Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: The Diviners, by Rick Moody

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Rick Moody describes the structure of his latest novel, "The Diviners," as modeled on that of serial television with perhaps a touch of the eighteenth century British novelist, Laurence Sterne. From serial television he seems to have taken the idea of following multiple characters, whose own stories are directly or indirectly connected to one or more major plot lines. From Sterne he has taken the passion for the digression which often emphasizes the meandering branch over the narrative stream from which it wanders.

What he has produced in "The Diviners" is a loosely structured panoramic vision of the beginning of the American twenty first century told from the points of view of a large and varied cast of characters. Some speak once and are never heard from again. Some appear once, speak their piece and then step back onto the canvas to emerge again sporadically in the narrative of others. A few, those more central to the major plot lines, speak several times and pop up on a fairly regular basis when others narrate. It is a cast of, if not thousands, enough so that at times it is not always easy for the reader to keep track of them all.

Moody draws his characters from a broad spectrum of contemporary American society, each in some way representative, each in some way unique and individual. There is the Italian mother who wants to see her only daughter married and who hides bottles of a malt beverage in her bathroom. There is the Sikh car service driver with an autistic son, a degree in European fiction and a passion for western television. There is the liberal Massachusetts clergyman who adopts Afro-American children, falls asleep during television shows and drunkenly lusts after the sixteen year old daughter of one of his parishioners. There is the Chinese art curator who sees the world dimly through the veil of a head injury, the rebellious middle class teenager who hooks up with a group of terrorist ‘wannabees,’ the middle age accountant who turns embezzler to help her new found boy friend out of his own financial difficulties–and these are just a few of the many voices in Moody’s chorus.

Although usually in the third person, each speaks in a voice distinctly his own. The Sikh: "They eat the snack called french fries. His son has an abiding need to put french fries into the mouths of everyone present. Even some strangers are willing to have these french fries put into their mouths." The Italian mother: "She will need someone from the neighborhood to keep an eye on her parking space. She has no car, but still. People are moving in, young people, they don’t even know." The Chinese art curator: "Everyone seems very happy to see her in the wheelchair. She is the sort of person whom people are very happy to see out in the hall. People actually stare at her, which reminds her that she should know what she looks like."

Voices blend with one another to sing Moody’s chorale–a richly comic, satiric commentary on this American life. Set mostly in New York City in the days just after the contested presidential election of 2000, the main plot centers on an independent film company, Means of Production, and its attempt to get into mainstream television by pitching an non-existent mini-series script about water diviners. This is complimented by a secondary plot about a bipolar bike messenger accused of assault. But often as in "Tristram Shandy," the most famous novel by Laurence Sterne, the plot is almost secondary to the odd bits and pieces that grow out of it and wind their way around it. While Moody never strays quite as far from his story as Sterne does from his, it is nonetheless clear that plot is not the major focus of this novel.

Rather it is the arid desert of Western culture as it moves like the light moving westward and threatening to engulf all that it meets until it comes back upon itself that is the real concern of the novel. "The Diviners" is supposedly a series about finding water, water to assuage the thirst of mankind throughout the ages, from the Huns to Las Vegas. Thirst is a metaphor for the spiritual emptiness that is endemic to this cultural desert in which we now live. Television, the entertainment industry, is simply the most strident example of that spiritual vacuity: mindless action movies aimed at teenage boys, glitzy quiz shows to watch during dinner, unreal reality shows where back biting strangers scheme to vote each other off some tropical less than paradise.

This kind of aesthetically barren entertainment is a kind of overwhelming force in the world that Moody describes, but even in popular art the germ of something more meaningful may be found. In a bravura passage late in the novel, he describes in detail the Thanksgiving episode of what is the most popular dramatic series on TV–"The Werewolves of Fairfield County." It is a story that combines alienation from the larger society with a sense of unity within a smaller unit. That the alienated are werewolves and that the smaller unit is the pack is indicative of the nature of its social commentary. Nonetheless, what the newly sprouted werewolf must learn is that though he is separated from what is the ‘normal’ society, he will always be able to rely on the other members of the pack. Significantly almost every character in the novel seems to be tuned into the program, and their reactions are interspersed through the narrative account. It is as though the whole country is tuned in. There is a message and there is, it seems, an audience for that message.

If the entertainment industry with its vertical corporate structure and its anorexic teenage divas strung out on drugs, its pandering producers and its ambitious assistants waiting breathlessly for that one false step is the central object of Moody’s satire and comedy, it is not the only one. All areas of modern civilization or lack thereof are fair game for his wit. Randall Tork is "the greatest writer in wine history," famous for the column in which he compares 1997 California chardonnays to an actress: "These wines are flabby in the way the cellulite bulges from the too-tight pouches of her nulliparous behind. . . ." Eduardo Alcott is a faux revolutionary who seems obsessed with the "ancient surgery of trepanation" as a cure for migraines as well as a source of more general feelings of well being. The fragment of skull to be removed, he opines, can be made into an amulet. Arnie Lovitz is a middle aged accountant who sets up fictitious corporations on Caribbean islands, islands that sometimes don’t even exist. There are the New York detectives who follow their suspects into trendy restaurants so they can order fancy lunches, support groups for food addiction, sexual liaisons masquerading as yoga lessons, rehab hospitals that have trouble keeping track of patients, botox parties and romance novelists who don’t bother to write their own books. There is even a fifty dollar guided tour to the desert scene of an alien abduction.

Moody is an equal opportunity satirist. He moves up and down the social ladder. He pokes fun at a variety of races, sexual orientations and political affiliations. Sometimes his mood is gentle as with a senior citizen messenger who likes to talk baseball with his deliveries; sometimes his touch is more biting as with the philandering action movie star who doesn’t mind a little pain with his sex. He can be laugh out loud funny as he writes about his overweight heroines wild binge through each and every one of the island of Manhattan’s Krispy Kreme franchises. He can be subtle and understated as he hints at some hidden desires of a nameless supreme court justice and a special friend he hasn’t seen for years.

At times he indulges in virtuoso cadenzas on a variety of themes. The book begins with a lengthy rhapsody on the westward movement of light. There is a long passage in which Ranjeet, the Sikh driver discourses on the significance of the picture as an aesthetic force and its application to motion pictures an television to conclude that the avatar of American story telling art is "Roots:" ". . .all American stories aspire to this condition, which is the condition of the saga. All stories aspire in this direction, and all corporations aspire toward the sale and reproduction of this saga. Nothing could be more American than this, and nothing could be more international than what is American, nothing could be more human; there are no nationalities, there are only ethnicities and corporations, there is only the military and its collateral damage, and the land of profitability and cowboys and slave trading." There are the almost rapturous riffs on the Krispy Kreme doughnut: "The great spiritual benefit of the Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut is the sensation of nothingness. The satori that is Krispy Kreme is the obliteration of self, the silencing of the voices that are attached to the oppressions of life."

Throughout he weaves pop culture references with academic allusions–Regis Philbin and Michel Foucault, "Nightmare on Elm Street" and semiotics, non-euclidean geometry and Bob Dylan. He skewers the nonsense that fills the lives of many people, those who fancy themselves intellectuals and those who have no such illusions about themselves. There are those who produce the products of Western culture. There are those who consume those products. There are those who analyze and critique those products. But when you come right down to it, whether you produce or consume, whether you attack, explain or extol, there is really no escape from its spiritual emptiness.

"The Diviners" is a funny book. You can’t help laughing at its humor, still, underneath that laughter–as with all great humor–there is something much more serious. It is a book that takes a hard look at us and the world we live in, the things we like and those we want no part of. It is a book that suggests that a civilization that privileges a pastry that gives the "sensation of nothingness" is in danger of achieving that same nothingness, itself.

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