The Diviners by Rick Moody: A Review

October 4, 2006 | 1 book mentioned 3 3 min read

coverIt 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.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Max:

    It's been a year since I read The Diviners, but your review seems on the money in a lot of ways. I sensed not just your disppointment, but also frustration, and as a reader of a lot of Moody's stuff, a Moody fan, I wanted to elaborate. It's not just that The Diviners isn't Middlemarch (what is?) but that, through the virtuosity and the prodigious imagination of this inconsistent novel, you can glimpse hints of a really good novel that might have been.

    The culture industry has changed our lives more rapidly than we can process–it is changing our lives as we speak, at an accelerating rate–and this is fertile territory for the novelist. More importantly, it's territory Moody is drawn to. But to break through satire to drama, the writer has to figure out the ambiguities and tensions of the subject matter, rather than simply to gesture at the panapoly of human folly. Elsewhere, Moody has drawn on his Puritan streak more productively, because more self-critically.

    I see both Moody and David Foster Wallace wrestling with this: How do we write about flatness without becoming flat ourselves? (And of course they are indemnified from criticism, if they want to be. "This is fragmented because I'm writing about fragmentation. This is incomprehensibly acronymic because, well, so is the culture.")

    Aside from a manic plot that fails to cohere (which at least shows the writer challenging himself) my biggest frustration with The Diviners had to do with with the characters. The suggestion that people are isolated and lonely in their mediated being becomes resonant only when the narrative voice (or voices) can bring us into communion with those characters–to show, by embodying, the kind of intimacy and fullness those characters are fumbling for in their fictional lives. In this book (unlike The Ice Storm and Purple America), Moody just didn't seem to love his characters, and thus I couldn't either. I could feel him trying to love them. But it seemed like he was only just discovering that he wanted to do character as well as plot 300 pages into the book. I wonder if, with another draft or two, the characters and narrative posture(s) wouldn't have cohered.

    Interestingly, when Moody's narrative leaves New York (which in his hands seems more like a TV version of New York than the city I live in) for suburbia (his customary Connecticut), a tone of pathos suddenly emerges in high contrast. I hate to advocate for someone sticking with what they do well, but it's interesting that that fall-afternoon pathos (which is what Moody does well–very well–maybe even better than Wallace) is nowhere present in his New York (save for the chapter from the autistic child's POV). This sentimental (in the most positive sense) overtone animates the thematic and theoretical field of the novel by investing it with real, complicated, human presence. If I couldn't quite follow the family dynamics of Annabelle and her brother in Connecticut, I found myself really interested in them, and would have read an entire novel on them.

    Similarly, I loved the Wolves of Fairfield County chapter. Okay, there are some intentionally hokey Buffy-parody elements, but lycanthropism as a metaphor for Otherness–that's so cheesy it's brilliant. Moreover, in borrowing from the vocabulary of TV drama, Moody permits himself access to "people caring about people; people learning lessons; outsiders learning to survive"–all the stuff the Charlie Kaufman character swears off in adaptation. I honestly want HBO to make the Wolves of Fairfield County into a series. Or I want Moody to write a novel on the werewolves of suburbia. But I'm not holding my breath. Oh, well, as writers and readers, we win some and we lose some.

    Some Rick Moody recommendations:
    "A Good Story" (from The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven)
    The Ice Storm
    Purple America
    "Hawaiian Night"
    "Demonology" (all from Demonology)
    The parts of The Black Veil about rehab

  2. Thanks for the recommendations.

    I love this notion, "How do we write about flatness without becoming flat ourselves?" And it makes me wonder is there anyone out there who accomplishes this?

    There are plenty of writers who don't sound "flat," but are they writing about "flatness?"

    I'd suggest that Franzen's The Corrections succeeds in its attempt. (would love to hear about any other books that do, as well)

    And the reason that Franzen succeeds is that he injects some emotion and sentimentality into the book even as it takes on our vapid culture, and in doing so he lets his guard down as a writer in a way that Moody in The Diviners does not.

    Really I guess I'm echoing your comment here, but the notion that a writer might be unwilling or even afraid to lay himself on the line like this is interesting, especially considering that Moody was famously the target of a Dale Peck takedown.

  3. Yes. The Corrections. I think Infinite Jest's work with the addiction culture does this, too. And I'd argue that Purple America, while not as formally neat as the Ice Storm, takes sentiment seriously, while at the same time exploring its cultural transformation into sentimentalism. (Another Rick Moody recommendation: "The Albertine Papers" from the first McSweeney's Thrilling Tales.)

    Dale Peck notwithstanding, I'm hugely sympathetic to Rick Moody. The unfulfilled promise of great swaths of The Diviners may have less to do with anything as voluntary as the writer's "will" than it does with an unconscious cultural conditioning. (Or maybe with the writer not being able to will himself to acknowledge and dismiss that conditioning.) One of the things Dale Peck slammed, in his Black Veil review, was how seriously Moody was taking himself. "Pretentious… bathetic." I honestly believe that uncovering sentiment in fiction makes one a target for such accusations. It's smarter and more writerly to do the minimalist thing, or the metafictional thing, or the satire thing. I believe DFW has written about redconciling these tendencies in an essay somewhere. I also think this pressure lies at the heart of that whole anti-snark/New Sincerity/End of Irony discourse that was floating around a few years ago. (When the trick is to hold irony and sincerity in the mind at the same time.)

    Anyway, The Diviners seems to want to be a "smart" book–what James Wood calls "Information Fiction." Not only doesn't it win, then…it's playing the wrong game, at least for its writer's talents.

    These days "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" would be stove in by the Dale Pecks of the world. It just so happens, imho, that sincerity lies at the core of what Rick Moody does well, when he's doing it well, as it did with James Agee. I'm not sure if Moody knows this. Maybe he thinks language is at the core. But hopefully he'll be less gun-shy next time out…that he'll risk being "bathetic" as well as "pretentious."

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