The Acid Tongue
Best Kept Hidden
Selected By Cyril Wong
Dale Peck's review of Rick Moody's The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions, titled "The Moody Blues" in New Republic, is still quite the read after more than a decade; the kind that refreshes my memory of why I hardly read novels anymore. Peck's review lashes out extensively not just at Moody's ambitious book but also at the supposed decline of novel-writing post-Ulysses, starting out with an open declaration that he proceeds to justify: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation."
Then just after discussing needlessly how he came about deciding on the review's opening sentence for having the right "ring to it", Peck gets right to it:
Stop reading here if you are looking for a calm dissection of the work of Hiram Frederick Moody III. At this point, the use of the diminutive "Rick" is about the only wise decision that I am willing to give him credit for. The plain truth is that I have stared at pages and pages of Moody's prose and they remain as meaningless to me as the Korean characters that paper the wall of a local restaurant... I am not convinced that Moody's books are about anything at all. In fact, it is only when I consider The Black Veil stripped of any pretense to content that I can ascribe it a measure of objecthood — not as the diagnostic, hermeneutical genealogy that it purports to be, but rather as the latest in what I have come to regard as a series of imitations or echoes of Moody's more talented, or at any rate more authentically individual, peers.
Peck is not averse to attacking Moody's readers too:
My gut feeling is that if you honestly do not believe that this is bad writing, then you are a part of the problem... Like all of Moody's books, it is pretentious, muddled, derivative, bathetic. His much-touted compassion strikes me as false (in his fiction he makes his characters suffer in order to solicit your pity, and this seems no less true of the self that he describes in The Black Veil); his highly praised prose — "rhythmic" and "evocative" are the tags that you see most often — comes only at the expense of precision, which is to say, of truth.
In terms of his idea of recent literary history, Peck elaborates on when he thinks everything went wrong:
In my view, the wrong turn starts around the time Stephen Dedalus goes to college in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and echoes all the way through Don DeLillo's ponderously self-important rendering of Bobby Thompson's shot heard round the world in the opening chapter of Underworld. Moody's badness is a little less inexplicable if you look at him as the lowest common denominator of a generation of writers — and readers: they, too, bear some responsibility for the condition of fiction — who have long since forgotten what the modernist and postmodernist assaults on linearity were actually about, and as such have lost the ability to tell the difference between ambiguity and inscrutability, ambition and bombast; of writers who are taken at face value when they are being ironic and who are deemed ironic when they are telling it straight — assuming, of course, that they themselves know the difference.
Peck delves properly into Moody's novel, lambasting it in relation to the "grandness of intent" of The Ice Storm and "gestural" elements in Purple America, Moody's other works, all of which are rife with "transparent attempts at linguistic virtuosity" that are ultimately "superfluous" and "annoying". It is a long and in-depth excoriation. Here is just a sample:
The Black Veil isn't simply a bad idea badly rendered. It is so awful that it is easy to see the book as in league with the very crimes that it seeks to redress. Here, as in the books that preceded it, the language that Moody employs is so fundamentally imprecise that it cannot help but tell untruths. There is the innocuous generality... There is the demotion of the physical world in favor of the fancy conceit... There is a certain poignancy to these stereotypical generalities and slipshod metaphors: they speak of the difficulty of individual expression, of the homogenization and the simplification of life by the very tools that seek to understand its complexity. But they lack depth: Moody's meta-descriptions never show individuality in the process of being squashed — or, for that matter, of finding a way to express itself; and this, besides being dramatically uninteresting, is not an accurate reflection of the world that he is describing.... in Rick Moody's words there is a single striking consistency. You could call it an ever-widening gap between signifier and signified, or you could call it lies. Or you could just call it what it is, which is bullshit.
Later, Peck talks about how Moody belongs to a general trend of writers who "represent the most esoteric strain of twentieth-century literature":
The novelist Jim Lewis... prefers the term Geek Lit, but I think that a venereal designation is unavoidable in discussing literature's secret school, the Skull and Bones of the novelist's set. These boys have their own little club going... I don't want to suggest that they are uniformly talentless or misguided; or that there is a conspiracy among them, or among them and the editors of The New Yorker or Harper's or The Paris Review; or that they invest any of their energy in excluding others from the upper echelons of the literary world. All I'm suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon's; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid — just plain stupid — tomes of DeLillo.
And then there is this truly memorable passage towards the end of the review:
QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014
If you want to know the difference between a real writer and all those wannabes who punish us with their memoirs and literary novels, it's this: the real writer is incapable of seeing the world through anything but the prism of metaphor and narrative, which renders that world as falsely as chronology renders the progress of time. The real writer suspects that character is just a by-product of these two forces — that what we think of as ourselves is nothing more than an assortment of chemicals acted upon by internal and external stimuli — and in some ways it is his urgent need to disprove this hypothesis, to assert at least the possibility of an existence independent of fate, that drives him to write fiction. It's true, it's true, what you have always suspected is true: it's ourselves we blame, ourselves we're trying to save. Not you.