The Agony and the Irony


With fictionalizing father figures like Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon and cohorts like David Foster Wallace, Donald Antrim, and Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody is one of a small phalanx of sardonic post-post-postmodernists to have advanced boldly out of the early 1990s with pens drawn. Equipped with subtle but powerful typographic tools—the vibrant and pervasive Bernhardian italic phrase, pregnant with meaning, the elegant Joycean em dash denoting dialogue—Moody strikes me as a self-styled avenging angel of highbrow literary cool. Underneath the Clark Kentish exterior lurks a crypto-Superman schooled in semiotics and steeped in pop culture, one eyebrow permanently raised at the unsightly stupidity of the masses.

Best known for The Ice Storm, which was made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver, Moody is an intelligent and playful writer whose novels and short stories range from straightforward Cheeveresque narrative (Ice Storm is a plainly structured novel of ’70s suburban angst) to stylized, semi-stream-of-consciousness rhapsody reminiscent of Pynchon (Purple America). His new collection, Demonology, features a preponderance of stories about defeat, decay, and death—chiefly that of beloved relatives, in particular sisters, tenderly remembered, who pass in and out of view, dying by accident or illness. The stories that revolve around lost, missed, and mourning characters are among my favorites in this book—perhaps because they move beyond ironic detachment to allow themselves the occasional luxury of earnestness.

The much lauded title story—self-conscious in its awkward bluntness—is an exceptional, heartbreaking memoir. I was walking down the street the first time I read it—a kamikaze move during rush hour in Manhattan—and I had to stop short on the pavement, disgruntled fat men and wheezing pug dogs on short leashes surging around me, to blink away an abrupt and startling sense of loss. Other stories of bereavement and tragedy—”The Mansion on the Hill,” for example, in which a young man suffers an emotional collapse after his sister’s death and goes to work as a wedding planner—are more detached, more crafted, less gut-wrenching. But in them also, a clear, true, and lovely note of anguish sounds, tempered neatly by absurdist humor:

They didn’t know it was me in there, of course, inside the Chicken Mask. They didn’t know I was the chicken from the basement, the chicken of darkest nightmares, or, more truthfully, they didn’t know I was a guy with some pretty conflicted attitudes about things. . . . Little Zack was laughing, at first, until, in a voice wracked by loss, I worked my hard sell on him, declaiming stentoriously that Death Comes to All. That’s exactly what I said, just as persuasively as I had once hawked White meat breasts, eight pieces, just $4.59! Loud enough that he’d be sure to know what I meant. His look was interrogative, quizzical. So I repeated myself. Death Comes to Everybody, Zachary.

There are a few lapses in the book: Moody’s work tends to weaken when it disintegrates into listing and itemizing, despite the pomo cachet of such techniques. His previous collection, The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, included, in a selection called “Primary Sources,” a humorously footnoted but ultimately self-indulgent list documenting a handful of the author’s formative literary influences. Admittedly, I’m not a list person. Experimental fiction is littered with lists that leave me cold—even Gilbert Sorrentino’s extraordinary novel Mulligan Stew creates a restless itch with its multipage enumeration of made-up book titles. So Demonology‘s list-oriented stories—one built around liner notes on a cassette tape, another the fictionalized rare-books catalog of a bibliophile—smack of a peculiar kind of cultural and social cliquishness. Like the “Notes and Errata” to Wallace’s Infinite Jest, these stylings may seem to the jaded eye to serve a primary function of legitimating authorial authority by broadcasting referencedness, by denoting cultural expertise.

That both Moody and Wallace are creative cultural experts, inasmuch as such experts exist, is undeniable; the question is whether hyperreferentiality as a manner of writing fiction alienates where it wishes to seduce. It’s hard to shake the conviction that referencing and footnoting devices constitute a kind of secret handshake, a shortcut to bonding between fellow smart guys who, perhaps poignantly, wish to impress each other—not unlike teenage boys eagerly surveying each other’s music collections. I see far less compulsion to overwhelm with cultural mastery in the fiction of female experimental writers like Lydia Davis and Diane Williams, or in the work of emerging dark humorists such as Stacey Richter and Kirsten Bakis, most of whom have at least a few other authorial traits in common with Moody and Wallace.

Happily, most of the stories in Demonology don’t suffer from much self-indulgence, and if anything are more emotionally accessible and less irony-clad than previous works. They range from hilarious to bitterly charming to quietly clever. “The Double Zero,” about a family that fails in everything it does, including raising ostriches, made me laugh aloud; a story called “Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal” lampoons the Ivory Tower by describing, in cerebral academic jargon, the ridiculously overexplicated love relationship of a pair of theoreticians:

I took issue with the fact that we could never even discuss the nuptial commitment, because if we did he said that I was assuming a fascist totalizing language, a feminine language in the becoming of male totalitarian language, and then he would start to drink to excess.

It’s smirk-inducing and subtle until at the moment of climax, the so-called climactic moment, the protagonist leaps up onto the kitchen table with a couple of shoehorns. Never fear; I won’t ruin the suspense by revealing how she deploys them.

The last note in “Demonology,” and in the collection, is one of sincerity; the narrator chides himself for leaving behind the safe harbor of irony, making himself and his story vulnerable: “I should let artifice create an elegant surface, I should make the events orderly, I should wait and write about it later, I should wait until I’m not angry.” But he doesn’t. And for this honesty, for this uncleverness, we’re grateful.