Last year in The Paris Review, interviewer David Ryan asked Rick Moody what “traditions” lay behind his work. His answer was revealing: “The modernist notion that anything is possible, the post-modernist notion that everything is exhausted, the post-post-modernist notion that since everything is exhausted, everything is permitted.” Everything is permitted. True, but nonetheless a dangerous idea, one which lays behind the risks taken in Moody’s newest book, The Black Veil.
It’s clear from the book’s introduction that Moody has given himself an extremely loose rein. “My book and my life are written in fits,” he writes, “more like epilepsy than like a narrative. . . . ” Well, OK, fair warning. He continues, “Alas, this account never settles for the orderly where the disorderly and explosive can substitute. . . . ” Here’s cause for worry; shouldn’t we decide these things for ourselves? There’s more, a page of information about the book ahead, which concludes with a healthy string of adverbs: “Get to know my book the way you would get to know me: in the fullness of time, hesitatingly, irritably, impatiently, uncertainly, pityingly, generously.” Quite a demand on a reader.
But then that’s Moody for you—demanding. The Black Veil is an obsessive book about obsession, a book born of megalomania, with Moody cast as Ahab chasing his personal White Whale—a genealogical connection to an 18th-century Puritan minister, Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody. In the author’s early twenties he understood “that I was going to pursue Handkerchief, that indeed I had been driven to do so and that much of my life had narrowed toward this particular theme.” As a child in the early 18th century, Handkerchief Moody accidentally shot and killed a friend and thereafter wore a handkerchief over his face as a symbol of his guilt and penitence. He became the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous parable “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Moody is sure he’s related to this Moody and has plenty of Handkerchief’s guilt and melancholy to prove it.
The Black Veil proceeds through interwoven chapters of autobiography, textual criticism, history, and an account of a trip with his father to Maine to investigate their ancestry. There’s a lot here—the story of Moody’s stay in a psychiatric hospital in his early twenties, ruminations on the universality of guilt, an analysis of Elton John’s record Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, bold proclamations over what it means to be an American, a five-page “Selected Bibliography”—but also not enough. No coherence, no story, just a piling up of pedantry, a self-permissive rambling, a layering of veils.
In the first chapters, Moody relates episodes from his childhood and teenage years with insight and striking prose. He precisely renders his boyhood confusion over a newly divorced father: “The first girlfriend he presented to us was like an insoluble problem—like the existence of God, the location of the soul—upon which you founder in your undergraduate course work.” Then there’s a description of a Christmas morning panic attack at age 24: “My hands did the job, located coffee in the freezer, opened and closed cabinets, used the plastic scoop to empty grounds into filter, made liquids perform as liquids will perform, but there was an efflorescing of disquiet throughout this ritual.” As a stylist, Moody’s word-struck; kisses, we learn, make him “want to use names of parts of flowers: inflorescence, pappus, calyx, anther, pollinator, corolla.” And while he can come off as needlessly brainy (do we need to know the phylum of Maine’s evergreens?) and verbose (melancholy is “a tightening, a spiraling, a funneling, a drilling, an incising, a helixing”), his pleasure in cobbling together long, rhythmic sentences full of interruptions and run-ons constitutes an aesthetic all his own.
Moody has put that aesthetic to better use before, in his novels The Ice Storm and Purple America and even some of the better stories in last year’s Demonology. But by trading fiction for memoir, Moody’s considerable stylistic and narrative gifts suffocate beneath near-pathological self-absorption. In his mid twenties, as he succumbs to alcohol abuse, depression, and melancholy, the symptoms of his distress suggest an alarming solipsism. He hears voices in the street saying only his name. One morning Moody wakes up inexplicably believing that at any moment he is going to be raped. Something is obviously wrong, but we’re never sure what, and Moody won’t tell us, claiming at one point that “my heart is faint, as you might suppose, diverse and confused. . . . ” It feels like a cop-out, as does Moody’s explanation for his entry into a psychiatric institution: “Although I knew I needed to be there, I was still in the dark about my illness, of what did it consist exactly, since whenever I seemed to locate it, it vanished.”
Why write a memoir so full of obfuscation? After much historical unearthing, most of it scattershot and wearying, culminating in the knee-buckling anticlimax that Moody is in fact not related to Handkerchief Moody, he writes: “Maybe it’s simply the case that concealment is essential to identity, that . . . we need a part of us that will never be known, so that the more we reveal, the more we are enveloped in veils. . . . ” If he truly believes in the impossibility of honest self-disclosure, then why not stick to the safer, naturally concealing territory of fiction? Why this paradoxical concealment and exposure? The Black Veil seems more an improvised autobiographical notebook than a proper memoir, a working-out of ideas on the page, confused, kitchen-sink, altogether too permissive—or too post-postmodern.