The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions
by Rick Moody
(Little, Brown, 288 pp., $24.95)
Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.
I apologize for the abruptness of this declaration, its lack of nuance, of any meaning besides the intuitive; but as I made my way through Moody’s oeuvre during the past few months I was unable to come up with any other starting point for a consideration of his accomplishment. Or, more accurately, every other starting point that I tried felt disingenuous, nothing more than a way of setting Moody up in order to knock him down. One of those starting points was this: “Rick Moody is a lot of things, but he is not actually dumb.” This was an attempt at charity, and though I still think that it’s true enough, I don’t think that it matters; at any rate, his intelligence does not make up for the badness of his books. Another attempt: “In his breakthrough novel The Ice Storm, Rick Moody evinces a troubling fascination with adolescent sexual organs that is partially explained in his latest book, The Black Veil, a so-called ‘memoir with digressions.’” Again, the observation strikes me as correct. The problem here was in assuming that what most readers think of as the subject of a story has any role in a Moody project beyond giving his tangled prose something to wrap itself around, the way a vine will wrap itself around the nearest thing to hand, be it trellis, tree, or trash.
Yet another false start: “The Black Veil is the worst of Rick Moody’s very bad books.” Here the first mistake was in focusing on the books themselves, which bear the same relationship to Moody’s career as his subjects do to his prose: the former come across as little more than a prop for the latter, incidental, interchangeable. Moreover, Garden State, Moody’s first book—despite his citing “the proposition put forth by a vocal minority: that Garden State is my best novel”—is, in fact, even worse than The Black Veil; and “The Black Veil is the second worst of Rick Moody’s very bad books” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Stop reading here if you are looking for a calm dissection of the work of Hiram Frederick Moody III. At this point, the use of the diminutive “Rick” is about the only wise decision that I am willing to give him credit for. The plain truth is that I have stared at pages and pages of Moody’s prose and they remain as meaningless to me as the Korean characters that paper the wall of a local restaurant. Actually, the comparison is not particularly apt, because I know that the Korean writing means something, but I am not convinced that Moody’s books are about anything at all. In fact, it is only when I consider The Black Veil stripped of any pretense to content that I can ascribe it a measure of objecthood—not as the diagnostic, hermeneutical genealogy that it purports to be, but rather as the latest in what I have come to regard as a series of imitations or echoes of Moody’s more talented, or at any rate more authentically individual, peers.
Seen in this light, The Black Veil is Moody’s attempt at A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Purple America Moody’s version of Infinite Jest, and The Ice Storm his take on The Virgin Suicides, and Garden State a pastiche of various writers who published in Between C and D, the journal of choice for the post-punk New Narrative writers of the 1980s. No doubt Moody is even now at work on a sprawling “social novel” in the manner of The Corrections; and given his rate of output—six books in a decade—we can probably expect to see it in stores by the end of next year, just in time for Christmas.
Together these books amount not so much to an oeuvre as to a career, one whose success, though fascinating, is inexplicable to me. In fact, I have to confess that I consider myself unequal to the task of analyzing Moody’s writing. Its faults strike me as uniform and self-evident and none of them are complex enough for a sustained analysis. My gut feeling is that if you honestly do not believe that this is bad writing, then you are a part of the problem. When I finished The Black Veil I scrawled “Lies! Lies! All lies!” on the cover and considered my job done. Like all of Moody’s books, it is pretentious, muddled, derivative, bathetic. His much-touted compassion strikes me as false (in his fiction he makes his characters suffer in order to solicit your pity, and this seems no less true of the self that he describes in The Black Veil); his highly praised prose—”rhythmic” and “evocative” are the tags that you see most often--comes only at the expense of precision, which is to say, of truth.
As Moody’s career has progressed, his books have striven to be more mythic and more postmodern and more real all at the same time; so it is perhaps not surprising that his latest endeavor is a work of hagiography masking itself as self-lacerating autobiography. The Black Veil asks us to consider its subject--the aforementioned Hiram Frederick Moody III, a.k.a. Rick—as a postmodern tragic hero, ironic as well as iconic, America’s Battered Inner Child-cum-Messianic Storyteller. Every page practically cries out: love me despite my flaws.
Well, I don’t. Perhaps this denotes a failure of empathy on my part, or an indication that I am not the intended audience for Moody’s musings. But as I puzzled my way through this and the rest of Moody’s books, I found myself looking not for the place in their execution or conception where they went wrong, but rather for something even prior and more primary: the wrong turn in our culture that led to Moody’s status as one of the anointed ones of his—okay, our—generation. In my view, the wrong turn starts around the time Stephen Dedalus goes to college in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and echoes all the way through Don DeLillo’s ponderously self-important rendering of Bobby Thompson’s shot heard round the world in the opening chapter of Underworld. Moody’s badness is a little less inexplicable if you look at him as the lowest common denominator of a generation of writers—and readers: they, too, bear some responsibility for the condition of fiction—who have long since forgotten what the modernist and postmodernist assaults on linearity were actually about, and as such have lost the ability to tell the difference between ambiguity and inscrutability, ambition and bombast; of writers who are taken at face value when they are being ironic and who are deemed ironic when they are telling it straight—assuming, of course, that they themselves know the difference. Assuming, I should add, that they actually have a subject.
Moody has described his style as “a more natural albeit slightly more hysterical kind of line length.” “Line length,” of course, refers to poetry, not prose, but the imprecision is typical of Moody’s half-thought-out rhetoric: the buzzwords here are “natural” and “hysterical,” the rest are approximations, filler. “I just hit it,” he went on. “I just landed the vein in a way. And I suddenly realized that it was okay for me to write these long, torrid sentences and that people would still read the work and many people would be really excited by it.” The segue is revealing: Moody’s criterion for his language is not that it be expressive but that it be “okay,” that “people would still read the work” and “be really excited by it.” As with the books themselves, what comes through here is Moody’s urgent, indeed “hysterical” desire to be heard. In its defense, Moody’s audience is surely not the first to be “excited” by the sweat stains under a preacher’s arms rather than by the “torrid sentences” of the book he holds in his hands.
Let us take, by way of example, the opening paragraph of The Black Veil.
So there’s the matter of our crimes. The remembrance of our misdoings is grievous to us; the burden of them is intolerable. Lies, whispered, of friends’ indiscretions; instances of envy—when we hate the people we love; peccadilloes, filched office supplies; inflated expense accounts; violent obsessions of all kinds, reckless speeding, a fender bender whose scene we left; the belt from Macy’s we slipped into our own belt loops (they’re the easiest thing to take); a copy of Montaigne, nineteenth century edition, never returned to the library; a kiss stolen from someone else’s lover; a night out of state upon a tanned mattress when the energy of adultery seemed so persuasive that we concealed from ourselves all memory of our spouses; gifts never sent; allegiances never acknowledged; inexplicable cruelties to people with bad luck; inexplicable cruelties to friends; a waiter we upbraided that time; we cheated at cards; we cheated at tennis; we cheated at backgammon or at chess or at some board game of our childhood; we tripped that guy in the backfield and then waltzed in for the goal; we took things for granted, took privileges for rights; we demanded things in no way due us. And then with some of us there are worse crimes, crimes unspeakable, though we might write of them, like robbery, battery, or rape. We fell into coercion or abuse or full-scale embezzlement or even murder, the murder of innocents perhaps; we committed crimes of rage so that afterwards we couldn’t sleep, couldn’t forget, couldn’t think straight, and whispered to ourselves, revisiting these instances of our transgression. There’s the matter of our crimes.
Readers familiar with Moody’s work will recognize in this paragraph the incantatory declarations with which he has begun all his books since The Ice Storm. These openings are less a setup to what follows than a contest of wills between Moody and his reader, a calculated assault by the former on the aesthetic proprieties of the latter. The Ice Storm declares its grandness of intent in the hyperbole of its subject matter (all of Nixonian America), whereas Purple America is more gestural, opening with a two- or three-thousand-word sentence riffing on John 11:26 (“whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die”). In fact, these beginnings are nothing more than transparent attempts at linguistic virtuosity: the former is just a list, the latter a series of sentences faintly echoing biblical rhythms and linked by commas rather than periods. But mostly they are superfluous, which is what finally makes them so annoying.
Moody starts his books like a boxer talking trash before the bout, as if trying to make his opponent forget that the only thing that really matters is how hard and how well you throw your fists after the bell rings. But in reality the clash between Moody and reader is less a pugilistic competition than a pissing contest, particularly if the reader happens to be a man; and if the reader happens to be a writer, then the experience becomes even more inflammatory. For me, the beginning of a Rick Moody book is a bit like having a stranger walk up and smack me in the face, and then stand there waiting to see if I am man enough to separate him from his balls.
But not even I was prepared for the arcana that open The Black Veil. I have been staring at these 270 words for three or four months now, and I still find myself unable to reason them out. Every connection that I try to make leads to new disjunctions. There is the stagy and false informality of that leading “So,” the conjugal insinuation of “our,” the odd choice of “misdoings” rather than “misdeeds.” Why? And what is that dash doing between “envy” and “when”? Though the antecedent of that parenthetical “they’re” is obviously “belt,” the plural leads one to think it refers to “belt loops,” giving rise to an image of the author sawing off the belt loops of department-store pants. Similarly, the indefinite “a waiter” followed by the definite “that time”: is he remembering a specific occasion or not? And what exactly is a “tanned mattress”?
This isn’t a matter of poetic license. We are talking about Freshman Comp. Moody’s passage is just wrong, grammatically, stylistically, and, most importantly, semantically. It just doesn’t make sense. I mean, wasn’t there a single person to point out that “the murder of innocents” is a redundancy on a par with “wet water”? Or that what this passage cries out for is in fact “matter”? Not simply the names of crimes, but their substance: details, concrete information. Describing a volume of Montaigne as a “nineteenth century edition,” for example, is less a telling detail than a grab at the authority that attaches to canonical figures (in this case the very man who invented the term essai). Wouldn’t Moody’s purposes be better served if readers knew whether the stolen edition came in one or more volumes? If it was one hundred years old, or two hundred years old? If it was Florio’s 1603 translation, which is practically a foreign language itself, or Hazlitt’s more modern 1856 edition, or if Moody read it in French? One wants to face the writer and demand: Que sais-tu? What do you actually know?
Possibly the only real accomplishment of this paragraph is Moody’s insinuation of a bond between himself and the reader. His “we” invokes a collective self, as though to suggest at the outset that this “memoir” is not just about Rick Moody and not just about the reader, but about the larger society of which “we” are both a part. Your inclusion in Moody’s “we”—in effect, your guilt—begins the moment you begin reading The Black Veil, and even if you happen not to be guilty of “crimes unspeakable,” some other member of the nebulous “we” into which you have been incorporated is guilty, and as such you share in his or her responsibility and blame. Or at least that’s the only way I can read it.
No real characters emerge in the three hundred pages that follow this paragraph. Rather, those pages are filled by Moody’s singular-yet-shared consciousness, half object, half subject, like the shadow of a finger in front of a camera lens. There is a more or less straightforward narrative—two narratives, actually: the story of Moody’s depression, addiction, and recovery; and a genealogical investigation of the Moody family’s long and singularly undramatic tenure in New England; but these two stories proceed less by scenes than by riffs, stale tableaux that could probably be broken down into, say, twelve steps or so, but which are mainly there to set the stage for pages upon pages of banal yet apparently heartfelt hyperbole. Still, as near as I can parse it, the underlying premise of this book--the reason why we’re muddling through such I’m-being-ironic-or-am-I? questions as “How many pages can you read of the very philosophy from which you, contemporary American, emerged, before you yawn and reach for the antithetical comforts, for the remote control, for the beer in its Styrofoam sleeve, for the joint that goes around?”—is that Moody, who suffered from clinical depression and alcoholism into his twenties (he is sober now, fortysomething, and apparently happy), came to see his condition as nothing less than the “genetic” “inheritance” of his patrilineal line, in particular one Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody, a late-eighteenth-century New England minister who might—although he might not--have been the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
Now, this story and his ancestral link to it seem particularly important to Moody. The third chapter of his book is devoted to a Lit Crit 101 reading of the text, quotations from which appear regularly throughout his memoir, and the story in its entirety shows up as an appendix, a borrowing almost but not quite as pretentious as Jeanette Winterson’s use of a dozen pages from the score of Der Rosenkavalier as a coda to her novel Art and Lies. In a prefatory footnote to his story, Hawthorne mentions that Handkerchief Moody “made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related.” That is, he wore a veil in daily life. “In [Handkerchief Moody’s] case, however, the symbol has a different import. In early life he had accidentally killed a beloved friend; and from that day till the hour of his own death, he hid his face from men.” In Hawthorne’s story, Parson Hooper’s reason for donning the veil is never revealed, and is the subject of much speculation among his fellow villagers. Moody, ignoring Hawthorne’s admonition that “the symbol has a different import,” takes the veil as an indication of a crime that Hooper is concealing, a crime he shares with his fellow Puritans, both fictional and real—with Handkerchief Moody, our present-day Moody, and “you, contemporary American,” since in Moody’s conception all of contemporary America “emerged” from “the very philosophy” of the Puritans.
The connection, “genetic,” “symbolic,” or otherwise, between Rick Moody’s and Handkerchief Moody’s morbidity strikes me as rather tenuous—especially after you find out they are probably not even related; but the gist of the idea seems to be that Moody’s depression was a scrim that simultaneously concealed and pointed up some secret sin committed by not just him and not just Handkerchief Moody and the other males in his family line, but by, in ever-widening circles of implication, all Americans, contemporary or otherwise, and if I follow his reasoning, which can be difficult since it proceeds primarily by rhythm and evocation rather than logic, then this book is meant to tell us what that sin is. By the time I finished reading it, I was convinced the book was itself the sin.
“To be an American,” Moody writes in one of the few syntactically lucid sentences in the book, “to be a citizen of the West, is to be a murderer.” The syntax is clear, the semantics less so. Moody’s American murderers seem to be guilty of the crimes that have obsessed the politically correct for the past couple of decades: the assumption of heterosexual privilege (at the depth of his depression Moody’s constant fear was that he “was going to be raped”); the innate violence of masculinity (“I think of all dead girls expunged by philosophies and theologies of the masculine”); and of course the theft of this continent from the Indians (“the black scar of Manifest Destiny, the recollection of which should cause aggravated insomnia in all North American adults”). It is sort of refreshing, I guess, to see a straight white male taking a hard p.c. line, but Moody’s absolutist construction (“to be an American,” “to be a citizen of the West,” “to be a murderer”) betrays an unacknowledged and contradictory division. For example: “the brutality visited upon those who preceded us here” is what Moody writes in ostensible reference to the invasion of the Americas by Europe. But both “those” and “us” lack clear antecedents, and as such the latter hearkens back to the “us”’s and “we”’s and “our”’s of The Black Veil’s opening incantation. “We” are not merely Americans, it turns out, “we” are also straight and white and male, since these are the attributes of power and thus of victimizing; and our victims—”those” who are not “us,” who are not straight and white and male—are, as a matter of definition, not American. They make up a separate nation.
I do not mean to say that Moody is racist, sexist, or homophobic. I mean to say only that he is a bad writer. But bad writing has consequences. The Black Veil isn’t simply a bad idea badly rendered. It is so awful that it is easy to see the book as in league with the very crimes that it seeks to redress. Here, as in the books that preceded it, the language that Moody employs is so fundamentally imprecise that it cannot help but tell untruths. There is the innocuous generality: “First, the guest room, with the orderly neglect of all guest rooms” (The Ice Storm). There is the demotion of the physical world in favor of the fancy conceit: “Rail lines marked the perimeters of Haledon, this isosceles triangle in the flat Eastern part of the Garden State. Freight trains ran through it like blood cells, carrying unpronounceable compounds and toxins. They rumbled past the accidents at crossing gates, past the crime scenes and late-night waste burials” (Garden State). The metaphor works fine here. What does not work is the description. At the end of the passage, our only image of Haledon, New Jersey—of the “accidents” and “crime scenes” and “waste burials”—remains an outline, unfilled by the metaphor it contains.
There is a certain poignancy to these stereotypical generalities and slipshod metaphors: they speak of the difficulty of individual expression, of the homogenization and the simplification of life by the very tools that seek to understand its complexity. But they lack depth: Moody’s meta-descriptions never show individuality in the process of being squashed--or, for that matter, of finding a way to express itself; and this, besides being dramatically uninteresting, is not an accurate reflection of the world that he is describing. The war may indeed be lost, but that does not mean that the battle is over, that individual soldiers don’t continue to fight and lose (and fight and win) the occasional skirmish.
And then there’s this:
Jen packed up for her rehabilitation center, in Armonk, which
had a pastoral name. Tired of being henpecked by her aunts,
I thought; grief-stricken about her mother, desiring of good
relations with the remaining women of her tribe. The last
weeks before her leaving were such a wreck that I thought,
in a spate of intuitive reasoning, that it was good to get her
out of the house, because she was getting really bad, and I
didn’t want her looking at me in my disgrace, and all we did
was sleep and drink, so it was fine. She got in the car with
the rebuilt front end, packed up some practical outfits, took
off. I misunderstood what a precarious moment it was, as
Handkerchief Moody must have felt calling for a midwife on
the eve of the birth of his daughter Lucy. Once Jen was out
of the house, I slumped further into the cave-dwelling part
of my back brain. The lonely villain in a monster movie, a
suzerain of reclusion, drinking, loathing myself, going out and
feeling afraid, cynical, contemptuous, literally disgusted by my
own shadow, by everything that had to do with me, by my
borders and everything contained within my borders, the trouble
I had wrought, everything I’d gotten into, while the streets around
me were full of riots of sexual assault, women of leisure and men of
leisure and men of leisure dressed as women, underneath the
punctilious exterior of the society in which I had been raised, libertine
cravings, the unquenchable urges toward excess of carnal delight,
everywhere bawds and adulterers, pedophiles and bestialists, lovers
of incest and masochism, all institutions of the civilized America were
window-dressing for the excursion of sexual power into the ghetto of
the powerless, a sequence of rapes, Manifest Destiny as the rationalization
of genocide by method of rape, the Republican Party as rationalization of
genocide, Fundamentalist Christianity as rationalization of genocide, every
kind word uttered to another libertine was the means by which sodomy
would be exercised....
Here, as in the memoir’s opening paragraph—as in virtually every paragraph of this book—is patently specious psychological and symbolic amplification of a kind that I haven’t seen since the last time I dipped into some of Freud’s wackier case studies. But Freud was famously willing to admit that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, whereas Moody’s free-associative mind—elsewhere he makes reference to a “virus of language,” which seems particularly useful as a description of his own sentence style—simply cannot let things be what they are. There are any number of problems with this book, but in the end it always comes back to the prose. A writer’s words, more than his narratives, characters, and themes, are the closest we have to a blueprint of his vision, and in Rick Moody’s words there is a single striking consistency. You could call it an ever-widening gap between signifier and signified, or you could call it lies. Or you could just call it what it is, which is bullshit.
And yet there is that urgency I mentioned before, the hysterical desire to be heard. For all its shrillness, Moody’s volume strikes me as something more than the antics of a child needing attention. I say this as a fellow novelist: though he has never put together a single sentence that I would call indispensable, there is a true empathetic undercurrent in Moody’s work. I find the same current in the work of David Foster Wallace and Jeffrey Eugenides and Colson Whitehead, but not in the work of Richard Powers and Dave Eggers and Donald Antrim and Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem. I find it in Thomas Pynchon but not in Don DeLillo, here and there in John Barth and Donald Barthelme but almost entirely absent in John Fowles and John Hawkes and William Gaddis, in Lolita but not in Pale Fire, in the early Joyce, the first one and a half books, but not in the last two and a half books.
Together, these writers represent the most esoteric strain of twentieth-century literature, what some people think of as the highest of high canonical postmodernism, and what I, with all due respect to Colson Whitehead, prefer to think of as the white man’s ivory tower. The novelist Jim Lewis (he shows up in The Black Veil under the pseudonym “Irv”) prefers the term Geek Lit, but I think that a venereal designation is unavoidable in discussing literature’s secret school, the Skull and Bones of the novelist’s set. These boys have their own little club going, and like all clubs it is defined as much by its gate-crashers as by its blue-blood members. The fact that critics obsess over a black writer such as Whitehead writing in a postmodern pop idiom only serves to reinforce the idea that there is something de facto segregational about the style that he has chosen as his own.
Again, this is not meant to malign the aforementioned writers. I don’t want to suggest that they are uniformly talentless or misguided; or that there is a conspiracy among them, or among them and the editors of The New Yorker or Harper’s or The Paris Review; or that they invest any of their energy in excluding others from the upper echelons of the literary world. All I’m suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid—just plain stupid—tomes of DeLillo.
This is a tradition that has systematically divested itself of any ability to comment on anything other than its own inability to comment on anything, a malaise that only David Foster Wallace has the good sense to lament. It is a tradition that has turned the construction of a novel into a purely formal exercise, judged either by the inscrutable floribundity of its prose or the lifeless carpentry of its parts, rather than by the quasimystical animating aspect of literature that even a rational Englishman such as Forster called “prophecy.” And this is a shame, because I think Rick Moody, alone among his self-selecting generation, has something to say and the means with which to say it, something that might actually meet Forster’s criterion if it were developed in an artful, thoughtful manner: Rick Moody is sad.
I can think of no more urgent reason to write books today than out of an overwhelming sense of despair at the state of the world. It is also the most urgent reason to write book reviews. When I wrote my last review for this magazine, anthrax was traveling through the U.S. Postal Service and smart bombs were decimating Afghanistan; now we are waiting to find out if Pakistan and India are going to fight the first tactical nuclear war. Global warming, overpopulation, the worldwide AIDS epidemic, the ever-increasing distance between supposedly democratic governments and their electorates, the decimation of culture after culture by the relentless spread of the Disneyfied garbage of the American entertainment complex, and the incredibly sad, horrible, hopelessness-inducing fact that people still cannot say what they really mean to each other after seven or so millennia of human civilization: life really sucks right now. I am not claiming things are any worse than they have ever been, merely that there is genuine cause for sadness, and no writer strikes me as more despondent about the state of the world than Rick Moody.
That he hides his despondency behind literary bravura and posturing is itself a cause for sadness; but I still believe that Moody could write well if he wanted to. He has a true writer’s sensibility. His stories have the heft and shape of cultural narratives. There was even a moment at the end of The Ice Storm when my heart went out to him. The utter sorrow that infused every word was real (“His cry emerged, long and hoarse and elastic and then muted, choked off”), even as it seemed independent of the simple story it told and the sugarcoated moral it poured on top (“Elena knew that apology was the impossible paragraph, its words were like the secret names of God”). That sadness is oddly muted in The Black Veil. One feels less connection to the writer as he details his real neurosis than when he is detailing the tribulations of his fictional Hood family. In part that distancing is a result of Moody’s ever-deteriorating prose, in part his unwillingness to own his feelings, preferring instead to blame someone else—his ancestors, society, or (this is my theory) metaphor. Moody’s virus is not so much of language as of language’s need to resort to comparison in order to represent intangible things such as thoughts, emotions, the divine. Though he pretends that these comparisons bring him closer to what he is trying to describe, something—his pen, or his subconscious—knows that in fact he is wandering further and further from the truth, which is why the Rick Moody conjured in the pages of The Black Veil feels even more artificial than the people who inhabit his fiction.
Rick Moody, his very own creation, his very own exemplary American, cannot lift his own veil of projection and see that Parson Hooper’s veil “has a different import” from the one worn by Handkerchief Moody. Hawthorne specifically says the veil is not a symbol of a crime—a fact that Moody ignores, and in doing so he ignores the fact that Hawthorne was interested in man’s nature rather than in his actions, a narrative chain of cause and effect based not on an individual’s history but on the history of the species. In a post-Freudian age, it is understandable that we should interpret Hawthorne’s fascination with external markings—the black veil, the scarlet letter, the birthmark—in a psychological context, but that is anachronistic and simplistic. The notion that human beings commit crimes isn’t exactly interesting, let alone revelatory. About the only thing that Moody’s belief that people ought to wear their guilt like a brand tells us is that he has not, in fact, escaped the legacy of his ancestors, genetic or otherwise. Ultimately, The Black Veil is less an explication of an American crime or American guilt (of either the criminal or psychological variety) than of a particular American need to assign blame or to refuse it. Rick Moody is a Puritan, pure and simple, his memoir nothing more than a witch-hunt. But his culprit, he would see if he pulled the wool from his own eyes, is himself.
And now I’ll tell you my truth: I went into this review thinking that
Moody was a faker, a poser. Shooting him off his plinth, I thought, would be easier than shooting fish in a barrel. But whatever else he is, he is the genuine article. A writer of one terrible book after another, but a writer nonetheless. If you want to know the difference between a real writer and all those wannabes who punish us with their memoirs and literary novels, it’s this: the real writer is incapable of seeing the world through anything but the prism of metaphor and narrative, which renders that world as falsely as chronology renders the progress of time. The real writer suspects that character is just a by-product of these two forces—that what we think of as ourselves is nothing more than an assortment of chemicals acted upon by internal and external stimuli—and in some ways it is his urgent need to disprove this hypothesis, to assert at least the possibility of an existence independent of fate, that drives him to write fiction. It’s true, it’s true, what you have always suspected is true: it’s ourselves we blame, ourselves we’re trying to save. Not you.
All of which may be just a long way of saying that I hate Rick Moody’s books, but there is always a moment in each one of them when I get mad at myself for hating them.
And then, alas, the moment passes.
Dale Peck is a novelist and critic. He lives in New York City. He is the author of, most recently, Body Surfing.