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.
Among the people I asked to contribute to this year’s “Year in Reading,” are readers that I admire. Garth reads a great deal more than me and can digest the voluminous input impressively (just wish he’d start blogging again!). He’s also the guy responsible for the great Lawrence Weschler reading list I posted early this year. Some of his reading this year comes from that list:Top 3 Books I Read This Year:Tony Kushner – Angels in America: The Great American Drama? Kushner moves forward the form of the theater, but that’s only what lures you in. What keeps you is that no living writer engages more fully with his characters. The Mike Nichols directed miniseries isn’t bad, either.Joseph Mitchell: Up in the Old Hotel: An unparalleled raconteur. All of his New Yorker writings are compiled in this omnibus. His style lucid, compassionate, modest, wry, and charged with the wonder of being alive.Zadie Smith – On Beauty: As many have pointed out, flawed. But she rivals Kushner in her degree of empathy for her characters while, like him, never letting them off the hook.The Best of the Rest (of Stuff I Read This Year)Walter Benjamin – Illuminations: The most sensitive and elliptical and sad of 20th century philosophers. One of Benjamin’s ideas is worth a thousand of someone else’s arguments.Gertrude Stein – Alice B. Toklas: Who knew I’d like Gertrude Stein? Don’t believe the hype – read this book.Norman Mailer – The Executioner’s Song: Again, who knew? In Cold Blood on amphetamines, this is a chilling, gripping, and strangely humble work. The second half opens up to depict the media machinery of which this book is brilliant!Patrik Ourednik – Europeana: Behind a sui generis form, itself worth the price of admission, lurks a quiet anguish at the depredations of the 20th Century.E.L. Doctorow – Ragtime: All it’s said to be, and a great read to boot.Benjamin Barber – Jihad vs. McWorld: A lucid articulation of all the things you’ve ever suspected about late-capitalist globalism and factionalism but weren’t sure how to say.Jonathan Lethem – The Disappointment Artist: The most complete thing Lethem has published. Not an enduring classic, but a totally charming read.3 DisappointmentsRick Moody – The Diviners: Bummer, man. This book has so much potential – and is definitely worth reading – but needed an editor who could say, in the end, “Something more has to happen!” Concludes not with a bang but with a whimper. But has HBO optioned the TV rights to “Werewolves of Fairfield County?”Charles Chadwick – It’s All Right Now: Here, the whimper sets in after a completely fantastic first 180 pages – and continues for 400 more. You had me at hello, Chuck, and could have stopped after Part I. Again, where’s the editor?Bret Easton Ellis – Lunar Park: Underrated, my ass. This book is terrible. Everything after the introduction is embarrassing. I don’t know that an editor could have saved it, or why I read it. Avoid at all costs.
I added several books to the reading queue today. In New York last weekend I found a half price paperback copy of Jon Lee Anderson’s Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World. As you may know, Anderson is a stellar war reporter for the New Yorker. His writing combines thrill and adventure and danger with an unmatched depth of knowledge on the conflicts he covers. Guerrillas collects his reporting on “the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and a group of young Palestinians fighting against Israel in the Gaza Strip.” A few weeks earlier, at Myopic Books, an unbelievably well-stocked used bookstore in Wicker Park, I picked up a couple of late 20th century classics, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow and Winter’s Tale (on Emre’s recommendation) by Mark Helprin. I was also lucky enough to receive in the mail from my publisher friends: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (I’m a big Ronson fan), Rick Moody’s upcoming novel The Diviners, and the Booker longlister The People’s Act of Love by James Meek, which I’m a quarter of the way through. Recently, I finished the five LBC nominees for the fall, and in the meantime, with the additions of the books listed above, the queue has ballooned to it’s largest size yet, 48 titles – so much to read, so little time.