Rick Moody is the author, most recently, of Hotels of North America. His other highly acclaimed works include the novels Garden State, The Ice Storm, Purple America, The Diviners, and The Four Fingers of Death; the fiction collections The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, Demonology, and Right Livelihoods; and the nonfiction books The Black Veil, and On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening. He is the recipient of the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the Addison M. Metcalf Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and numerous other awards.
Hotels of North America, out this month from Little, Brown, embodies and interrogates a particularly American version of modernity. In addition to his new novel, Moody and I recently discussed literary theory, technology, and the writing process. Our conversation took place over email — sent and received, for the most part, late at night via smartphone.
The Millions: In The Black Veil you describe being “converted” after diagramming parts of Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida. Does Derrida remain an influence? How would you say literary theory has informed your concerns as a writer?
Rick Moody: Theory was and is still important to me. I still really admire Derrida and feel that my contact with his early work in English — Of Grammatology above all others, but not to the exclusion of Dissemination, Glas, etc. — was life-changing for me. I also really loved Foucault and Barthes.
Do I keep up with theoretical developments now? I admire Avital Ronell’s writing a great deal, and clearly Žižek is of interest. But I think the rigorous epistemological thinking of continental philosophy in the ’60s and ’70s has given way to skepticism, in some quarters, and drives for something like ideological purity at other extremes. The world of theory, that is, is not as it once was. I happened to encounter it at a very fertile moment for the discipline (if that’s even the right word). What I loved above all was the language, the hair-splitting, the monstrous clauses, the paradoxes, the neologisms. It felt playful to me, like experimental fiction, which also exerted a powerful pull in those days. Though the purists would say theory was anti-modernist in some ways (thus post-modernist), it still felt new to me, revolutionary, and thus consonant with Pound’s modernist credo: make it new. I still want my work to be new in that way, today, if possible. I abhor repeating myself. And I still often think about philosophy. I am no expert, but the philosophical bedrock of theory is something I still am grappling with. This year: Heidegger.
TM: I love Derrida’s style — for the playfulness you mention, and for its rigor. Though it seems the skepticism you bring up was ushered in by Derrida himself (and de Man) — the infinite drift of language, the impossibility of “perfect communication,” the indeterminacy of meaning, etc. I guess my question for you is: how do you manage to approach writing in a way that moves beyond postmodern skepticism and exhaustion?
RM: This is a difficult question to answer. In a way, the answer is simply that I don’t feel skeptical in my person, in my voice, in my heart. This would be a loaded statement, because besides relying on “heart,” a decidedly dim-witted and timeworn cliché, the remark implies that there is a stable and perceptible Rick Moody who can with any assurance use the word “I.” I incline toward the idea that I am just a series of tendencies rather than a reliable person — a society of mind, as I think Marvin Minsky used to say. But let’s assume there is a sort of a Rick Moody, an effect of the work attributed to Rick Moody, and that his “heart” refers to something that we can more or less agree on — a preliminary set of assumptions maybe. This Rick Moody, at least for today, feels that skepticism is a remainder of continental philosophy, a rime thereof, but not an adequate or complete trace product. In Derrida, the style is the way out; the writing is the third term in the opposition between theory and practice. You know all the lingo, I don’t have to rehearse it here. The work produced is the solution to the problems laid bare in the work. It’s not what you do with the work, it’s the work itself, the process of it, that indicates the way out. I still believe in this, or it believes in me. The work believes in me. The books don’t matter, the reviews don’t matter, the career doesn’t matter, the students don’t matter, though I love the language of all these things. Only the process matters. I have no skepticism about that, and I’m not exhausted.
TM: How conscious are you of a work’s eventual audience — while writing, or during the editing process? Do you consider the reader at all, or does the work enjoy a kind of autonomy?
RM: I never think about audience. But as DeLillo says, I write with standards in mind. I write for the audience that shares the standards, whoever they are.
TM: Speaking of DeLillo, in an earlier interview you discussed his method of working in discrete chunks, which he then “glues together.” I was fascinated when I read somewhere that he composes with a single paragraph on each page in order to see the sentences more clearly. What’s the unit of composition in your novels? Does this differ from the unit of composition in the stories?
RM: The particular formal method of composition has changed with each book, as each suggests its own thematically-based approach. I will say that having a child has gotten in the way of work a bit — in that I rarely have a long span of consecutive work days now. With Hotels of North America, I therefore tried to devise a unit of composition that favored how I am able to work in this family-friendly moment, which unit of composition consisted of 500 to 1,500 word “reviews” usually written first thing in the morning. The narrative arc of this book was retrofitted at a later point, in rewrites.
That said, I just spent all summer working on a short story composed in the usual way: written (and rewritten) from beginning to end. And the idea for the next book is similarly organic, to write fast without overthinking. So each work proposes an approach, even as the actual infrastructural attack is more or less consistent. Word processor plus brain plus history of literature plus play plus hard copy plus red pen.
TM: I definitely have questions about Hotels of North America. In general, however, would you say your shorter fiction is more “sentence-centric” than the novels? I know you train a great deal of attention on the “novelistic” sentences, but I’m wondering how your focus changes with a longer text. A story like “Boys” (which comes up quite a bit, and which I love) seems to be nearly generated by its initial sentence, “Boys enter the house, boys enter the house.” Is this as often the case with your novels and novellas?
RM: There’s a story in the as yet unpublished collection #4, the title story, in fact, that repeats the theme-and-variations fugal structure of “Boys” called “She Forgot.” (I could write a whole sequence of these now, forgetting stories, so full is my family right now with acute forgetting disorders. I wish I could forget some of the forgetting.) I think it will be recognizable to people who like “Boys,” and also as a reply to a certain major work of conceptual prose writing that recently got its Library of America edition.
I do think short fiction is good for experiment. A failed idea there will only set you back a couple months. The strategy in the short story, for me, is this: follow the language, not the story, and see where it goes. Doesn’t mean there’s no story, because that’s too easy. But it means the stories are language first. A model would be late Beckett, or, differently, Amy Hempel.
TM: I’ll try to ask this next question in a way that isn’t reductive. [Hotels protagonist] Reginald Morse and Rick Moody the author share first and last initials. Are any other commonalities merely coincidental? What, if anything, did you smuggle in, and what might have leaked in? When you’ve drawn on your own experience, do you find the material transformed beyond recognition in the work?
RM: So do Wyatt Gwyon and William Gaddis share initials. To be frank, I didn’t realize Reg had the same initials until I was nearly done with the thing. There are other heavily freighted aspects to his name, from my point of view, that have nothing to do with this coincidence you allude to in the department of naming. After all, my initials are HFM, and his are REM.
Is he autobiographical in some way? More so, perhaps, than Morton the ape from The Four Fingers of Death, at least if adjudged by his life circumstances. But in a way I think Morton is the most autobiographical of characters in my work. Or, to put it another way: all characters are autobiographical, more or less. And all literary work is autobiographical, even abstruse nouveaux romans of the Robbe-Grillet or Sarraute variety. I don’t see how Hotels of North America is any more so than anything else I have written (I am the guy who wrote “Demonology,” e.g., or “Primary Sources,” not to mention The Black Veil). And, in the main, the goal was to try to figure out a way to make a novel, with character and narrative arc, from subliterary material: the hotel review form. I didn’t really think about Reg, except that I used whatever was easiest in terms of his life story, because the hard work was in having any story at all worked in around all the hotel stuff.
The rest of the autobiographical question — how much is him and how much me — is not inherently interesting to me. How much of Humboldt in Humboldt’s Gift is Delmore Schwartz? I don’t know, and I don’t go to that work for commentary on Delmore. I go to it for the sentences. I am hoping that those who read Hotels of North America are more interested in the slightly outlandish premise and the occasions of pathos that are admixed there than they are interested in crypto-autobiography. Or: if I really wanted to write a lot about myself, I’d just write another memoir…
TM: In a sense, your response dovetails with Morse’s purported desire (according to the “Rick Moody” of the afterword) that the work “be read for what it has to say about the world, not for what it has to say about Reginald Edward Morse.” What heavily freighted aspects of Morse’s name were you thinking of? The word “remorse” is an unavoidable association. Any connection to Samuel Morse, painter and telecommunications pioneer? Art and data transmission seem to be central concerns of Hotels of North America.
RM: I really like the Samuel Morse connection! That’s good! And yes obviously there is the other pun you allude to, lest one should think Reg is all bluster and condescension. I did have a good friend called John Morse in the first grade (this was at Ox Ridge School, Darien, Conn.). He was the gentlest young man, not one of those playground savages you often find among a random sampling of public school boys, even in such a rarified locale as Fairfield County. Anyway, once I was riding around with John Morse on our bicycles over by his house when we were set upon by a pair of Great Danes, larger than we were, and jet black. One knocked me right off my Schwinn Tornado, but having daintily sunk a few incisors into my posterior and its soft tissue, that hulking mass of Fairfield County wealth and privilege just stood there awaiting its mistress, an older lady who was very remorseless! She should have at least given me candy while I wept. Alas, no. Who felt the worst later that day, among the participants catalogued above? And does anyone but me remember that these events took place?
TM: I wanted to ask you about two quotes. In a review of the Tall Corn Motel in Des Moines, Reginald Morse calls the credit rating “that most American of data points.” Later, in a hilarious (though melancholy) section, Morse describes hotel pornography as being “at the heart of travel in America.” These passages suggest issues of connectivity and larger systems. Porn seems relevant in that Americans usually consume it alone, but also because of the increasing penetration of the delivery systems involved (cable, the Internet). Like the credit rating, opportunities for slaking desire via consumption seem inescapable now. I was wondering if you saw a connection between these systems, including the Interstate Highway System, I suppose, and the structure of the novel — each section is self-contained, yet branches out in multiple directions in an almost rhizomatic fashion.
RM: I was railing against the Internet in my workshop last night, castigating one of my very talented students for using multiple (fictional) Craigslist posts in his story. The Internet! Where humanism goes to die! Only in its absolute destitution, in the presumption there of delusion and id-driven belligerence, can there be any genuine truth to be found. And yet as Barthes points out: the site of total negation always contains the seeds of affirmation. I began the hotel reviews with the assumption that there was nothing human on the Internet to be found and then I set about constructing the opposite hypothesis. Whether this paradox is successfully employed here remains to be seen, whether total negation can result in affirmation, whether the black hole can emit heat. To address your question more directly: The lure of pornography and the obsession with FICO scores, etc., are like unto one another, yes. There is longing in each of the cases, on Reddit, on Experian, on YouPorn. Many users will be so blunted by human failure and by the narcotic effects of multi-national capital that they don’t even know what they are doing in these digital landscapes of auto-constructed fantasy. They don’t know what they are longing for, or they think longing is cheesy. Or they experience epiphany only in rhizomatic episodes, compulsive gaming fits, that rarely erupt into narrative arc in the conventional way. If identity consists of quantum mechanical tendencies and probabilities more than actual character, then a rhizomatic accumulation of isolated paroxysms of longing is more formally suggestive of character in this century, especially character interfacing with Internet, more so than the heroic narratives of individualism. It perhaps bears mentioning, now, that I have answered most of these questions in the middle of the night, on handheld device, during bouts of insomnia.
TM: What led you to use the first person for this novel?
RM: I assume you ask this because of my long-standing aversion to the first person. It is true: I dislike a certain kind of confessional and earnest first-person-narrated naturalism. I only get interested when the reliability of the first-person narrator is in question, when the reliability of narration itself is under scrutiny. There are any number of ways of doing this.
Your usage is interesting though: what “led me” to employ the first person? Sort of as if I had been, under duress, bludgeoning an intruder with a Teflon-coated fry pan! Or as if I had made use of a very bad chess opening: rook’s pawn! It’s a funny way to put it. I guess I was led to the first person by Ford Madox Ford and Nabokov and by some theoretical voices, critics, of narratorial practice, etc. I was also led there circuitously, having mostly employed either third person or what my student Liz Wood refers to as “sneaky first” for the vast majority of my published work between 1992 and 2005. Four Fingers of Death has some first (about half). I may simply have wanted to experiment with some new techniques. Travel broadens, as they say.
TM: As an author, what’s your take on “The Death of the Author?” I was practically handed the Barthes essay (as well as “The Intentional Fallacy”) with my MFA orientation materials, though since then I’ve encountered convincing arguments that don’t jettison authorial intention — quite the contrary. The phrasing “what led you” as opposed to “why did you choose” is perhaps a vestigial symptom of that earlier theoretical commitment; you’re right to point it out.
RM: That was never a Barthes essay that resonated with me exactly. I certainly feel a lot of forces speaking through the author, and it’s certainly the case that a stable, whole individual who is expressing her/himself is somewhat mythic, but “death” is the wrong word for the situation. It’s a bit overwrought. Maybe the allusion is to Nietzsche and Zarathustra. I feel very much alive. The language is the trace of it.
TM: You’ve spoken at length on the interrelatedness of music and prose. I’m curious whether visual art — particularly photography — has been a complementary influence on your work. Would you say your art criticism comes from the same place as your fiction?
RM: It’s funny how this isn’t a subject I have talked about much in public when my late sister was a photographer, my first girlfriend in college was a painter (and her family major collectors), my wife is a well-known visual artist, and I teach writing to visual artists very nearly half-time. I studied art history some at Brown, and I loved it. At all points in my development, the visual arts have been present, especially the lessons of the Northern Renaissance, Surrealism, Dada, AbEx, and conceptual art. Smithson and Judd, e.g., are people I think about a lot, and revere. I could name many other names, photographers included. In my creative inner sanctum, I travel freely among the 10,000 forms and don’t truly feel that the law of genre is a law that I must respect. I happen not to be gifted with talent in a specific medium of visual art, but my longing for contact with art has motivated all my writing on that subject, which in turn has surely been a source of material inspiration for fiction-making. The new book, in fact, comes directly out of my class in the art department at NYU, and through watching my wife think about her own conceptual footing. It is, in a way, a conceptual art project, in the way that Donald Barthelme was refractive of visual art. Doesn’t mean to be heavy-handed about it, or labored about it, but that influence is there, and I am glad to say it aloud.
It creeps up on me in the middle of a Friday, like the gnawing sensation of possibly having left the oven on: I haven’t been reading enough Lynne Tillman. Thus I don’t know if there’s a precedent for this charming, maddening, brilliant, painstaking, and utterly mesmeric book. Certainly, there are shades of Hemingway and Stein and Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance here, passages on textiles reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Jamesian syntactical snarls. But the voice of Tillman’s fifth novel, American Genius, A Comedy, strikes me as sui generis. And it is the voice, gradually and then suddenly, that gives this novel its form, its heft, its suspense, and its unique quality of beguilement.Along the way, American Genius offers an effulgent answer to the question Benjamin Kunkel posed in N+1’s recent symposium on American writing: Whither the psychological novel? The opening pages throw us into the mind of an as-yet-unnamed narrator who muses on food, farts, Eames chairs, the Manson family, her own family, and skin, among other things. In fact, this woman’s consciousness acts not like a brain but like a skin – “the body’s largest organ,” she points out. That is, her genius is not for solving problems, but for registering them. She is, as she puts it, “sensitive.” Which is another way of saying clinically neurotic. She has trouble living in her own skin, and retreats to the life of the mind.Eavesdropping on her quotidian obsessions, we slowly gather that she is middle-aged, that she has studied and taught American history, and that she has endured the loss of many loved ones. And, importantly, we learn that she has checked in to an enigmatic New England retreat for scholars, all of whom seem to be in crisis somehow – Chataqua via The Magic Mountain. An eccentric cast of characters – a man who, like my college roommate, lives nocturnally; a woman longing to commune with Kafka’s dead lover, a man who lugs his laptop to breakfast – seems to promise drama, or, like the title, comedy. The precise nature of this scholarly colony, and the narrator’s precise reasons for being there, hover at the periphery of her consciousness, and thus at the periphery of the novel. But, in the absence of a traditional plot, our questions – Why did the narrator’s brother run away from home? What is the nature of her crisis? Why this obsession with dermatology? – serve as hooks, drawing us deep into the fabric of the prose.And what prose it is. Unlike some other experimental novels, American Genius unfolds in sentences so clear as to be pellucid. Like a sensitive skin, Tillman’s language registers every flicker of doubt, every shift in the book’s emotional weather. Simple clauses, phrased perfectly and spliced with Kafkan commas, double back to bite their own tails, or to measure the tension between past and present, or to erupt, via figures of speech, into fullness of feeling. Here, for example, is the narrator – Helen, it turns out (surely not the Helen of Tillman’s earlier novel Cast in Doubt?)- ruminating on therapeutic massage:When I’m in the place I call home, where I have a young wild cat and an old, frail mother who may or may not miss me, I see a Japanese therapeutic masseuse, whose attitude toward the body is vastly different from the Polish cosmetician’s, who twice has massaged me with gentle strength and kneaded my body respectfully, though she may not respect it or me. The Japanese masseuse acts against my body, she forces it to comply, as if trouncing a truculent enemy, and I can see her wringing her hands and canvassing my legs before moving toward them, to exact revenge.And here is Helen remembering her father:I watched my father charcoal broil while sitting on the grass or on the poured concrete steps that led from the blue and gray slate patio to the storm door to the back of the house, where my mother pushed her arm through the glass, and he was happy broiling steak over a fire, which he composed of briquettes and newspaper but never doused with fuel, which would, he explain, ignite it quickly but ruin its taste.The cumulative effect of these quiet surfaces, punctured by the abrupt humor of the masseuse’s imaginary adversary or the horror of the mother pushing her arm through the glass door, is at once soothing and hair-raising. The reader is charmed and made anxious, as Helen is. Her sentences, apparently evenhanded, turn out to be deeply subjective, and in the spaces between periods, much is repressed, withheld, or held for later. Ultimately, we come to know her not as we know characters in novels, but as we know others, or ourselves… which is to say deeply and incompletely, intimately and mysteriously.But American Genius does not merely aspire to the level of character study or prose experiment. By juxtaposing Helen’s personal concerns with her scholarly ones – or, more aptly, razing the distinction between the two – Tillman is concerned to craft a national novel. “I wanted to go for it,” she tells Geoffrey O’Brien in a Bomb Magazine interview, “[to] fully write about who and where we are – or, even, how to think about being an American now.” There is a feminist daring in the way Tillman goes about her work, eschewing battle scenes or historical pastiche in favor of awkward encounters in the colony’s dining hall, private memories of watching the Kennedys on TV. Still, as in Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica – a book whose form and mission complement this one’s – a vivid sense of the Zeitgeist emerges. Tillman reaches the apogee of her powers in bravura passages where world-historical events and painful memories and wry observational comedy are all braided together, shot through with Helen’s obliquely sad sensibility. And when events in the residents conspire, as they must, to goad Helen out of her inertial rut, the smallest action feels charged with the weight of centuries.In case I haven’t made this clear already: Lynne Tillman is a writer in full command of her effects. I am reminded of my recent and belated discovery of the short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg Twilight of the Superheroes, who also made me want to kick myself for having overlooked her work for so long. These writers’ mastery is so evident (and so hard-won), that to critique either feels almost like arguing with her sensibility.Nonetheless, I’m contractually obligated to record my quibbles (that is, Max has me chained in the basement here at The Millions and is withholding my gruel). The first – really more of an open question – concerns the deployment of Helen’s considerable erudition. Usually, her factual disquisitions seem to spring organically from her private fixations – that is, from her character. Nonetheless, I found some of the more undigested chunks of learning, particularly those explaining various medical conditions, to be slack places in the novel. At times, I felt the hand of the writer directing her narrator’s consciousness to areas of thematic fertility. Is Tillman researching this? I thought. Or is Helen thinking it spontaneously? Given the generally seamless illusion of life created here, calling attention to its status as a composed artifact felt like a mistake, however interesting. These bumpy passages generally smoothed themselves out after page 100, and perhaps it’s a case of the book teaching one how to read it. Nonetheless, in a novel as deserving of broad readership as this one is, the dips into the encyclopedic may present barriers to entry.Another initial hurdle arises from the setting. As a present-tense peg on which to hang the narrator’s past, the constrained environment of the intellectual colony at first seems to limit the book’s dramatic possibilities. As in a campus novel, there’s a faint plumminess to the surroundings, and one wonders how Tillman will reconcile the ambitions of the title – American Genius – with a setting so socially attenuated… so uppercrust. That she does is a testament to her immense gifts. The novel took possession of me about a third of the way through, when Helen decided to explore beyond the confines of the colony. And it didn’t let go until the end. Even afterward, at night, in bed, I’ve found myself missing the cadences of Helen’s sentences, the surprising and bewildering turns of her mind.Unlike some other ambitious novels I can think of, American Genius doesn’t require that the reader be a genius, too. It doesn’t try to overwhelm its audience – at least not with shock and awe tactics. Nor does it condescend to us. What it does require is patience. Readers eager for plot, dialogue, characters delivered in a single stroke… the sturdy appurtenances of conventional fiction, will have to open themselves to American Genius, to surrender to its magic, to trust. But they will be richly rewarded. And perhaps even changed.Sidebar: Recent “American” Novels:American Purgatorio by John Haskell (2004)American Desert (2004) by Percival EverettAmerican Skin (2000) by Don De GraziaIn America (2000) by Susan SontagPurple America (1997) by Rick MoodyAmerican Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth