Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O’Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly’s first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren’t so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.
As Edgar Allen Poe wrote in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” a short story should be able to be read in a “single sitting.” The writers in Loud Sparrows have taken his call for brevity to heart. Topping out at three pages, each selection from this anthology of Chinese “short-shorts” (also known by the name flash fiction) consumes about as much time as smoking a cigarette, making sitting more or less irrelevant.Whether this is a good thing or not is open to question. What is beyond doubt is the popularity of the form in China. Although, short-shorts (as featured in such journals as Flashquake, Vestal Review, and Smoke-long Quarterly) have found a readership in the U.S., they have not been met with the same enthusiasm as in China, where the Journal of Selected Short-shorts accounts for over half of all subscriptions to the P.R.C’s 400 plus literary journals.Starting with this rampant popularity as its premise, Loud Sparrows proposes to give its readers an introduction to the “contemporary Chinese experience,” as seen through the world of Chinese “short-shorts.” To accomplish this goal, the translator/editors have assembled a selection of ninety-one stories by professional and amateur writers working in the P.R.C., Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad. The stories are interspersed with philosophical musings about the nature of the “short-short,” which are somewhat condescendingly described as a means to “ease [any] anxiety that may have been caused by the absence of rigid definition[s] [of the form].”This absence of definition has not hindered the form’s success in China. Rather, the short-short’s popularity there seems almost inevitable. As the joke goes, if you’re one in a million there, there are 100,000 others just like you, a sentiment mirrored by the writer Yin Di in the book’s introduction: “What can be said in 1,000 words had better not be said in 10,000.” As suggested by its accompanying slogan “everybody writes” (a thought that must send shivers down the spines of slush pile readers across the globe), the form’s length makes it democratic in a way that the novel can never hope to be, opening a path not just to mass expression, but also mass consumption, a point that the writer Yang Xiaomin makes effectively in one of the book’s many interludes:Short shorts are the art form of common people. By that I mean, they can be consumed by most people, most people can participate in the creative process, and most people can benefit from an art form of simple words and profound meaning.This compression of form suits not just China’s population, but also its somewhat schizophrenic political sentiments. On one hand, the short-short’s brevity fulfills an almost Marxist function, taking the means of literary production away from the intelligentsia and giving them to the people (or proletariat, if you prefer). On the other hand, the short-short fulfills a market function: its length makes it the ideal literary commodity, easily distributed and easily consumed.This market function has lead to short-shorts being widely embraced by the business world. Unlike novels and longer short stories, which require a much larger investment of time and discipline from both the reader and the writer, the accessibility of short-shorts has made them the perfect vehicle for selling, distributing, and manufacturing the written word. As with any product, this commodification has been a mixed blessing. While short-shorts have made written works more widely available and accessible to the “average Joe,” they have also, arguably, cheapened the written word. A fierce battle over the literary merit of short-shorts – a question elliptically addressed in many of the “please love me” quotes peppered throughout the book – has raged for some time and there are no signs that it will soon abate. Rather, the boundaries of what constitutes literature continue to be tested. The upcoming introduction in China of mobile fiction for cellular phones, stories even shorter than the current crop of short-shorts, raises the question of when a story ceases to be a story (those with an interest in the coming apocalypse should follow this link.Predictably, this two-fold function of democratization and commodification has had the effect of creating endless opportunities for bad literature. In theory, the form encourages its practitioners to choose their words carefully, picking over every sentence, removing anything that might be extraneous, until all that remains is a small, hard, highly polished jewel of a story, something more closely approaching traditional Chinese poetry than Edgar Allen Poe’s vision for the short story. Examples of this “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time” philosophy of story telling are few and far between, however. Instead, the instant gratification of the form seems to encourage both lazy writing and lazy reading.This is the main problem facing Loud Sparrows. Despite a well of source material that probably approaches the infinite, the majority of the collection’s stories fail to inspire. While there are a few excellent selections, the majority, to quote one story, “[come] like a gust of wind and [go] like a waft of smoke,” relying on tired jokes or twist endings, rather than providing the reader with any true emotional resonance or the epiphanies that the stories’ writers repeatedly insist are part and parcel of the form. Part of the problem arises from a flawed premise. By anthologizing short-shorts, the translators have undermined their essence. When read in context, on the bus or between newspaper articles, a short-short might provide a pleasant aesthetic jolt, much like the sudden appearance of a full moon on a cloudy night, but with little space to develop memorable characters or incidents, the stories quickly lose their novelty and begin to run together. This problem is not helped by the difficulties faced by the book’s translators. Although all three translators write fluidly and well, the idiosyncratic voices of the various writers are inevitably subsumed by the translators’ personal styles. This is an unavoidable artifact of the translation process, but, while it might not be problematic in a novel length work, the stories in this volume fall victim to a sameness that further blurs their boundaries. Sadly, Loud Sparrows does not only fail as fiction, it also falls short as a scholarly work. The book’s informative introduction is undermined by a haphazard and seemingly arbitrary organizational scheme, which sees the stories arranged by putative subjects (grooming, nourishment, weirdness and, perhaps most tellingly, ??) of dubious value to either the scholar or the casual reader. Even the translator Howard Goldblatt, who “introduces” each subject with original short-shorts written for the project, seems to recognize the meaningless of the task, ending one of his more uninspired stories about a translator writing – guess what – a short-short with the line “…to hell with it…I’ve got better things to do.”More than anything, the organizational scheme underlines the book’s missed opportunities. Stories from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the P.R.C are lumped together, leaving readers to assume that a common language (common only if you ignore the enormous differences between the three Chinese dialects involved) has played a more important role in the form’s development than the three countries’ different politics, cultures and economic systems. This seems an unlikely proposition. A comment about “Greater China” in the introduction leaves one to wonder whether this possible organizational scheme might have fallen victim to the politics of mainland China, with its insistence on integrating Taiwan and Hong Kong into a seamless whole. Other pertinent information is also ignored. Although the translators make a point of emphasizing the importance of context to the stories’ content, claiming that their length means they are often dashed out in response to breaking news and social trends (a literature of the moment if you will), no context is given. Nor do the translators include the contributors’ biographical introductions that are typical in short story anthologies. These omissions all conspire to further deprive each story of its substance, drawing attention to the fact that, with such a paucity of words, most of the stories, unlike a novel, cannot exist in a vacuum.In the end, Loud Sparrows amounts to little more than an interesting experiment. Although a few of its pieces show promise, ultimately, its problems are best expressed by one of its contributors: A piece of good fiction must never leave the reader thinking, “So what?”
A young boy enters a large and exotic palace, pulsating with people, their faces alive with excitement, their eyes fixed on a bronze statue of a man and a writhing, devious woman. They are all elated and as one. The young boy is now a grown man, and he writes, not without regret and memories of lost glandular joy, “That is a hard ecstasy to abandon.”
The grown man is David Thomson, a respected and prolific film critic and historian, and this description, of his first viewing of Cecil B. deMille’s Samson and Delilah (with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr) is a defense of the experience of seeing a movie — along with more than half the population of the world — once a week, in the dark, young and open, suspended from time and care, in full submission of whatever appeared once the heavy curtain rose and a shaft of light from behind threw the great images on a huge screen. Thomson’s latest book has been given a perfunctory, even pedantic, title: How to Watch a Movie, but don’t be fooled: Thomson, like that witchy, raven-haired Hedy Lamarr, is teasing us, peeling off insights as if they were gossamer underthings, and revealing not only what films have meant to him, but what the watching of them, and the ultimate harvesting of them in our memories, means to all of us.
It is true that Thomson misses the glory days of movie-going, the rushing off to places with names like Palace, Plaza, Regal, Odeon, Astoria, Lux, Electric, designed in Spanish or Moorish or Egyptian style, comically inaccurate but baroque, but he is not ready to give up the pleasures of films (which he quixotically terms movies), which are often seen now in the glow of an iPhone or in a lap on a plane on a tablet or while seated in front of a personal computer. We now see films in cinder boxes redolent of pine cleaner, and no theatre owner delays the raising of the lights after an emotional film, as they once did, to give us our privacy as we collect ourselves: We are now hustled out of the theatre without a chance to watch the closing credits, because people need their next aesthetic desire slaked. We are able and eager to turn to YouTube to call up specific scenes from films to get a quick, free hit of what seduced us years ago, or — and this Thomson might find tragic — to see for the first time someone like Marlon Brando or a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have all become divorced from our experiences by various distractions. In our homes we watch movies — or anything else — while cooking or talking or crocheting or masturbating or flipping through a magazine. The viewing of movies is simply one of the options available to us at any given time. We need always to be hooked up. This has been going on since the 1950s, when television came into our homes and the size of the movie audience plummeted. Special effects and sounds and gimmicks were invented to lure us back, and by the 1960s, film — or cinema, as many came to call it — became an elite, extracurricular activity. Some people believed that the free stuff coming into our homes was just as good as the movies we had once depended on like a fix, to which we had once been so devoted, but others disagreed. Movie audiences may have grown smaller, but they grew fervent. The studio system diminished, and bolder, brasher films were being made. A congress of critics grew out of this time, and they had rapt and large audiences, ready for their predictions and pronouncements. Collections of film reviews became best-sellers, and magazines bulged with long-form reviews. What happened? I was fortunate to become friends with the critics Andrew Sarris and his wife, Molly Haskell, and one evening, goaded by me, the conversation centered on that gilded age, when movie criticism became a highly competitive, vigorous sport, with critics fighting over how and why films were made; who made them best; why they mattered. Sarris thought that two things inflated the importance of film criticism at precisely the time when the quality and quantity of American films was declining: the number of Americans attending and graduating from college, where films were watched, discussed, studied; and a sense of nostalgia among those writing about film who, like Thomson, could see what had been lost in the film experience. We were now freer, on our own, lost, literally, to our own devices.
The means of watching movies may have changed, but film is there to be loved and studied; it is there to change us, improve us, allow us to look at the other aspects of our lives with a clearer vision. “Watching cannot rest with mere sight,” Thomson writes.
It waits to be converted into aesthetic judgment, moral discrimination, and a more intricate participation in society. That sounds ominous, I suppose, and part of a creeping unease at how the Internet can be a spectator sport that condones our lack of concentration and begins to deepen feelings of futility over dealing with the world. In that mood, there are film commentators who lament the loss of the large screen, the locomotive of the movie, and our amazed attention of it all. Things have been lost, but now I have to make the most challenging point — that cinema, movie (whatever) always had the seed of dislocation about it…The novice at the movies is often overwhelmed by the reality of it all…[and] “primitive peoples shown close-ups of the face are sometimes fearful that decapitation has occurred. When I saw [Laurence] Olivier’s Henry V at the age of four, I “saw” the faces of page boys in the English camp at Agincourt on fire. It was one of the occasions on which I had to be carried away in tears. Later on, I realized I was reacting to a dissolve — the faces and the fire had been laid together. Anyone poised on the edge of a miracle is “primitive.” (Italics mine.)
In that last sentence is, I think, Thomson’s primary argument, one shared with both Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, two men with whom I engaged in lengthy conversation, and men saved, created, and sustained by movies, and they thought of them as miracles: Miracles of art and technology and talent, yes, but also miracles of healing. Both Williams and Brando — and dare I add Thomson — had lives shattered or lacking in many things, but they went, mind and eyes open, to the experience of a movie, and they were altered, even if for only two hours. Whatever we face in our lives — movies, love, sensuality, enlightenment — should be approached from the perspective of a primitive. Leave your prejudices behind. Not for Thomson the oddly ascetic (and laughable) claim from Pauline Kael that she saw a film once and that was that; it was over. Would you only kiss or make love or enjoy champagne once? Then spend your life recalling, as best you could, how it felt? Thomson is that rare critic who wants you to have and to share your passions, and in How to Watch a Movie, he writes more of the experience of watching than in rating a film or excoriating the ambitions of anyone. The key is in watching, noting.
“Watching and seeing are both physical (optical) and emotional (irrational),” he writes. “In its first sixty or so years, movie had made us all more conscious of looking; it had invested appearance with a new excitement, glamour, and erotic force. That energy is still there, but is it wearing off? This is the dilemma of the Internet — of so much to see that attention wavers or loses faith in itself…Instead of rapt spectators of the lifelike, we have become like screenwriters or editors.”
We are, in short, not watching movies — or living our lives — with the full capacity that once seemed so natural to us. We are more and more unable to submit, and our films and our lives suffer for it. Every year there is boasting of the billions of dollars made by the movies, but where is the passion for current film? The Internet is full of sites devoted to movie stars of the past, to directors who changed the medium, but outside of gossip, what is being said about our current film stars? We no longer ask our films — or any art form — to do its thing to us: We ask films to disprove our preconceptions, but we do not ask films to amaze us.
What is our film culture now? The social media fury is reserved for occasions when an actress is called fat, or when we delight in the latest special-effects kapok drowning in debt. Movie reviews — a vanishing act — are more like disgruntled Yelp comments on cold food and diffident waiters, and most could have been written before the screening, as they bristle with deals and back stories and budgets and what was expected. Critics on websites and with Twitter accounts are now courted by film studios and publicists to shore up an increasingly bored and capricious audience, and they speculate on what’s working and what isn’t in the industry. But what did they think of the movie? That is often shoe-horned in as a desultory requirement. Even as I write this — in the throes of Oscar season — no one has any firm idea of who or what will win or why: It’s all a hunch, a guess, and more and more people are waiting to see the films or the performances only if they are awarded, at which time they will be something of a safe investment of time and interest. In my own erratic, interesting life, I have worked on various Oscar campaigns, escorting actors to interviews and industry screenings, mailing DVDs to various guild and academy members, and I am here to tell you that a great number of those voting for these awards are not watching these films — free of charge and with booze and snacks afterward — and they are underwhelmed a great deal of the time. Their complaint — to me, a freelance non-entity who stocks hand sanitizer for stars and directors — is that movies are not “big” enough; they don’t engage. Engagement, I want to tell them, is a two-way street, and highly unlikely to blossom as you watch portions of Carol or Spotlight or The Revenant on the dedicated iTunes account set up for guild voters. Our films, they seem to be saying, need to satisfy a desire they can’t even articulate, or to which they feel superior. They might be the people of whom Tennessee Williams once said “They know so much they have been rendered stupid and immobile.”
Brando, when I asked him why he became so disdainful of the Oscars, stated that “We give awards for effort and endurance, and this is soul-crushing and it demeans the art we claim to be honoring.” The bottom line for Brando? “We are more and more terrified of any value judgments — on anything — because we do not trust ourselves to have an authentic and original experience. We need someone to tell us what or whom to love, and how to move and sigh when we do it. Let’s just watch the fucking movies and get high on them.”
I think everyone is down with that. Let’s see some movies — past and present — and get high on them. But how? Where? Thomson reminds us that the power to be amazed by all things — with movies as our starting point — rests with us. Our vision is our own, as is our experience. Toward the end of this bewitching book, Thomson offers a confession (yet another of his submissions): “You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours). You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life.”
“If you really want to watch a film,” Thomson concludes, “you must be ready to recognize your own life slipping away. That takes a good deal of education. But you have to be stupid, too.”
Wise men — Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, Richard Schickel, Andrew Sarris, and now, David Thomson — are asking or have asked us to forget what we think we know and to become reacquainted with what we feel, with what moves us. Share the stories and the sensations. Recall where you were emotionally when a film hit you. The movie you saw on a first date or with the mate you now love will become a part of your DNA, as will the film you saw right before the horrible phone call about the sick friend or parent. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett will be fine and will feed their families and their assistants. Studios will keep making movies that will delight and disappoint us. These are not our concerns. We need to submit to things, to life, and we need to feel. This book will help you with this. This book will help you hold on to parts of your life as it slips away.
Marie Kondo has a method for cleaning and reorganizing your home that might be crazy and might be brilliant, but works either way. She’s a lifestyle celebrity in Japan, and her finely-tuned method is spelled out in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
Kondo’s philosophy is that you should only own things that you love, that everything else is just wasting both physical and emotional space. Although some of her advice can be eyebrow-raising (you’ll see), I decided to commit, following her advice to the letter one Saturday in January.
You start with your clothes. Kondo has you take every piece of clothing you own out of your closet and dresser and pile them on your bed. Then you pick up each item one by one and gauge your emotional reaction to it. Only items that “spark joy” in your heart when you’re holding them in your hands get to stay.
Kondo does concede that discerning the joy levels of your clothing can be hard at first, but she also says that you develop your gauge as you go, which turned out to be true. I started holding my skirts out in front of me and kind of being like, “This might be joy?” But after a few minutes I got to my navy silk dress with the little teacups printed on it, and sparks flew. After that epiphany, I essentially gauged my reaction to each item in comparison to my reaction to the dress. For instance, at one point I found myself trying to coax some joy out of a grey pencil skirt, because ladies’ media has told me I should own one in black and grey, but then I realized that said skirt had nothing on what I felt for the teacup dress, and it was out of my life.
This is what sets Kondo’s method apart from your average declutter. You’re not merely rooting out the stuff you could get by without, you’re winnowing down to what you truly want to keep. Now I have a closet that basically smacks me in the face with joy every morning.
Once you’ve done your clothes, you go through the rest of your possessions by category — books, then papers, toiletries, electronics, household goods, photos, and your kitchen. The joy meter becomes less relevant to some of these — after all, necessities like my phone charger, prescriptions, and apartment lease don’t light me on fire — but the guiding principle remains the same. You consider everything you own item by item, and decide whether or not you have a compelling reason to keep it.
In this way, the tidying process is a “dialogue with yourself,” as “the question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”
Kondo has helpful insight into each category’s parameters: books — “‘sometime’ means ‘never;’” papers — “discard everything;” gifts — “the person who gave it to you doesn’t want you to use it out of a sense of obligation, or to put it away without using it.” But everybody will have different hang-ups about different categories. Since I knit, sew, do pottery, and am generally crafty, I was hanging on to a lot of stuff just because I had made it. A few years ago I knit myself a sweater that turned out ugly and didn’t fit. I legit hate that sweater, but it was in my dresser for two years because the yarn was expensive and I spent months on it. With Kondo in my head, it made no sense to keep something that sparked hate and remorse rather than joy. Tossing it into a hefty bag, on the other hand, was pure joy.
And let’s be honest about this — this is a joy that comes from privilege. The subtext of Kondo’s advice, which is never stated, is that you have plenty and always will. I don’t remember if she mentions money in the book, but if she does it would only be to say that monetary value is a bad reason to keep something. She does say that one of the reasons her book is necessary is that tidying up isn’t a life skill that parents teach to their children like cooking or finances. In my case, at least, it’s not that my parents didn’t teach me about handling my possessions, it’s just that they were teaching me opposite values. I grew up in a house, as did my parents before me, in which pennies were pinched, both out of necessity and the belief that it was morally superior behavior. The slightest hint of past, present, or future utility would be reason enough to keep something, no matter how unloved it was.
As I was talking to my friends about going through Kondo’s book, most of them had the same perspective. We live in different economic circumstances than our parents did — summed up neatly by the fact that at my age my mom was married with three kids, whereas I spent a solid 40 minutes this morning researching how best to cover up a bald spot in my eyebrows — but we still use their model of consumer behavior. I didn’t want to use Kondo’s book as a way to shuck everything they taught me about the value of money and things, but as a guide to applying those values to my own situation.
And while she never mentions this either, Kondo’s book has the potential to make you a smarter consumer. In the month since I decluttered, I’ve noticed that I’m less tempted to buy new things. Because my apartment is only filled with things I love, I can’t imagine bringing home a new sweater because it’s kind of cute. Imagine how inferior it would feel in my carefully curated closet! New things have to meet a higher standard to seem like a justifiable purchase, and in this way a massive purge can be read as thrifty behavior — unless these are just rationalization gymnastics because I could picture the horrified look on my mom’s face when I got rid of the handmade sweater.
Kondo says that we keep things for one of three reasons: their functional, informational, or emotional value. But most of the time we’re lying to ourselves about that value. Any time I was hesitating over whether to keep something, I would ask myself which of those values I perceived in it, and then call my own bluff.
Why do you want to keep these ugly pink and black plaid note cards?
Because I might use them.
Why do you want to keep this change purse?
It was a gift and I like it.
Why do you have this packet of reading materials from college?
Because someday I might want to brush up on the history of the Russian intelligentsia.
I did, at some point, start yelling KONDO! every time I tossed something onto the throwaway pile. It was a long day. According to the book, I was supposed to be wearing my favorite outfit and listening to soothing music. I was wearing my pajamas and listening to Guns N’ Roses, but I have to think at some level Kondo would just want me to do me.
But I don’t know, Kondo’s a little hard to pin down. She’s simultaneously a hard-line pragmatist and a far-out child of the moon. For every no-nonsense truth she lays down — “storage experts are hoarders” — she comes out with an impassioned plea to stop balling up your socks — “This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they get any rest like that?’”
As she tells it, she’s been passionate about tidying since she was a child, staying in at recess to tidy the classroom instead of playing with other kids, reading lifestyle magazines, and getting in trouble for reorganizing her family’s closets. This lifelong, single-minded devotion to tidying has made her advice the best around, but also might have loosened her relationship to normalcy. I don’t follow her advice to kneel down and thank my apartment for keeping my possessions safe when I get home in the evening, for example, but I’m really glad I got rid of the table lamps I wasn’t using.
The only time I truly wondered if I was taking the advice of a madwoman was when she was describing her evening routine, which starts with arriving home and kneeling, as outlined above, unpacking and putting away every item in her handbag, and then thanking and respectfully storing her clothes so their spirits can be refreshed. But then this: “If you can’t empty your bag sometimes, that’s all right…Just between you and me, while writing this book, there have been times when I came home and fell asleep on the floor without even changing my clothes.” Wait, what?
But, for all that, she’s a good teacher. Her book is not meant to tell you what you should keep or throw away but to be “a guide to acquiring the right mind-set for creating order.” I got rid of seven trash bags and two boxes of stuff, and have continued to hone in on joyless possessions that I missed or let slide the first time. Kondo says that now that I’ve put my house in order I’ll probably find love and my dream job and lose 10 pounds, but while I’m waiting for that to happen my apartment looks great.
It didn’t take long to discover that, as an introduction to Rick Moody’s writing, The Diviners is a poor choice, though at least I know that The Ice Storm, considered by many to be his best work and an exceptional novel in its own right, is still out there. I don’t have to give up on Rick Moody even though reading The Diviners was an exasperating, though occasionally exhilarating, experience.To sketch out the plot, we follow a cast of characters that are all connected, some loosely and some directly, to Means of Production, a New York based production company with a reputation for high-brow films, and its new, potentially blockbuster project, a miniseries called “The Diviners.” The miniseries itself is a cipher, the project has been invented out of thin air by production assistant Annabel Duffy and washed up action hero Thaddeus Griffin, but it is fitting and probably intentional that this novel is centered around a figment. At one time or another nearly all of the novel’s characters get excited about “The Diviners,” often viewing it as the solution for one work-related problem or another. The problem is, it is hard for the reader to get excited about the miniseries or, more importantly, the characters who are obsessed with it.There is something tongue in cheek about all this, obviously, a comment on a bloated culture seeing salvation in a bloated TV production – the novel’s main character, Means of Production head Vanessa Meandro, is quite literally bloated, if we missed the point, addicted to Krispy Kreme and mercilessly mean to boot. All of this action, which includes a number of side plots like an attack on a young gallery curator by a random brick wielding maniac and the descent of Vanessa’s mother into alcohol-fueled madness, is set in the days after the disputed Bush v. Gore election, when our boom economy was beginning to crack and the seriousness of terrorism and war awaited around the corner to put a stop to the frivolity.The problem is that Moody, in his excess — 576 pages, to be specific — comes off as one of those pleading killjoys, like a crusading vegetarian who is unpleasant to eat with or a person who doesn’t watch TV and tut-tuts those who do. Perhaps there is something compelling about the notion that our culture is vacuous, but really, hasn’t this statement been made so many times, and so much more subtly, before?Nonetheless, there is an unmistakable virtuosity in Moody’s writerly abilities. In every chapter he visits us upon another of his characters – some we visit two or three times or more – with set pieces that are inexhaustible in their creativity. One takes the form of a diary entry, another a police report, and another is the internal monologue of an autistic child.Perhaps most grandiose of all is when he alights again on nearly all of the book’s characters as they watch “Werewolves of Fairfield County,” a hit show in this alternative universe. He gives us nearly a blow by blow of this particular episode as we find that almost all of his characters can be joined only as they gaze at the television alone, together. And if that seems like a somewhat trite message, it felt that way too. For such complex, writerly book, the underlying message felt like it too should be complicated, not just one-note angst about our supposedly vapid culture.As the book ends most of the characters are all still chasing “The Diviners” and what it represents, deliverance from their empty lives. All through out the book, the diviner, that ancient holy finder of water, is returned to as a motif, and so it seems fitting that as the book nears its close, several of Moody’s creations are wandering in the desert, finding nothing.