Sunday, August 7, 2011
Rick Moody’s Biting American Satire
(Originally published in the Denver Post in September 2005)
By Dylan Foley
In his first novel in eight years, Rick Moody has crafted “The Diviners” (Little, Brown, $25.95), an over-the-top, biting satire of America in the immediate aftermath and chaos of the 2000 Presidential election. To write this novel, Moody followed one of the most mocked American art forms: the 1970s TV miniseries.
“That was the idea, for sure, was to write it in the form of a miniseries,” says Moody over a glass of steamed milk at a New York City coffee shop. “It turned out to be a really fun way to work. You could write in episodes and you don’t have to think about the larger story. I really only thought about the book in these little narrative chunks.”
One of the main characters of the novel is the nasty Vanessa “Minivan” Meandro, a New York independent film producer with an eating disorder and an addiction to Krispy Kreme doughnuts, as well as a skill at browbeating her staff of underpaid, talented women. These women, in turn, are preyed on by the married movie action hero Thaddeus Griffin, who keeps a desk in Vanessa's office in a desperate search for indy movie credibility and is always ready with script advice or a sexually transmitted disease. The plot twists when Vanessa’s assistant Annabel’s brother Tyrone, a brilliant artist and mentally-ill bicycle messenger, is accused of bashing an art curator with a brick. As America collapses into electoral cynicism, Vanessa latches on to an epic miniseries on diviners, the (probably) fraudulent art of finding water with a stick, from the Mongols of Asia to 19th century Sicilians and modern-day Massachusetts practitioners.
“The Diviners” is witty take on the entertainment industry and shaken faith in the political process, as the hanging chads of Florida lay uncounted. Moody explores America from New York to California in a time of great turmoil and angst.
Coming on the heels of his 2001 short-story collection “Demonology,” which openly mourned the death of his beloved sister, and the 2002 memoir “’The Black Veil,” where Moody wrote about his Puritan ancestors, his own nervous breakdown and the need for American guilt, the new novel would count as a hopeful book for the usually bleak Moody.
“This book was a palate cleanser,” says Moody. “’The Black Veil’ was so difficult to write and its reception was so complicated. I wanted to do the opposite of what I did in the memoir.”
Moody’s novelistic miniseries covers everything from Hollywood TV moguls who like underage handicapped girls and suburban revolutionaries with vandalism on their mind. “There were only two requirements for material to get into the book,” says Moody. “First, that it be fun, and second that it be connected to Vanessa and Tyrone, the main characters.”
True to miniseries form, the tangents are grand and promising characters, like Vanessa’s chain-smoking, embezzling accountant Lois DiNunzio, pop up and disappear. “Like so many things in the 1970s, it is so easy to say that miniseries like ‘Roots’ and ‘The Thornbirds’ were pathetic,” says Moody. “In terms of storytelling and production values, they were really cheap, but they were incredibly influential. ‘Roots’ actually had great pathos associated with it at the time.”
For Moody, the Florida election madness casts a dark shadow over the satire in the novel. “I found the election to be an interregnum between the Clinton and Bush eras,” he says. “It was a period of great uncertainty and my characters were pushed to more extreme and dramatic moments.” As insanity grips the people in the novel, the election is undiscussed, except for Vanessa’s crazed alcoholic mother, who while incarcerated in a psychiatric ward receives cell phone transmissions in her skull from Florida election workers.
To craft the obnoxious Vanessa, whose only saving grace appears to be the quality films she produces, Moody went personal. “I think Vanessa is a lot like me,” he says. “I’m never rude, but I can be an arrogant jerk. She’s also really a composite of all the people I know in the film world.”
Vanessa, though, is seduced into giving up her own independent film credibility to embrace a bankable miniseries.
“I was trying to figure out what the worst thing was that a film person could do,” says Moody, “and that would be a TV miniseries. This is a choice that every artist has to make: why don’t they go for the big sellout?”
Moody says he latched onto divining as a recurring theme in the novel because of his New England childhood. “Divining is extremely popular in Maine, where I grew up,” he says. “To me, it is a metaphor about how spiritual experience happens in the United States. A huge portion of it is manifest quackery. Yet despite that, there seems that there is something genuine happening.
“American culture, then, in the context of the book and for me, always has an element of fraud there.”
Moody fans will be surprised by the hope that is laced throughout the book. Unlike the unrelenting grimness of “The Ice Storm,” the prodigal son/bicycle messenger finds help from his alienated, adoptive parents, and Vanessa, cursed by her on-the-lam accountant to be struck by love, finds that she may be capable of a moving act of grace and kindness.
Readers shouldn’t worry that Moody has gotten all soft, easily dispensing redemption. The harsh satire continues at the end of the novel, where an unnamed Supreme Court justice, clearly based on Antonin Scalia, has a conflict-of-interest dinner with a TV executive friend as he holds America’s electoral fate in his hands. It turns out the brilliant, pompous jurist has his own dreams of screenplay-writing fame.
To develop “The Diviners,” Moody pulled out obscure pieces of information, from the speed records of New York bicycle messengers in the age of e-mail to outsider art and the domestic lives of Indian cab drivers. He abstained from obsessive research, he says, to keep a more organic feel to the writing.
Moody did, however, create Vanessa’s glorious Krispy Kreme orgy at the beginning of the book where she takes a cab to a dozen Krispy Kremes in New York through old-fashioned grit and determination. “I went to all the freestanding Krispy Kreme locations in Manhattan in one day,” says Moody. “I ate 14 doughnuts.”
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer form Brooklyn, NY.