September 2005

Michael Schaub

fiction

The Diviners by Rick Moody

Every few years, despite the pleas of a desperately annoyed reading public, a Big Author releases a Big Book. It's a popular thing to do with a certain group of writers -- specifically, it seems, young-to-middle-aged white postmodernists with an ostentatiously intellectual bent. Some of the Big Books might have made good shorter novels (Infinite Jest); others might have made good screenplays (You Bright and Risen Angels); and some would have been better off if the author had never conceived the idea in the first place (The Tunnel, Gravity's Rainbow). It's not the size of a novel that makes it a Big Book, though it helps greatly if it's over 500 pages. It's the academic showiness, the lack of interesting characters, and the deification of the concept. There's almost never room for emotion in the Big Book, though David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen come the closest to defying that trend. And here's the crucial part -- the Big Book is almost never very good. (Though you could make a case for Franzen's Strong Motion, and, if you're really, really convincing, Infinite Jest.)

The Diviners is Rick Moody's attempt at joining that small club. It fails. That's not surprising considering the spotty history of the Big Book in America (like fashion and health care, it does seem to be something the Europeans do much better than Americans), but given Moody's well-earned reputation as one of the country's most interesting writers, it's actually kind of shocking. Moody has written two of the finest books in contemporary American fiction (The Ice Storm, The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven), and even his worst book before this one, The Black Veil, was actually pretty good. Moody's strength lies in his sensitivity -- he can be an unbelievably compassionate writer -- but there's no sensitivity, almost no authentic emotional awareness at all, in this sprawling mess of a novel.

The Diviners is set, pointlessly, in the weeks following the 2000 presidential election. If there's a reason Moody chose this remarkably weird time in American history to tell his story, I missed it. The book's real center is a planned miniseries about water diviners, that stretches in scope from ancient Mongolia to present-day Utah. The project is the baby of Vanessa Meandro, an indie film producer eager for a big hit. Meandro is a remarkably uninteresting character -- we're not told much about her except that she's morbidly obese and resents her mom (we're told this several dozen times, to make sure it sticks, I guess). Meandro is unpleasant, mean and sad, and unable to function properly without her daily dose -- it's a large dose -- of Krispy Kreme donuts. Why Krispy Kreme? "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." Does anyone buy that? Does Moody buy that?

The frustrating thing here is that Moody misses a wide-open opportunity to make this woman at least slightly sympathetic. It's obvious he understands the tragedy inherent in food addiction, but passes up the chance to look at the issue seriously in favor of a rambling description of the donut chain. He ends up sounding something like a college student with a David Foster Wallace fixation, and something like a teenage slam poet delivering an anti-corporate America rant. So where does that leave Vanessa Meandro? It leaves her as a donut-scarfing bitch whose motivations are never made exactly clear. She's just shy of a caricature. Moody's better than that.

Meandro is just one of over a dozen characters in The Diviners -- some ring somewhat true; most do not. Thaddeus Griffin, an action film star who seems to be a stand-in for Bruce Willis, is one of the half-crazy minds behind the miniseries; he's desperate for the critical acclaim and respectability he thinks he deserves. That's not an uninteresting concept, but Griffin talks in an aggressively unrealistic manner. (No one speaks in sentences that compound or that complex, even with random "You know?" interjections. They just don't.) Tyrone Duffy, a bike messenger with bipolar disorder, ricochets around the book without ever really fitting in. And then there's the Sikh cab driver who Meandro hires as a television/pop culture consultant. The cabbie is a cipher, distinguished only by his propensity to speak in elegant, sometimes hyper-correct sentences (Memo to my fellow white people: Not all people from the subcontinent talk that way). His autistic son, however, is the book's most interesting character, and it's a pity Moody didn't choose to tell his story instead of pursuing the asinine miniseries plot he instead went with. The paragraphs from the child's point of view are rendered with grace and sensitivity; you never get the feeling that Moody is condescending to the boy. (That can be a problem in novels with autistic characters.)

But with a few exceptions, you're left to wonder: Does Rick Moody know what people sound like when they talk? Griffin, the action star, at one point launches into a long and pointless monologue, which include rants like: "You should be dripping when you write a story, and your stomach should be churning with the head-splitting climax at your end of the story, the one that gets you off. The one where all the differences in the world, like the differences between a pussy and cock, are obliterated in the reprise of the come shot of creation, the big grand unified come shot that made the conditions that made you and me and art and commerce and religion. Fuck art and fuck commerce." Satire or not, there's no way prose like that can't be heavy-handed.

The plot and cast of characters practically scream "madcap," but The Diviners is stubbornly boring. A lot of this has to do with Moody's heavy-handed dialogue -- the characters often sound like they are incapable of speaking in anything but masters' theses. It's puzzling to contemplate how Moody got to this point -- one of the best things about The Ice Storm was its preternaturally real dialog, which was heartbreaking and achingly real. He doesn't do himself any favors with his ivory-tower ramblings on cultural studies and his self-indulgent, but markedly uninteresting, reflections on American popular culture. It's a puzzling misstep from a great writer -- not because he's bitten off more than he can chew, but because he's writing below his talent. At no point in The Diviners does it seem like Moody actually cares about this book, and why should he? Almost 600 pages, and there's really nothing to care about.

The Diviners by Rick Moody
Little, Brown
ISBN: 0316085391
576 Pages