Rick Moody Essay - Critical Essays

Moody, Rick

Introduction

Rick Moody 1962-

(Full name Hiram F. Moody, III) American novelist, short story writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Moody's career through 2001.

A member of a generation of media-savvy young writers to come of age during the 1970s, Moody has been hailed as one of the most gifted American authors to emerge in the 1990s. Regarded by some critics as the literary successor to John Cheever and John Updike, Moody exposes the despair and family tensions lurking beneath the glossy surface of northeastern American suburbia in much of his work. Moody's fiction is decidedly contemporary in focus and preoccupation, incorporating pop culture references to the music, fashion, and historical events that bear the stamp of his generation. With the success of The Ice Storm (1994), a novel made into a critically acclaimed film by director Ang Lee in 1997, Moody was propelled into the top ranks of contemporary writers. His subsequent experimentation in Purple America (1997) and the short story collections The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven (1996) and Demonology (2000) enhanced his reputation as an adroit and challenging author whose darkly comic vision and postmodern sensibility underscore the vacuity and ironies of modern American life.

Biographical Information

Born in New York, Moody, along with his mother and sister, moved often after his parents' divorce. He grew up primarily in Connecticut, but at age thirteen left home to attend St. Paul's, a boarding school in Manchester, New Hampshire. As a young man, Moody suffered from the absence of his father and struggled with alcohol and drug abuse problems until he eventually institutionalized himself in 1987. He received a bachelor's degree in English from Brown University in 1983, where he studied under writer Stanley Elkin, and a master's degree in fine arts from Columbia University in 1986. Moody subsequently worked as an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster, then as an assistant editor for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Finding a publisher for his first novel, Garden State (1991), proved difficult for Moody. However, despite repeated rejections, it was finally published after the manuscript unexpectedly won the Pushcart Press Editor's Book Award in 1992. His next book, The Ice Storm, initially posted modest sales, although it attracted a national audience upon the release of the movie adaptation starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. The death of Moody's sister in 1995, while he was at work on Purple America, had a profound impact on the author and found expression in two stories in Demonology. Moody lives on Fishers Island, a rural location off Long Island, New York. Since 1991, he has taught fiction writing and composition part-time at Bennington College.

Major Works

Much of Moody's fiction revolves around disintegrating family life, which he sees as a microcosm for America and as symptomatic of larger sociocultural issues. His first novel, Garden State, is set in a northern New Jersey suburb during the Reagan era and involves three twenty-something characters: Alice; her sometime boyfriend, Dennis; and her half-brother, Lane, who has recently returned from a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt. The novel embodies many of Moody's recurring motifs, including disaffected adolescents, alternative rock music, absent parents, and unfulfilled longing for family security. The Ice Storm focuses on two families—the Hoods and the Williamses—in which the narcotic and sexual experimentation of the teenage children mirror their parents' search for meaning and feeling. As an antidote to his sexless marriage, Ben Hood has an affair with Janey Williams, while his wife, Elena, seeks excitement through shoplifting and the era's ubiquitous self-help books. At the novel's climax, the adults attend a spouse-swapping party while their unattended children simultaneously court disaster. Paul Hood tries unsuccessfully to bed a classmate, while Wendy Hood seduces the Williams boys, one of whom wanders off into the aftermath of an ice storm and is accidentally killed when he sits on a guardrail electrified by a downed wire. The story is set in upper-middle-class New Canaan, Connecticut, during Thanksgiving weekend and satirizes the family traditions of the 1970s against the backdrop of President Nixon's impeachment. The conclusion of the novel, however, suggests that even imperfect families are a source of comfort. The short story collection The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven showcases Moody's literary experimentation. The story “Treatment,” for example, is a single sentence in the form of a movie treatment, while “The Apocalypse Commentary of Bob Paisner” is a term paper in which the student writer notes similarities between the Book of Revelation and his own life. Other stories return to Moody's recurring subjects of loss and the search for family and roots. “The Preliminary Notes” involves an insecure husband who listens in on his wife's phone conversations to determine if she is unfaithful. Nostalgia for the past is a theme of “The James Dean Garage Band,” in which the narrator fondly recalls his earlier days as a musician in a rock band. However, the title story, “The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven,” about the scarred lives of prostitutes, transvestites, and lesbians in New York City's East Village, is much grimmer in tone. The collection concludes with a list of the personal events, books, and records that have shaped Moody's life and aesthetic. Purple America marks a stylistic change in Moody's fiction, including the use of longer sentences and a more playful vocabulary that has elicited comparison to the style of William Faulkner. The novel is told through the eyes of three separate characters: Hex Raitliffe; his mother, Billie; and Lou Sloan, Billie's second husband. Hex is a stuttering alcoholic in his thirties who returns home to care for his terminally ill mother. Billie can only communicate through a computer and wants her son's help to end her life. Within twenty-four hours, Hex struggles to provide care for his mother and to come to terms with his past—including a father who died when he was a boy—and the present—which involves not only a decision about whether he will help his mother die, but also features a pathetic sexual encounter with a woman he adored in high school. Looming over these personal crises, and alluding to the larger cultural and historical context of the novel, is a meltdown at the nearby nuclear power plant where Hex's father and stepfather both worked. The short fiction of Demonology is marked by Moody's further experimentation with form. In “Boys,” a story about two brothers growing up, each sentence begins with the word “boys.” Another piece, “Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13,” is structured like a used book catalogue, while “Wilkie Fahnstock, The Boxed Set,” is written to resemble the sleeve notes to an anthology of popular music. “The Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal” is a single sentence about a Ph.D. student who uses literary theory to explain her relationship with a man who won't make a commitment and who she believes must administer a gynecological exam to truly know her. Two other stories—“Demonology” and “The Mansion on the Hill”—explore the pain of losing a sister.

Critical Reception

Moody's fiction has attracted both critical praise and a devoted cult following. Though his award-winning debut novel, Garden State, put him on the literary map, even Moody has agreed with some critics that the book as the apprentice work of a young author. The Ice Storm was praised for its sensitive treatment of adolescent angst and its vivid portrait of Watergate-era suburbia. Critics noted that unlike many coming-of-age novels, such as The Catcher in the Rye, in which adults are reproached, Moody presents the complexity of the family structure without casting summary judgment against the admittedly flawed parents in the story. While Moody's ability to replicate the cultural milieu of the 1970s has been appreciated by many, some critics suggested that the novel's “time capsule” quality caused the story to seem ephemeral. Moody's short story collections, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven and Demonology, have garnered positive response from reviewers, who have commended the author's deadpan humor, impressionistic style, and clever narrative presentations. Despite frequent comparisons to John Cheever, Moody has cited writers Don DeLillo and Samuel Beckett as greater influences on his work. Purple America is regarded by many as Moody's most ambitious work to date. As his writing has grown more experimental in form, critics have responded with mixed enthusiasm. While some critics appreciate his lyrical elongated sentences and such stylistic devices as a rampant use of italics and the substitution of dashes for quotation marks, others find these distracting. However, many reviewers have found Moody's grasp of language to be whimsically intellectual and have seen his odd word usage as a sign of inventiveness rather than mere gimmickry. Likewise, Moody's allusions to overarching societal issues have been alternatively viewed as either shrewd or strained. Despite such criticism, Moody continues to receive critical approval for his unsettling insights and willingness to push the envelope of contemporary American fiction.

Principal Works

Garden State (novel) 1991

The Ice Storm (novel) 1994

The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven (short stories) 1996

Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited [editor, with Darcey Steinke] (essays) 1997

Purple America (novel) 1997

Demonology (short stories) 2000

Criticism

Adam Begley (review date 29 May 1994)

SOURCE: “Entering Gothic Suburbia, Where Dysfunction Romps Across Tidy Lawns,” in Chicago Tribune Books, May 29, 1994, p. 5.

[In the following positive review of The Ice Storm, Begley commends Moody's “keen observation and sympathy for human suffering,” though finds shortcomings in the novel's unnecessary “literary flourishes.”]

Novelists don't like to be lumped into categories or ushered into the unwelcome company of other, supposedly similar writers, but mankind is a classifying animal, and besides, really good writers outlast the labels applied to them. Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, a bitter and loving and damning tribute to the American...

(The entire section is 833 words.)

Brooke Allen (essay date June 1994)

SOURCE: “Cheever Country, 1994,” in New Criterion, Vol. 12, No. 10, June, 1994, pp. 58–65.

[In the following excerpt, Allen offers a favorable evaluation of The Ice Storm, which she places in the tradition of American WASP novels and contrasts with the fiction of John Updike and John Cheever.]

The landscape is much the same as it was a generation ago. American suburbia has changed remarkably little, despite the advent of malls and bypasses, guns and drugs. Suburbia is a landscape of the mind, a utopian experiment. Its failures may be obvious: the protected model communities have proved no safe haven from divorce, alcoholism, suicide and violence. But the...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)

Alexander Harrison (review date 5 August 1994)

SOURCE: “Old-Fashioned Families,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 5, 1994, p. 18.

[In the following review, Harrison offers a favorable assessment of The Ice Storm.]

New Canaan, the setting for Rick Moody's second novel, The Ice Storm, is a suburb from Hell. Understandably, the people who live there have problems. Ben Hood, “the dad in what follows,” thinks love is “close to indebtedness” and has married Elena to pay the debt. She simply believes he proposed “out of lack of imagination.” Their son, Paul, is a “garbage head … a loser,” incapable of spending a straight and sober day at his exclusive boarding-school. During the...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Ellen Akins (review date 7 August 1994)

SOURCE: “Voices in the Night,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 7, 1994, p. 15.

[In the following review, Akins offers a positive assessment of The Ice Storm.]

This is not so much a novel as an excavation—of that nearly but not quite extinct entity the nuclear family as it was in those dark ages, the 1970s. The argot, the foibles, the fads and the artifacts: They're all here [in The Ice Storm], meticulously catalogued and historically framed with discussions of the design, politics and groping psychology of the period. In the midst of this exactingly reconstructed rubble we find the Hoods, a family of four. Because the Hoods live in the...

(The entire section is 755 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 20 August 1995)

SOURCE: “Dropping Out,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 20, 1995, p. 3.

[In the following review of The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, Eder commends Moody's narrative skill and humor, but concludes that the stories in this collection are marred by literary artifice and “a lack of authorial conviction.”]

If Rick Moody were an innkeeper instead of a story writer, his guests would admire the striking decor of the rooms but be less pleased, perhaps, at finding Moody lying in the bed.

The title novella and many of the stories in The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven have both a surface and an expressive...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

Alexander Laurence (review date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1996, p. 154.

[In the following review, Laurence praises Moody's stylistic experimentation in The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven.]

The celebrated author of the innovative novel The Ice Storm surprises us again with a totally unconventional collection of stories [The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven] that explore the idea of form. The title story, a novella actually, contemplates the Lower East Side with its heroin use and its sex clubs, the peep shows of Times Square, bondage, and the art scene. We follow three...

(The entire section is 258 words.)

Rick Moody with Matthew Debord (interview date 31 March 1997)

SOURCE: “Rick Moody: A Nuclear Family Meltdown,” in Publishers Weekly, March 31, 1997, pp. 46–47.

[In the following interview, Debord provides an overview of Moody's life and career and includes Moody's comments on his fiction, literary beginnings, and the publication of Purple America.]

Rick Moody digs black: black-leather motorcycle jacket, black jeans, black shirt, black combat boots and black horn-rimmed glasses. The car he's rented to tool around Saratoga Springs, N.Y., during a stint at Yaddo, is white, but that seems beyond his chromatic control. “They're all either white or teal, right?” he says, steering with both hands, as though maybe driving is...

(The entire section is 1978 words.)

David Nicholson (review date 8 April 1997)

SOURCE: “Taking Care of Mother,” in Washington Post, April 8, 1997, p. B2.

[In the following review of Purple America, Nicholson finds the novel hindered by Moody's indulgent prose and “stylistic quirks.”]

This novel about a day in the life of a troubled New England family opens with a scene of almost unbearable intensity as Dexter “Hex” Raitliffe bathes, clothes and spoon-feeds his mother, who's crippled by a debilitating multiple sclerosis-like disease. It's a poignant four pages that reaches for, and sometimes achieves, an almost religious solemnity: “Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his own mother's body, he shall never die...

(The entire section is 828 words.)

Michael Frank (review date 20 April 1997)

SOURCE: “Purple Haze,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 20, 1997, p. 12.

[In the following review, Frank maintains that Purple America is “an original and reverberative novel” despite finding shortcomings in the novel's characterizations and unsatisfying ending.]

Purple America, is a robust book. It is a book whose capacious arms reach up out of the bold second sentence—four pages long and surprisingly assured—to embrace a striking range of thought, memory and feeling. These arms manage to grasp people longing and people loving; people seeking and people struggling; people in deep distress, both physical and psychological; and people...

(The entire section is 1657 words.)

Andy Solomon (review date 11 May 1997)

SOURCE: “A Full Day: Rick Moody's Rich, Dazzling Novel of 24 Hours in the Life of a Troubled Family,” in Chicago Tribune Books, May 11, 1997, p. 5.

[In the following review, Solomon offers a positive assessment of Purple America.]

Rick Moody's extraordinary third novel [Purple America] covers just one fateful day in the lives of the troubled Raitliffe family, yet seldom has an author crowded so much substance into 24 hours.

Billie Raitliffe, 70, has spent two decades in her opulent Connecticut home wasting away with a neurological disease. She has lost her eyesight, her speech, her muscular functions and finally her will to live. And now,...

(The entire section is 834 words.)

Paul Maliszewski (review date Fall 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Purple America, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 226–27.

[In the following review, Maliszewski offers a positive assessment of Purple America.]

In a traditional allegory characters stand in for their qualities. Goodness, Courage, and Charity stride about, going head-to-head and hand-to-hand with their well-known evil twins. In both The Ice Storm, his last novel, and Purple America, Rick Moody writes a kind of demographic allegory. Characters in the novel are at once people in an unfolding drama as well as a segment of the American population, recognizable pieces of the most recent census,...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Daphne Merkin (review date 29 September 1997)

SOURCE: “Family Matters,” in New Yorker, September 29, 1997, pp. 86–7.

[In the following excerpt, Merkin offers a tempered assessment of the film adaptation of The Ice Storm.]

Here's what I can't figure out about The Ice Storm, the intelligent but curiously remote movie that's been made from Rick Moody's novel: Is the anomie—the soul rot—that eats away at everyone in it best attributed to suburbia, to the seventies, or to the human condition as exemplified by the involutions of Yankee character? The movie is set in New Canaan, Connecticut, and affluent suburbs are always suspect—suggesting, as they do, an implicitly failed American ideal, with...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

Frank Moher (review date December 1997–January 1998)

SOURCE: “The Way It Was,” in Saturday Night, Vol. 112, No. 10, December 1997–January 1998, p. 14.

[In the following review of The Ice Storm, Moher objects to Moody's portrayal of New Canaan suburbanites as effete and aimless, citing as evidence his own positive experiences in New Canaan as a teenager during the early 1970s.]

I entered high school in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1969, which makes me precisely contemporary with the teenage characters in Rick Moody's novel The Ice Storm, now a movie by Ang Lee. The Ice Storm is an anthropological dig into post-sixties confusion and suburban ennui. It makes New Canaan out to be a sort of Peyton...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Jane Lampmann (review date 26 February 1998)

SOURCE: “Gospel Musings by Younger Authors,” in Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 1998, p. B3.

[In the following review, Lampmann offers a positive assessment of Joyful Noise.]

A thought-provoking anthology of essays, Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited is a conscious attempt to enter into today's public debate about the values we live by.

Concerned that public discussion on spiritual and moral values is dominated by fundamentalist Christianity, the two editors—raised in religious households—called on fellow artists to speak about their personal experience with the Bible. They sought fresh insights about familiar scriptures...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Paul Quinn (review date 27 February 1998)

SOURCE: “Slanted Types,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 27, 1998, p. 22.

[In the following review, Quinn offers a positive assessment of Purple America.]

If the stuttering, alcoholic, Hex Raitliffe is the official and somewhat over-qualifiedly anti-hero of Purple America, Rick Moody's third, and best, novel, the book's unofficial Chorus is provided by, and in, italics. At one level, the book is, like Moody's acclaimed The Ice Storm (1994), an exercise in social comedy and observation—this time depicting an upscale Connecticut family's encounter with the bleak realities of deterioration of the body, the environment and the modern...

(The entire section is 880 words.)

Alexander Star (review date 19 March 1998)

SOURCE: “Following the Fall-Out,” in London Review of Books, March 19, 1998, pp. 22–23.

[In the following review, Star provides an overview of Moody's thematic preoccupations and artistic development from Garden State to Purple America.]

Like much of Rick Moody's previous work, Purple America charts the lives of the ‘slovenly, affluent’ young. It's not an especially good life. Moody's characters are distinctly unhappy, unformed, unable to proceed with their lives in anything like a reasonable way. Instead, they gradually succumb to a set of local problems. When the logic of crisis is put in motion, the outlook further darkens. In Moody's novels,...

(The entire section is 2427 words.)

Thomas J. Brady (essay date 3 June 1998)

SOURCE: “A Veiled Look into Voicing the Unspeakable,” in Philadelphia Inquirer, June 3, 1998, p. Q02.

[In the following essay, Brady provides an overview of Moody's life, fiction, and literary career.]

Who was that masked man? It might just be Rick Moody.

Seems he's been wearing a handkerchief or black veil over his face occasionally as part of his research into a freewheeling nonfiction book about a long-ago relative nicknamed Handkerchief Moody.

Handkerchief—who died in 1820—donned the veil for the last 10 or 15 years of his life out of remorse for having accidentally killed his best childhood friend with a firearm.

...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

Sally E. Parry (review date Summer 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Joyful Noise, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1998, p. 258.

[In the following review, Parry offers a positive assessment of Joyful Noise.]

Joyful Noise is an eclectic collection of essays on religion in general and the New Testament in particular by mostly young, contemporary writers including Madison Smartt Bell, Benjamin Cheever, Barry Hannah, bell hooks, and Joanna Scott. It is a pleasure to see an engagement with spirituality in a less than dogmatic manner, by writers who represent a variety of interpretations and come from backgrounds ranging from white, heterosexual, and Christian to...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Rick Moody with Fran Dilustro Gordon (interview date March–April 1999)

SOURCE: “Moody on Dark Humor, Bright Angels, and Quantum Leaps,” in Poets & Writers, Vol. 27, No. 2, March–April, 1999, pp. 37, 39, 41.

[In the following interview, Moody discusses the themes and writing of Purple America, his views on spirituality and morality, and the development of his prose style and artistic concerns.]

[Gordon:] Your work seems to center on how spirit might illuminate the soulless structure of social process. Are you aware of this when you write? And how important a role does social conscience play in your work?

[Moody:] Well, I certainly thought of Purple America as being a book that tried...

(The entire section is 1793 words.)

John Frederick Moore (essay date March–April 1999)

SOURCE: “Moody Indigo,” in Poets & Writers, Vol. 27, No. 2, March–April, 1999, pp. 34–43.

[In the following essay, Moore provides an overview of Moody's life and literary career, his artistic and thematic preoccupations, and the development of his fictional concerns and prose style.]

You'd never know from looking at Rick Moody that he's been dubbed the heir to the literary tradition of John Cheever. With his shag of bleach-blond hair, worn-out blue jeans, and high-top sneakers, he seems more like someone you'd find working at a bookstore than someone who's written books that grace bookstore shelves. You wouldn't think he's the type of guy who packs them in...

(The entire section is 3439 words.)

Robert MacFarlane (review date 27 October 2000)

SOURCE: “In a State of Irony,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 27, 2000, p. 23.

[In the following review, MacFarlane finds Demonology to be “an uneven collection,” despite the presence of several strong stories in the book.]

At one point in Todd Solondz's 1998 film Happiness, a female novelist is talking to her sister on the telephone, while her bronzed and unclad lover lifts weights. “You know, people put New Jersey down,” she tells her sister. “None of my friends can actually believe I live here, but they just don't get it—I'm living in a state of irony.” New Jersey, dubbed the Garden State in a fit of bucolic irony by its...

(The entire section is 851 words.)

Jean Charbonneau (review date 4 February 2001)

SOURCE: “Moody Rips the Suburbs Again,” in Toronto Star, February 4, 2001, p. BK-03.

[In the following review, Charbonneau offers a positive assessment of Demonology.]

The narrator of one of the stories in American Rick Moody's Demonology argues that soft rock music is “like a perfumed glob of used toilet tissue or a sample of imitation American cheese food product or meatless chili.” The same could be said for too many books of fiction—all light prose and predictable story lines. Moody's fiction is anything but soft or light.

Moody's latest collection—he's written a previous collection and three novels, including The Ice...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

Susan Salter Reynolds (essay date 21 February 2001)

SOURCE: “A Moody Kind of Suburbia,” in Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2001, p. E1.

[In the following essay, Reynolds discusses Moody's literary career and relays the author's comments on his life and work.]

To be fair, it is not highly professional to tell a tired writer on a book tour that you think he has a nice face. Some people might think you are, how do you say, “coming on to them.” But like a lot of Rick Moody's readers, I feel like I know him (every author's worst nightmare). He has become, for a generation of people in their 30s and 40s, a dark chronicler of American suburbia—mostly the East Coast variety, but it translates.

The...

(The entire section is 1203 words.)