In the May 2007 Believer, Rick Moody opens his essay on W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn with a brief discussion of “textual compulsion,” or the need to read every single word of a certain author. He lists a number of authors besides Sebald who gave him the condition: Lydia Davis, Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Beckett (Christ, that’s a lot of words!)… When I read that, I tried to think if I’ve ever had that sort of passion for or faith in one single writer. For a long while I had an affair with Hermann Hesse, but soon enough I decided I get the point, and moved on. Francine Prose was one of those writers whose work I would seek out in hardcover and in magazines, but after three novels, one novella, and two books of nonfiction, I just kind of stopped. Okay, Salinger gave me textual compulsion. And Ralph Ellison, but those two feel like cheating. Rick Moody, it turns out, is the only author whose body of work is expansive and still expanding, and who inspires in me the desire to read every single word.
It started in high school when I read an interview with him in Poets & Writers. The movie version of The Ice Storm had just come out, and his new book was Purple America. For some reason, I tried to read the latter first—and totally failed. I couldn’t abide the misery of a stuttering son trying to communicate with a mother who couldn’t speak and a stepdad who wouldn’t listen. But I would not be discouraged for long. When I went off to college, I found a paperback of The Ice Storm that didn’t have Kevin Kline’s face on it, and I fucking loved that book. Once I figured out what Moody was doing with the four members of each family, the four quarters of the book, “fucking family,” the Fantastic Four, etc., it was like finding the decoder ring that corresponded to the rest of his written English. From there, I can’t tell you the exact chronology, but I sped greedily through each of his books (with the glaring exception of Joyful Noise) in paperback, and, since the publication of The Black Veil, in hardcover roughly the same week they became available. (And let’s not forget “Alamo,” the radio play I have around here somewhere, which, oh shit, it occurs to me I still have to listen to…)
Each of his books has a sort of game going on (except, I think, Garden State, which is fine without any frills), and each of his short stories is like a testing ground for a game—which is a perfectly fine reason for a short story to exist: how long can a sentence be? How much can a character reveal himself through footnotes? A deposition? A rare book catalog? A mixtape? The novels, and the “memoir with digressions,” necessarily have to tone down the experimentalism, but Moody doesn’t just tame his writing, he focuses it on the matter at hand, which is—surprise!—people connecting with each other. I know, it sounds cheesy. But Moody is not afraid of this cheesiness if and when it is the only thing that is true and right. It is at the heart of the Fantastic Four, and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and the drug Albertine, and The Werewolves of Fairfield County. And he takes on this cheesy—yes, Christian—coming together of people in “How to be a Christian Artist,” which ends:
…it’s hard to get through any twenty-four hour period, that’s what it means to be a Christian artist, it means that you understand what it’s like to be here, and you don’t presume to know more, you presume to care about what other people think and feel, which is emphatically what most Christians do not do, that’s how it is.
So, yes, there are still words by Rick Moody that I have yet to read. There are songs by the Wingdale Community Singers I have yet to sing. These omissions will be rectified soon. But before that happens, I will read every word of The Four Fingers of Death, whether you give me a free copy or not. (But please do!)
More from National Rick Moody Month