July 28th marks the return of Rick Moody from another deep space tour of novel writing. Whenever I hear Moody is on track to make it back, I feel a mix of anticipation and apprehension. It’s akin to how one feels watching futuristic films, waiting for the appearance again of a well-known astronaut, who, having traveled so far and so deep into the cold void of his own invention, prepares to splash down and open the capsule door. The uneasy cigarettes lit in mission control are all burning with the question of whether or not the guy has gone bat shit crazy on his solitary voyage.
So what will the fictionaut Moody bring us? At 732 pages, the only guarantee so far is a hell of a long read. But what I hope for with each new Moody novel is the best kind of literary realignment between reader and writer, because historically we’ve spent much time in retrograde orbits. To call my relationship with Rick’s work love/hate is too strong. It might be love and longing for love past with a hearty hope for love again.
It is impossible for me not to keep the light on for Moody’s work. After dazzled readings of The Brightest Ring of Angels Around Heaven and The Ice Storm, his name jumped out at me everywhere. In the rosters of literary conferences and programs, catching his name was like finding Buzz Aldrin buried in the program of a high school science fair. My affinity for him was further reinforced at a lecture he gave at Bennington College during a bitterly cold January residency (who knew railroad tracks could freeze?). During the most typical and turgid form of MFA Jeopardy!, in which students make statements about themselves and their work in the form of a question for the lecturer, Moody rescued the audience with a ten minute detour through his preoccupation concerning a new Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, and the effect it was having on his productivity.
These were the Demonology days. I took home the candy-covered soft back and unwrapped it to mild disappointment. There were stories I liked and others that I couldn’t meet on their terms. I carried it everywhere for a while, and in the end, I couldn’t file it among my loves. It wasn’t for lack of trying, and it certainly wasn’t for lack of authorial skill. It was, as I said before, a case of reader/writer retrograde. The frustrating feeling of a book from someone you admire not spinning in the same direction as your life.
And yet in the same year I came across one of my favorite pieces by him. It was the introduction to Gregory Crewdson’s photographs in the book Twilight. At the time, I was trying to shoe-horn Crewdson’s eerily gorgeous suburban dreamscapes, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, and Freud’s concept of the uncanny into one essay. Instead, I was pleasurably distracted and humbled by Moody’s great close reading and reflection on the photographs. This fucking guy! Here he was again, and how sweet the music of the spheres.
Rumpus readers of the recent essay on Jolie Holland’s song, “Mexican Blue,” will no doubt understand this feeling. He produced roughly 3,878 words inspired by 390 seconds of music, a meditation which is as much invention as it is interpretation, running at a ratio of roughly 10 inspired words per second of music. It is one of the rare and mutually reinforcing moments in art in which both pieces are improved in equal part by their relationship to one another. This is the essence of Rick Moody as a writer; he is a critic and explorer through love and curiosity, not condemnation.
Curiosity is also the core impulse of his fiction. Each story Moody tells is driven by this impulse, an impulse which he seems to support in response to questions from Daniel Alarcón in the The Secret Miracle: A Novelist’s Handbook. When asked how much he knows about the plot of a novel in advance of writing it, he answers, “Ideally I know the beginning and something about the end. But even these are not requirements. Discovery is the fun part.” When asked about whether or not he works from an outline his response contains: “Never. Books that are outlines often read as though they are outlines, as though events and personages contained within are subordinate to an outline, and that is a philosophical approach that is anathema to this writer.” In an earlier question, he’s asked which books he returns to. The most salient part of his response is regarding the lessons they teach: “Don’t compromise, don’t back down, don’t be faint of heart, don’t curry favor.”
It’s on this last point that I feel the most support for Moody, even when it’s this very ethic which I think is breaking my heart when his work and I are passing one another silently and coldly in opposite directions, separated by a few million miles of an emotionally indifferent vacuum. (It’s probably the same thing that keeps his publisher and agent up at night, too.) To his credit, though, Moody is not a faithful manufacturer of Levittown novels, as so many authors become on the round heels of a little success. He does not sift through past successes for old recipes that tasted well with readers. He has no fear of the critic’s wilderness or industry alienation, or if he does, he at least maintains a healthy disdain for the perils of calculated careerism.
We are all hamstrung at times by our newly born opinions and predilections, impatient with the night sky when it does not offer up a single shooting star (though we’d heard there’d be a meteor shower). We are sometimes too quick to wrap our legs around the poles of naturalism or experimentalism, eager to dismiss a writer who doesn’t shimmy our way. We like the single but hate the album, we guard our time, we hone the short blades of our attention spans. I have picked up many books on the merit of their covers and put them down when the cadence of their first sentences left me cold.
I try to remind myself to be more patient, to remember that it is vital to be open to collision despite past near misses. Moody is one of those writers who reminds me to try harder. I do not know if I will be touched by The Four Fingers of Death, or, if like the severed hand in the trailer suggests, I will be strangled by it. I do know I look forward to finding out. Welcome back, space cadet.