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Heartbreak Hotel

Death and disappointment stalk a mysterious traveler in Rick Moody’s latest novel.

I’m not much of a Rick Moody fan, but I want to be—a fan for the Rick Moody I thought might appear after his first two novels, Garden State (1992) and The Ice Storm (1994). To the extent that we have a living example of an American writer who didn’t practice minimalism, but still emerged, thriving, from the literary culture of the 1990s, Moody is one of the most visible: the list poet as novelist, taking the known world and disassembling it like a child trying to understand how a clock works. To this end, Moody has for years deployed fire-hose sentences that repeat neurotically inward. He swings around on paragraphs like the chandelier you ride on at the end of a party.

I’ve told myself the problem, until now, is a disagreement about style, a longing for the succinct sentence quality I remember from his debut novel, Garden State, and have hoped for in any of his writing I’ve encountered afterward. But the baroque fears of a white man facing middle age have been Moody’s calling card for 20 years now; fears, which have been, if not well-documented, then over-documented by the Great American Novelists of the twentieth century. I sometimes wonder if it was the writing of The Ice Storm that changed him into the author he is now—as if the sad father in that novel, trooping through the suburban swinger parties of 1970s Connecticut, never left his head.

Of Moody’s five novels, three collections of stories and novellas, one memoir, and a book of his music criticism, all have in common an archly antiquated diction, whether fiction or nonfiction, satirical or straight, and his toughest critics have brought up his heavily wrought sentences more than a few times over the years. At this point we can say Moody likes writing this way. But it seems to me that Moody’s fear of death and fear of being a middle-aged white man—in particular, a sexually unattractive middle- aged white man—made him into the kind of guy who will say “alarum” instead of alarm, which is to me its own sort of alarm.

Hotels of North America is his sixth novel, and like The Diviners, The Four Fingers of Death, and Right Livelihoods, it is a satire. It positions itself as belonging to that long line of mysterious literary documents written by a forgotten author who produces one singular work of literature, which has been discovered by a publisher and comes with an introduction or epigraph by a writer, who is, of course, also (secretly or not so secretly) the author. The novel’s conceit then is that it is the memoir of a man known only as Reginald Edward Morse—yes, R.E. Morse. A preface by Greenway Davies, the director of the fictional North American Society of Hoteliers and Innkeepers, or NASHI, tells us the memoir is conducted in online hotel reviews, collected and published by NASHI ostensibly as a tribute to Morse, a top-rated reviewer. Davies apologizes for not having had time to read it but assures us we’ll enjoy it. Since an afterword by “author Rick Moody” is promised in the preface’s title, we know right away the targets of this satire will be ostensibly the business of hospitality, memoir, online reviewing, the United States in general, and perhaps travel itself—the copy you’re reading, Davies assures us, is one of a series of titles placed in every room as a gift to guests, along with the Bible.

This is all promising. Travel in the United States has never been so miserable as it is now. “Luxury” is almost always in air quotes; the “misery index” is a feature on Hipmunk, the online travel discount site which helps to measure the inconvenience of a flight; and with Airbnb, hotels now compete with people’s homes. There’s a huge field to play in here.

Morse’s first review, of the Dupont Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., begins with an escapade with his girlfriend, K., and a meditation on complimentary cookies, praising this hotel’s in particular: M&M cookies with red M&Ms that “shimmered with distant reverberations of American political power.” Soon these disappoint, and one of the cookies ends up broken and thrown over the fence of the Indonesian Embassy, though “the scheming and warlike Indonesians were probably out at the time.” The couple realizes they can’t afford the hotel, and their scam for skipping out on the tab fails.

When the next review begins, the pair are in Italy. The reader will notice that each entry has a gap between the date of the stay and the date the review was posted, usually years apart, and that the experiences were experienced, if not written, when Morse was a richer man working in finance and motivational speaking—his is an asynchronous review series that soon fills in with his details of a life told out of order.

Morse is estranged from his father. His mother bears little mention. Divorced, with a daughter he loves and misses, he lives with K., his late in life Pixie Dream Girl who seems a little beaten up by life but admits she has never experienced trauma. This haunts Morse; his own trauma seems to be that he simply grew up, the youthful bubble that surrounded him dissolved. He was once successful, first as a financier, then as a hotel reviewer, and is now less so. He has some sad old ways of making jokes—remember when it was funny to bring up your psych meds? Ambien, so hilarious!

Morse is white and often racist, with brown people offered up as his punchlines, like the Hispanic women he imagines doing the hotel laundry and hexing him, or the “warlike” Indonesians who found his broken cookie, or the racially ambiguous woman near him at a meditation retreat. He is the kind of white man for whom the Italians and French aren’t white enough: An Italian man is “Ernest Borgnine,” the Francophone Canadian is a source of bedbugs. (It’s not clear what any of this has to do with the plot, but it is a regular feature. Is it satire when a white man down on his luck makes fun of people of color? Not to me.)

Morse is also a germaphobe who is obsessed with sex, and his desires humiliate him but are often aroused in hotels or satisfied there—and that is a specific kind of hell. He is willing to have sex with women during their periods—we get at least two episodes of this—and he even pays for a sex chat with a gay male Filipino engineering student doing online sex work to pay the bills, though Morse insists he prefers women—he’s just lonely. His loneliness runs his life. Morse then is yet another baroque performance of Moody’s white male middle-aged anxiety, casual racism included for emphasis. Thanks to the back and forth of Morse’s mind, we also see him as a father; a man falling out of love with his wife and his life; a child of the suburbs; a white middle-aged motivational speaker who was once in finance; and of course a top reviewer—a paid reviewer—for the Rate Your Lodging site.

This last detail eventually bothered me the most. While satire isn’t typically held to the rules of, say, realist fiction, can any author really satirize something that doesn’t exist? Doesn’t satire need, well, a real target in order to draw real blood? I’m unfamiliar with any travel sites that pay users for reviews. The idea of a user review site like Yelp or TripAdvisor, ostensibly the models for this, is that the reviewer is a regular customer, unpaid and untainted, unlike, say, luxury travel writers who are paid for their reviews and reimbursed for their trips, but who are sometimes given media rates and junkets, which, it is believed, can tip a review from bad to good. After a brief search of the web, I found one paid review site, but it didn’t pay enough to cover the cost of the room—which would have been a hilarious detail to add. But if the reviews on this fictional Rate Your Lodgings site really were paid for by the site, most hotels wouldn’t put up with the ones in this novel for long. If a paid review site was paying, it would be charging the hotels to do so—and the hotels would want, even demand, reviews from people who had actually stayed there recently. Reviews posted months later, and with irrelevant details, no matter how amusing, would be hidden or even deleted. I’m a travel writer, so I’m nitpicky.

But the question is whether the fault in all of this is Moody’s or Morse’s—is it deliberate or a blind spot? In a 2001 Paris Review interview, Moody mentioned he had a friend who told him, after reading a draft of Garden State, that he shouldn’t write about the working class as he didn’t know anything about them. “Which I think was an unusually harsh thing to say to a friend,” he offered. Later, in the same interview, he asserted that it is easier as he gets older to just make things up. This novel could be said to be created out of a sense of ease, but it might have benefited from research. Moody is an author who is less internet-averse than, say, Jonathan Franzen, and has written music reviews for a blog. He is at least net-literate. He knows Reddit exists. And so I have to ask, why, at this point in his career, fire a cannon at something that doesn’t exist?

I had to wonder if the specifics of class difference still elude Moody—though “working class” isn’t really Morse’s milieu either. Morse is in the contingent workforce, like so many white men kicked out of their class by the oligarchic power grab we still call the financial crisis of 2008. When not staying in hotels, we see him living in his car in an Ikea parking lot in New Haven during his divorce. Morse certainly argues in the comments section, at certain points, refuting the charge that he is rich, but how else could he live in so many hotels? It is expensive to live in hotels, even cheap ones—more expensive than renting.

I suspected the novel briefly of being what a friend of mine calls “novels about the internet written on a typewriter.” I noted, for example, that Morse has no smartphone. Unlike the many amateur travel bloggers out there, posting their life stories away all over the internet, making enough from ads to travel constantly in the way, say, a real life Morse might, Morse does not post photos, he does not use social media—he is a travel blogger who does not resemble any travel blogger.

The best moments in Hotels of America are familiar territory for Moody. An entry in which Morse remembers a stay at the Plaza when he was a child ends with the sort of force I wish they all had.

What other five-star hotel would let the kids of young couples from the suburbs go running around looking for Eloise and her staff pals? But we did it until, going around some corner, we were stopped short, and I looked up into the face of some older lady, makeup-less, unjeweled, wearing some kind of nightshirt, her face a lattice of wrinkles, such as might indicate evidence of untold wisdom, her face a ballad of experiences, and she held me by the shoulder, now looking right into my eyes, while my gaze took in her diaphanous nightshirt and her unknotted robe, her slack skin, and she said, Hush now, some of us are trying to sleep through all of this, and she gestured around.

Morse, it should also be said, displays not just a horror of his own aging body, but that of others, especially women. This could be said to be democratic. He is moved to poetry again in a later review where, after a marriage counseling session, he describes the movements in the decline of a marriage.

In the lurch of solitude I began trying to add to the list of things not to say to someone in your marriage: Don’t ever use a pen while lying on the bed; don’t ever forget to put the cap back on a pen after using the pen; don’t ever use a pen if it’s new; put items in the refrigerator at 90-degree angles; do not throw things in the bathroom trash if there are already a lot of things in the trash; don’t ever lie on the bed, made or unmade, in your clothes; don’t get into the bed without having showered; don’t put your bag on the bed, don’t put your bag on the chair, don’t put your bag on the counter, don’t put your bag on the table; don’t ever do the laundry; don’t bite your nails; don’t put the toilet paper facing out; don’t put the toilet paper facing in; don’t accelerate quickly; don’t wear those colors together, don’t wear those colors together, don’t wear a stripe and a plaid, don’t wear that shirt, that looks bad on you, that looks bad on you, and that looks bad on you, and that looks bad on you, and that looks bad on you too, are you sure you want to wear that, that looks bad on you; please stay out of the house one night a week, please stay out of the house a couple of nights a week so I can have some privacy; don’t put that there; don’t put that there; that plastic cup was given to me by my grandmother; don’t use my towel; don’t use my bathroom; you don’t understand your own family; you don’t understand your own role in your own family; you don’t understand what people think of you; you don’t understand me, you don’t understand yourself; I need some money for clothes, I need some money for credit cards, I need money for school; don’t cut your meat on the plate, that sound is awful, cut your meat on the cutting board before putting it on your plate; don’t touch me.

This was what I wanted all along from Moody. By the end, though, it felt as if he was in the grip of his device. I wanted the novel to rise out of the banks created by the hotel reviews; I wanted Morse to emerge as well, which he does at times.

But while Moody’s antiquated diction disappeared for stretches, it kept returning—“libation” instead of drink, “harlot” instead of slut, and, of course, all the cheap shots at women and people of color. The racism of Morse never became anything in terms of the story. Morse’s last review describes the moment he first met K., which includes a few potshots at, again, the ethnic variety in the room. Which left me alone with whatever this idle racism could mean.

The central premise here—that you could be paid to do hotel reviews, that you could do them this way and still be rewarded, even celebrated—these are the infantile fantasies of white male privilege: Break the rules and get away with it; get things for free. Make fun of people who aren’t like you and become heroes. And this really gets down to it: In my experience, the man who does this performance of antiquated diction is a white man, insisting to me he has not only read the classics, but that he belongs to another time, an older time, and that he longs for it, feeling out of step with our modern age. This kind of man, every sentence he writes is like a protest down the Broadway of our nation’s culture about the direction of the culture, and also the ticker tape parade for that protest. The present is too cruel for him, and yet he cannot change it, so there is this instead, sentence by sentence, a nod to the past that is really a nod to his own past. A conflation of his nostalgia for the days of his sexual attractiveness and the unencumbered power of white men, all of it dressed up as a love for old words.

At the end, Moody steps forward in the promised afterword, saying he nearly turned the writing assignment down, as it paid a measly $300, until he learned Morse vanished after his final review. Moody searches the internet and finds many Morses, just not the R.E. Morse. Eventually he decides to tour the hotels Morse reviewed to better understand him. After staying in just one, Moody concludes that Morse is not a real person but an “imago,” and that this is not a memoir but “a collection of writings about what it means to be alone.” And just as you notice Moody’s style is a cousin to Morse’s, Moody describes meeting a woman he believes could only be K.

If Moody stayed in any actual hotels to write his literary mystery, some of them did the trick, but not all. He’s not as successful as Nabokov was in the Hotel Montreux, or Noel Coward at the Peace Hotel in Shanghai. He did not have Thomas Mann’s luck at the Grand Hotel des Bains. But I do like to think Moody really did meet K. That her appearance is a sign, perhaps, that K. is the one who did it all—writing reviews for two years after Morse’s death, his final check out, as one last tribute to her love.

R.E. Morse, rest in peace. And Rick Moody, if the worst you can imagine is that we will all get old and unfuckable, if that is really what you fear, well, all of us alive now, we will be lucky to get old. Fear more than that.