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Rick Moody Biography

novel narrator fiction garden

Nationality: American. Born: 1962. Education: Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, B.A.; Columbia University, New York, graduate writing program. Awards: Pushcart Press Editors' Book Award; O. Henry Award.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Garden State. Boston, Little, Brown, 1992.

The Ice Storm. Boston, Little, Brown, 1994.

Purple America. Boston, Little Brown, 1997.

Short Stories

The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven: A Novella and Stories. Boston, Little, Brown, 1995.

Other

Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited (editor, with DarceySteinke). Boston, Little, Brown, 1997.

Hover (text), photographs by Gregory Crewdson. San Francisco, Artspace Books, 1998.

Contributor of essays, Judith Schaechter: Heart Attacks by Judith Tannenbaum. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 1995.

*

Film Adaptations:

The Ice Storm, 1997.

* * *

Rick Moody is one of the most gifted American novelists of his generation. Born in New York City, Moody spent his childhood and youth in many northeastern American locations. The suburbs of New York City; Manchester, New Hampshire, where he attended St. Paul's School; Hoboken, New Jersey, where he lived after graduating from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; and Columbia University in New York City all appear in barely disguised form in his fiction. Like the work of other well-known East-Coast American writers (John Irving, John Updike), Moody's fiction is firmly rooted in, as well as written in response to, the urban, rural, and suburban landscapes of the area roughly bounded by New York City to the south and Boston to the north. His three novels, Garden State, The Ice Storm, and Purple America, and his short story collection, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, all published at a prolific pace within five years, create not only a distinct literary geography but also a fascinating temporal picture. Like the fiction of his contemporary, the Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, Moody's fiction features protagonists of Moody's own generation. These are Americans (a word Moody often uses to ironic effect) who lived through the Vietnam War as pre-teens, came of age during the Reagan-era 1980s, and who are intensely aware of the significance of pop cultural references, right down to the significance of their own clothing.

Stylistically, Moody is an author who takes postmodernism for granted. He ends his short story collection The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven with a section called "Primary Sources," which lists those books that have most influenced him. Conversant with Barthes, Derrida, Eco, Foucault, and Angela Carter among other theorists, Moody footnotes theirs and other books in places where they correlate to significant events of his own life. Thus, we read "At the end of my drinking … I started writing my first novel," and "In 1987, I institutionalized myself." The line between Moody's life and his fiction is always a thin one, and Moody both encourages this tendency (as in "Primary Sources" and the introduction to the new edition of Garden State) and discourages it at the same time (as in the note before Purple America where he disavows comparison between his character Billie Raitliffe and his own mother). As a self-confessed "writer of the nineties … who beats a sentence to death, ten or twenty or thirty or even forty times on occasion, and then maybe cuts the sentence just the same" (Beat Writers at Work, ed. George Plimpton, Harvill Press, 1999), Moody's choice to ally his fiction with his life is a conscious and fitting one, tied to his own vision of literature as an intrinsically hermeneutical enterprise. Another conscious stylistic choice is Moody's eschewing of standard North American quotation marks for European dashes to signal conversation, as well as his subtle use of italic script, most fully pronounced in Purple America: "Dexter, it turns out, is spoiling for trouble. He's drunk too. Whatever the cause, he rushes at Mac Kowalski." Moody's stylistic innovation always turns the reader into an interpreter, the same situation in which many of Moody's characters find themselves.

Moody's first novel, Garden State, revolves around several characters in their early to mid-twenties, living in Haledon, New Jersey, in an unspecified time that feels a lot like the early 1980s. The plot follows Alice and her on-and off-again boyfriend, Dennis, and his half-brother Lane, who has just been released from a mental hospital after attempting suicide, as they make the difficult passage between an extended adolescence and adulthood. Assorted others, including the main characters' parents and friends, populate this first novel, which lays the groundwork for the rest of Moody's fiction. Patterns discernible in Moody's later work are first articulated in Garden State. These patterns include the failure and reconstitution of the American family, the influence of popular culture, especially music, the doubled always-present fear and attraction of institutionalization on one hand and of New York City on the other, the use of Christian imagery and metaphors, the disparity and congruence of rich and poor, and the structuring device of the "one big event": in Garden State a huge party that takes place in an abandoned factory, in The Ice Storm the event alluded to in the novel's title, and in Purple America the meltdown of a Connecticut nuclear reactor. Garden State ends with Alice and Lane together in New York City. They "left off thinking about the past right then" and "With all that in front of them, they looked up."

This upward movement—the happy ending—where the characters are able to make a break with the past, is echoed at the end of Moody's next novel, The Ice Storm. In the novel's final scene, Paul Hood, the novel's narrator, is met at the Stamford train station by his parents, Benjamin and Elena, and his sister, Wendy. He decides that it is time to break with the past: "I have to leave him and his family there because after all this time, after twenty years, it's time I left." Ostensibly about the slow disintegration of a well-to-do American family in the early 1970s, The Ice Storm is also about the way fiction is written. The novel opens with the unidentified narrator's claim that the novel will be a "comedy about a family I knew when I was growing up." The novel then proceeds to detail numerous incidents of marital strain between parents, and between parents and children, to the point where the reader forgets the narrator's insistence that the novel is a "comedy." Moody's narrator both references and defamiliarizes classical literary theory by labeling the novel a comedy, and then figuratively links comedy with the genre of the comic book. Paul's version of comedy has the sky over Connecticut light up with "A flaming figure four," signaling that the reader is to see the Hoods, the novel's "Fantastic Four," as a comic book family whose adventures go on and on and on. Tampering also with the conventions of narrative voice, Moody creates a narrator who cannot restrain himself from giving the reader a lesson in the art of fiction. "This congruency," he writes, "—between Paul and his dad—is sort of like the congruency between me, the narrator of this story, the imaginer of all these consciousnesses of the past, and God."

Moody's destabilizing of the omniscient narrator is short-lived. In his next novel, Purple America, Moody returns to the convention of third-person omniscient narration. The story of Dexter Raitliffe and his terminally ill mother, Billie Raitliffe, is told in the soothing tones of a narrator who revels in repetition. The stunning opening chapter of the novel proclaims that "Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his own mother's body, he shall never die," and goes on for four more pages to proclaim various acts of kindness and humanity—all prefaced by the construction "Whosoever…"—proffered by Dexter, better known as Hex, to his mother Billie. Like his previous novels, Purple America takes as a given the breakdown in relations between members of a family, only this time it happens twice. Hex loses his father as a child, and then loses his stepfather Lou in his late thirties, the present setting of the novel. Hex's comedic attempt to reunite his second family is ultimately unresolved. It is Moody's use of repetition, on a thematic level (the two fathers, the two nuclear accidents) and on a linguistic level (Hex's stuttering, the narrator's poetic repetitions), that marks a distinct evolution in Moody's work. Moving away from the historically hermetically sealed worlds of Garden State and The Ice Storm, in Purple America Moody argues that the past and what comes after it exist in close relation to each other. The relatedness of what seems unrelated (a theme Moody earlier explored in his story "The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven") leaves the reader with the strange dual feeling of unease, and of comfort.

Richard Almonte

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