-report tone of "establish the identity of the intruder" or the religious platitudes at the end of the first passage), plus some ambiguous declarative statements ("Breezes blew"--wtf?). However, he usually does it better. The problem is that when you're trying to manage so many types of discourses, it can be too easy to screw up the tone.

6. Novelist and critic Dale Peck hates Rick Moody a lot.

Peck's entertainingly vicious review begins with the infamous line "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation"--clearly an exaggeration, as Rick Moody's generation presumably includes Mitch Albom, Neil Gaiman, and (Saints preserve us!) Dan Brown. Hmmm, maybe even Ethan Hawke would qualify... Probably what Peck means is that Rick Moody is the worst good writer of his generation, which is still a pretty powerful statement.

But is Peck right? He does land some punches on Moody, but that's easy enough to do. One of his most accurate criticisms of Moody is that his prose is imprecise. Peck's close reading of the first paragraph of Moody's The Black Veil is like shooting fish in a barrel (although it's pretty funny).

Is linguistic imprecision really a valid criticism of a novel? Do we really want to hold contemporary novelists to that standard? The question that Peck never fully addresses to my satisfaction is the effect of Moody's imprecision: does it prevent meaning or does it actually produce a type of meaning? Or, to put it another way, is Moody linguistically careless or does he know exactly what he is doing? That Garden State managed to produce meaningful and specific emotional responses in this reader seems to suggest that Moody is doing something right, but I will reserve judgment until I read some of his other novels.

You can read the full review here.

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