Review of Rick Moody’s novel The Diviners; Toronto Star, fall 2005.
Like Philip Roth before him, the American writer Rick Moody has shown that you can go a long way on sheer energy. His prose style has its lapses – it’s often pretentious and careless – but usually his writing transports the reader with sheer propulsive force. Unlike Roth, though, Moody tends to polarize critics: some delight in his cleverness, while others find his work contrived and showoffy.
Count me among those who’ve enjoyed his stuff. Moody’s best previous books, the novels The Ice Storm and Purple America, were family dramas that played out over the course of a few days, chronicling the spiritual malaise of the well-off, and for all their stylistic tics they carried an emotional density and charge. His new book, though, has a broader canvas and is more overtly comical in its ambitions.
Ostensibly, The Diviners is Moody’s most ambitious book yet, with all the trappings of a Major Statement. It has 500 pages of heft. It has nearly two-dozen characters, ostensibly representing a cross-section of American society. Its ostensibly complex plot features mysterious complications and byzantine connections. It ostensibly satirizes major social institutions, and ostensibly intertwines the struggles and wishes of its characters with those of the larger world in which they live.
The problem, as you might have guessed, is that in fact The Diviners only appears to do these things. The novel is like nothing so much as a model home in a swank subdivision: the fixtures are gorgeous and the countertops gleam, but the house is unlived-in and unloved, and even basic functionality is in question (do those faucets really work?). All of this is ironic indeed for a novel that purports to satirize the emptiness and superficiality of modern American life.
The Diviners takes place in the last months of the year 2000, the time of the post-election recounts. At its centre is Means of Production, a low-tier film production house in Manhattan that’s run by a bullying striver named Vanessa Meandro. In search of a project that will get her noticed, Vanessa fixates on “The Diviners,” the screenplay for a sweeping TV miniseries that will follow migrating tribes over many generations and countries, ending up in latter-day Las Vegas. (The title, of course, refers to the semi-mystical art of locating underground water, and the fact that Moody’s publisher considered it fair game is a measure of how little lasting impact Margaret Laurence has had beyond Canadian borders.)
The problem with “The Diviners,” the screenplay, is that it doesn’t actually exist. The idea was thrown together as a lark by one of Vanessa’s employees, Annabel Duffy, and another associate, action-movie star Thaddeus Griffin. Yet the project quickly takes on a life of its own, with agents, network executives, investors, and even romance novelists all wanting a piece.
That conceit provides the connecting tissue for the story, which is episodic in the extreme. For much of the novel, each chapter brings a new or previously incidental character to centre stage. Some are drawn realistically, like a reverend haunted by a past indiscretion who seems to have stepped from the pages of an Updike novel. Others are more cartoonish, like an Indian cabdriver who talks himself into a job at Means of Production with over-intellectualized babble about television (“This is where the myths and stories for the future must be sewn”).
Each new character or backstory carries a light sheen of social reportage – two frequent motifs are the election recount and the Krispy Kreme donut chain – and plot tangents sprout everywhere. Probably the most dramatic one involves Annabel’s brother Tyrone, a mentally ill bike courier who’s suspected to have attacked a woman on the street with a brick: as the victim lies comatose, Tyrone flees the police and falls in with a cultlike group of revolutionary students planning a firebombing campaign.
The problem with all this is that the tangents rarely intersect in meaningful or interesting ways, and no narrative momentum builds. For example, at first much is made of the absence of a genuine “Diviners” script, but as the project proceeds apace, that lack never seems to cause any problems, or even to come up at all. And no sooner do we learn that a romance writer named Melody Howell Forvath has written a long-ago novel also called “The Diviners” than she (and her presumed claim of authorship of the nonexistent miniseries) promptly disappear from the story completely. She seems to have been in there in the first place only to allow Moody to write an account of a Hollywood Botox-injection party.
It’s clear that with the interconnections among the book’s many characters, Moody would like to convey an impression of intrigue. But again and again, that impression turns out to be false, because he can’t be bothered with the heavy lifting of actual plotting. This makes The Diviners essentially a 500-page collection of riffs.
That Botox party is emblematic of the novel as a whole. Such an event, after all, is a pretty easy target, and most of the satire here is on a similarly facile level. I mean, how could anyone in the year 2005 think that having corporate media executives babble about “synergistic marketing” is still incisive? And for a novel about the entertainment industry, The Diviners rarely feels informed by any real insight into, or knowledge of, the world it purports to skewer. Moody’s tin ear is especially evident in a climactic set piece in which he describes a special Thanksgiving episode of “The Werewolves of Fairfield County,” a hit primetime soap with sci-fi/supernatural overtones. Weirdly, the lengthy summary of the episode is neither close enough to typical television to ring true nor exaggerated enough to be striking or funny.
Adding to the overall sense of cheap laughs is Moody’s apparent contempt for his characters. The most extreme case is Randall Tork, a pompous and narcissistic wine critic who considers himself “the greatest wine writer in history” and who assaults hapless vintners with deep-purple prose. The Diviners is Moody’s first book since literary critic Dale Peck notoriously called him “the worst writer of his generation,” and for anyone who wondered whether Moody would retaliate in his fiction, Randall Tork is the answer.
Tork is hardly an anomaly, though. At times Moody seems to debase his characters with outright glee. Early in the novel, we’re shown Vanessa’s mother sitting on the toilet and guzzling malt liquor to the point of insensibility even as her bowels, afflicted by some colitis-type disease, explode in blood and gore. Vanessa herself, described for the record as “plus-sized,” has a cabdriver take her all over Manhattan, from one Krispy Kreme to another, so that she can obsessively stockpile donuts.
A novelist need not treat his characters like hothouse orchids, and certainly the people in The Ice Storm and Purple America made fools out of themselves often enough. But because we lived and breathed with those people for 200 pages or more, they also earned our indulgence and sympathy. The hapless folk in The Diviners are given no time to do so, since there’s always another character waiting to catch our attention.
Which means that when Moody does strain for some kind of emotional payoff near the close of the novel, by manufacturing a test of human empathy for Vanessa, it only feels forced and false, unearned. Similarly, a bizarre coda featuring an unnamed but thinly disguised Antonin Scalia – the Supreme Court justice who’s about to help hand the presidency to George W. Bush – seems mainly like a lazy attempt to puff up the import of all the hurlyburly that’s gone before. “How do you end a story about god and country,” Scalia asks a friend as the novel finishes. But whatever The Diviners is about, it’s a good deal sillier and more trivial than god and country.
In Moody’s defence, it should be noted that while The Diviners has many faults, tedium is not one of them. This is a maddening book, but it’s entertaining on a superficial level. Yes, Moody can be pretentious: the book opens with 10 superfluous pages describing sunlight moving across the entire planet. And careless, too: in one chapter a goldfish that’s fallen from its bowl is described as wriggling “like a comma trying to slip between two clauses” – and this supposedly from the point of view of a developmentally challenged child!
But Moody also has an ease with phrases and sentences that keep tugging the reader along, and he can write some funny dialogue, and the sheer number of characters and scenarios in The Diviners does help to energize the proceedings. Hopefully next time out Moody will marry his skills to a fuller and more realized vision. But for now, he’ll have to content himself with having written what may be the most readable bad book of the season.