Reader issue #706 In
April, Rick Moody fulfilled a fantasy that many artists surely have:
He delivered a pie to the face of one of his critics.

Moody,
who will be reading at Augustana College next week, is probably best
known as the author of the 1994 novel from which director Ang Lee's
The Ice Storm
was adapted. But he's also famous in some circles for nine words
written about
him: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation."

Those
words were the opening line by Dale Peck in a 2002 New
Republic
review of Moody's
award-winning memoir The Black
Veil
. Moody is hardly
Peck's only vaunted victim; his reviews were collected in the aptly
titled Hatchet Jobs,
and he's similarly disemboweled Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and
Julian Barnes. But that line is so forceful and unequivocal and
personal that the two authors have been inextricably linked in the
six years since.

Moody
said in a phone interview this week that he hoped the pie would bring
some closure.

"I
got so tired of hearing about this," he said. "It seemed as
though the remark launched a specific conversation about how the
literary world deals with itself. That's an interesting question,
but I was never allowed to really talk about that, because people
just wanted a salacious answer to the question: 'What does it feel
like to have this sentence written about you?' That's actually a
tedious question. ... So when this guy asked me for charity if I
would throw this pie at Dale, I guess I felt like I could put the
first part to bed."

Moody,
the author of four novels, a memoir, and three collections of short
fiction - including the three novellas of last year's Right
Livelihoods
- said his
career hasn't been the same since Peck's infamous review
(Powells.com/review/2002_07_04.html).

"Try
publishing books after something like that's been said about you,"
he said when I asked whether the notoriety was in some way a
blessing. "It's like I was a dead person after that. ... It's
like he came into my house, lobbed a bomb in there, and the body
parts were scattered for miles. And the people who liked the work
said, 'That was a really interesting writer. It's really too bad
that he's dead.' And everybody else said, 'I hated the guy's
work. I'm glad he's dead.' But the one thing they all agreed on
was that he was dead. That's what it was like.

"My
publishers have been really generous and responsible and have stuck
with me for the long haul," he added. "But no, it hasn't been
as easy as it was before then."

It
should go without saying that Peck's review was unfair. Moody won
the Pushcart Press Editor's Choice Award (for his debut novel
Garden State),
the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize (for the object of Peck's scorn), and
a Guggenheim fellowship.

His
most recent novel, The Diviners
- about a proposed television miniseries whose script does not
exist - received nearly as many negative reviews as positive ones,
but the Washington Post
was among the enthusiastic: "If you prefer a more straightforward
narrative, this might not be the book for you, but if you like
watching the smartest kid in the room do his stuff, The
Diviners
is like a Broadway
musical filled with nothing but showstoppers, as Moody performs one
bravura set piece after another."

The
author said that he's nearly finished a 900-page first draft of his
next novel.

author Rick Moody
"I'm
often superstitious about giving too much away when it's not done,"
he said, "but I'll say that it's sort of a slightly comical,
slightly apocalyptic shaggy-dog story set in 2026 at the end of
American economic dominance. ... It fuses the comic energy of the
last big novel, The Diviners,
with the mild futurism of The
Albertine Notes
in Right
Livelihoods
."

The
inspiration, he said, was The
Crawling Hand
, "an
incredibly bad horror film from the early '60s ... . It's a
classic of truly execrable drive-in movie fare" that includes a
rubber hand that the actors must pretend is attacking them. "I felt
like I wanted to make a contribution to that genre."

Moody's
interest in writing genre fiction was sparked by Dave Eggers and
Michael Chabon, who encouraged fellow authors to write something that
straddled the perceived gulf between "real" literature and beach
reading. Moody's The Albertine
Notes
- about a drug that
gives one "perfect access to your memories," he said - was
initially published in McSweeney's
Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
,
and was included in Year's Best
Science Fiction 9
.

"There's
a lot of freedom associated with re-making the genre according to my
own needs," Moody said. "I didn't try to make it easy reading.
That story ... is just as complicated and strange as some of my
'regular fiction' is."

Right
Livelihoods
also includes
The Omega Force,
written in memory of longtime Paris
Review
editor George
Plimpton. "I tried to make a piece that was reminiscent of what
George liked ... to publish when he was still editing the magazine,"
Moody said.

The
story, which will surely remind many people of John Cheever's "The
Swimmer," concerns an alcoholic, retired bureaucrat who pieces
together dubious clues in an effort to thwart a terrorist attack.

The
source, Moody said, was a rumor going around Fishers Island, New
York, where he writes. "I had heard when I was there one summer a
few years ago this preposterous tale that there'd been a little
plane that had landed on the tiny little one-runway airstrip on
Fishers Island that somebody had seen, and that so-called
'dark-complected people' got off the plane. The center of the
story is basically a true rumor that was passing around Fishers
Island - this idea that the next assault on New York City by Middle
Eastern terrorists was going to begin on this tiny place that you
can't even find it on a map when you know it's there."

K&K,
the middle novella in Right
Livelihoods
, involves some
increasingly hostile messages put into a suggestion box at an
insurance-sales company. One reads: "All of you should be lined up
and shot."

The
arc of the story is nearly inevitable, as the office manager tries to
figure out who is writing these "suggestions," but Moody has a
surprise in store, casting aside the central mystery and instead
focusing on a minor human moment of empathy.

"I
knew the ending, too, and the problem was how to make ... the
obviousness of it contribute rather than subtract from the story as a
whole," Moody said. "That last scene was just the attempt to make
this ending happen in an epiphanic or a revelatory kind of context
for the character. A story is only interesting finally if somebody in
the story is living through a highly dramatic moment in their life. A
very unusual moment. A moment when they might expect to have a shock
of recognition. ...

"That
was the hardest story in that collection to write. ... Because the
language is so clear - which is not my normal way of approaching
things - I really felt like the ending was a little bit difficult.
... It was really hard to come by. ... I was still messing with the
last few pages of K&K
at 3 p.m. on the last day where if I didn't turn it in we were
going to lose pub[lication] date."

author Rick Moody
I
asked whether he was happy with the ending. "No," he said. "Too
easy."

Moody
has said that he starts with a character and lets the story reveal
itself as he's writing. "What I really try not to do in my work
anyway is to over-plot, because I feel that stories that have plot
first and characters subordinate thereto are stories that feel
manipulative to me and inorganic in some way," he said. "The
stories are never plotted, so there's never a moment where the plot
is revealed to me. ... The revision process has to be the time when
you try and figure out: What are the operating conflicts in the piece
that need to be resolved through story, and how can you refine and
cut away so that those operating conflicts emerge and are easily
apprehensible by the reader?"

In
his first few books, Moody's writing was restrained, but that gave
way to what one critic called "maximalist prose." The author said
he's retreating - a little. "I think it's maybe going in a
new direction even now," he said. "From The
Diviners
onward there's
been a sort of movement 20 percent back in the direction of
storytelling and allowing the story to be central to the task,
instead of feeling a responsibility to always gussy up the surface of
the prose. That's maybe a middle-aged man's approach to things. I
no longer feel like I necessarily want to dazzle, or that I have to
try to prove that I'm the most cerebral guy in the room - which
probably I never was anyway. So now I can kind of relax a little and
let things happen somewhat."

Moody
said that he might read from his novel-in-progress at Augustana,
along with short stories.

"The
opportunity for me is this: When I hear a writer read, I often then
can go back to their work with a real sense of how the rhythms fall
in the paragraphs, and I can really hear the writer's voice," he
said. "When I read [for an audience] ... I can make a case for the
way the prose works just by being there and using my
voice on my
lines. ... There's this chance to show them how the prose works."

And
while Moody sounded slightly irritated to be asked about Peck, he did
get the opportunity to address the issues raised by that review.

"There's
a certain kind of reviewing that seems to indicate that the writers
in America would be happier to tear one another to shreds than to
argue for the importance of their medium in a cultural context that
includes American Idol and
Dancing with the Stars
and Gawker.com ... ," he said. "It's like the culture would be
really happy for us to eliminate ourselves from the broader
intellectual debate so that this other, essentially corporate,
nonsense can have the ascendancy in the culture as a whole."

(Speaking
of Gawker.com, you can see Moody pie Peck at
Gawker.com/385919/rick-moody-pies-dale-peck.)

And
on an individual level, Moody said, he's accepted that his career
changed because of Peck: "I learned from the process. I really did.
And that's what I told Dale before I mashed the pie in his face."

 

Rick
Moody will read from his work at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 23, in
Augustana College's Wallenberg Hall, inside Denkmann Memorial Hall
at 3520 Seventh Avenue in Rock Island.