I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad a few months ago, and liked it a lot. (I’ll write about it in a future post.) That novel, set in part in the late 1970s, reminded me of writers who are associated with 1980s and youth culture whom I’d hadn’t read in a while, especially Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York, a short story collection published in 1987) and Rick Moody. I’d read some recent stories by Moody, his memoir and meditation on history and depression (The Black Veil), and his first two books, and had finally decided he didn’t seem to be for me. Garden State, Moody’s debut (not to be confused with the Zach Braff movie by the same name), seemed a fairly typical, nicely observed and nicely written little novel about young people who can’t quite find a way out of their parents’ basements, out of their high school era circle of rock and roll bands and Too Much Fun, that ultimately turned out to be a story about recovering from drug addiction and moving on from that point. It left me wanting more Moody.
About halfway through his first story collection, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, I realized that every single story was about drug culture and degradation. Moody repeatedly was asking the reader to feel deep empathy with characters whom he gradually revealed to have little at their core except more addiction. The point of every story seemed to be to put readers through a wrenching experience that would leave them alone with the conviction of their own, similarly indelible sin. I gave up at that point on my project of reading more by him. The stories I liked most were the most formally innovative, like the final one in that volume, “The Sources,” an annotated bibliography of works that the writer believed to have informed the rest of the book. I would have liked to see ideas that were only suggested faintly in that final story also expanded in some of the other stories, but these were adamant in the necessity of sticking to a phenomenalistic realism.
The next novel on the list would have been The Ice Storm, set in an era that very slightly overlaps that of A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’d seen the movie version of that book—which more or less launched Toby Maguire’s career, as much as Moody’s own—long enough ago that I didn’t really remember it, which is good, because from what I can tell it departs from the book in significant ways.
The novel is divided into three parts. It starts in a way that’s promising enough, somewhat echoing The Great Gatsby. We’re introduced to each member of the Hood family in turn: father, mother, sister, brother. Each gets his or her own chapter to relate somewhat overlapping events from their own points of view, but occasionally we’re reminded that this novel does indeed have a narrator of the traditional sort (who is not the novelist Rick Moody, however similar some of their biographical details might be), and that the other characters’ thoughts, as depicted, are mediated through his imaginative understanding of them. The novel is set in the early 1970s, in a tony Connecticut town that has a longer history but now has become a bedroom, commuting community for New York, and describes events that took place after the chaos and sociocultural rearrangements of the 1960s had begun seeping into its once upright suburban homes.
After a few pages, it becomes evident that the book could be described as “overwritten.” There are other early Gen-X, late Baby Boomer novelists who have been accused of being “showoffy,” but it turns out to be Moody to whom that epithet really applies. He’s trying hard, here, to show that he’s a Writer, that he has the requisite Sensibility, that he’s in the tradition of the Greats, and not just a kid whose entire mentality was formed by a belated and degenerate form of late capitalism: not just the undereducated reader of the superhero comic books from which his fantasy life has up to now been derived. And despite strenuous efforts to make this novel be about the father in the case, and what it’s like to be a white heterosexual male who was raised in the conformist 1950s but doesn’t quite make the grade in the go-go 1980s, and how his kids failed to have sufficient compassion for him, the book is clearly about his son, Paul, who is the narrator. The father is an Updike character, but the son is a budding artist. He has all these problems, but they’re of the kind that make the reader feel sorry for him, and moreover, these are the usual precursors of writerhood. Similarly, despite strenuous efforts to display empathy with the mother and sister, when it comes down to it, the sister is a skank, and the mother is uptight and reads too many commercially published self-help books and puts her problems on her husband and kids. They struggle with their problems, but their problems really are problems—the father’s problems, on the contrary, are depicted just up to the point where they can be forgiven, and no further. This is an anti-Oedipal novel, a novel that rejects the original sin of the Oedipal complex and uses the text as expiation.
But the second part of the book is fantastic. Here, Moody depicts a party attended by the Hood parents, a party that turns out to be a “key party,” where each of the women who participates will go home with a man who was not her husband (or date). We find out what would have been discussed at such a party, what books the partygoers would have read, who might have gone to est or Esalen, how teenagers and members of the clergy might have behaved if they’d found themselves there. At the same time, Paul is meeting up with a female prep school friend in the city, and his sister Wendy is engaging in some furtive, not entirely admirable sexual experimentation. The effect is queasy, and for a variety of reasons.
These children reproduce, entirely naively, if not entirely innocently, the cultural preconceptions of their parents and of the environment in which they were raised. The genteel racism and false delicacy of the wealthiest suburbs are out there for everyone to see. Moody’s characters are horrified by these, and simultaneously trapped within them. They’ve acquired the ability to understand the cultural changes of the 1970s—on a verbal level—but have no context in which to set them. Everything about the sexual revolution, for example, is for them entirely personal: they believe it’s supposed to be about each adolescent boy’s freedom to have sex with any woman he wants, just by asking, and are disillusioned when they find that’s not true. For these young characters, past, present, and future, seen and unseen, swirl around them, almost tangibly, impinging on their consciousness and faintly grasped by them even in their unconsciousness, grasped tenuously also by the narrator, who has gathered up these unseen facts for them and for the reader to understand.
The third and final part of the book worked less well for me, as threads are tied up and an attempt at a moral is inevitably found. Moody represents the ironic distance between his characters’ lives and the literary or religious narratives available to them, very simply, by describing those lives in naively heroic terms, and noting the characters’ awareness that they really don’t measure up. He ends the book by trying to identify the narrator himself as a mouthpiece, literally, for the God who knows what his parents were up to, what happened at their parties, and what they felt about it all, and somehow allowed him the same knowledge for a little while. He sets up a rather bald contrast between this God and the Nature whose chaotic tide of disorder is about to overwhelm this suburban family.
It’s surprising to realize that The Ice Storm appeared in 1994, just two years before Infinite Jest. Both novels are very similar, in some ways, particularly the variety of literarily moralistic naivete possessed by their narrators. It’s interesting to consider that, where David Foster Wallace, according to his biographer, felt uncomfortable at Amherst College because he hadn’t gone to an East Coast prep school, Paul Hood, Moody’s protagonist in The Ice Storm, feels uncomfortable at his prep school because he hadn’t gone to a private day school back home. It’s also interesting to consider that Wallace’s noted struggles to find a form can be seen to run orthogonal to Moody’s formal difficulties in The Ice Storm. Moody’s solution seems to have been to give up nonstandard forms (though he still publishes short stories like one in Agni that consists of names of cheese), where Wallace moved deeper into them.
It’s less surprising to learn that Moody went to college at Brown University, where Jeffrey Eugenides and Jennifer Egan (another recent novelist whose name escapes me) also graduated. It’s been noticed that both Eugenides and Egan have recent novels out where characters are just learning about French theory and poststructuralism. But one of the wonderful things about The Ice Storm is that Moody uses terms form those theories, apparently, entirely unselfconsciously. His point of view characters, delightfully, often understand their world literally in terms of structuralist literary theory, as if this were the most natural thing in the world.
The Ice Storm is well worth reading, and well worth thinking about. However, aside from unfortunately not so hard to see issues with the portrayal of gender—the women are all mean or promise to grow up into meanness, and it’s suggested that the protagonist’s life was stunted by his female friends’ unjust failure to find him attractive, while the men are all treated with perfect compassion—there’s a sense of self-importance that a reader might justly find annoying. The book is trying to be both an example of “grown-up” literature, like that of middle Updike, and an earnest, authentic expression of its age (in both senses of that word). It can’t possibly succeed at both, and if it fails at one, it risks being accounted a failure in toto, which isn’t fair. It’s really a quite good book, and to pretend it’s transformed into a failure because one perceives the narrator to have a certain amount of unexamined privilege would be to deprive readers of something that really is special.