Chapter Summaries

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Rick Moody is best known as the author of the novel The Ice Storm(1994), on which director Ang Lee based the major 1997 suburban family film of the same name. However, Moody has said that he purposely tries to defy categorization, writing his next book, a collection of stories and a novella entitled The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven (1995), to defeat the “suburban writer” tag by purposely playing around with narrative devices and techniques. With this new collection of short stories, Moody moves even further away from the John Cheever type of fiction with which he was first identified, but in so doing, he perhaps has delimited himself even more narrowly as a postmodernist experimentalist.

The collection opens with “The Mansion on the Hill” and ends with the title story, both of which are narrated by men dealing with the death of a sister. Whereas the first—filled with social satire generated by a cynical authorial voice—is obviously fiction, the last is autobiographical. In “The Mansion on the Hill,” the sister is killed in a car crash on the eve of her wedding, after which her brother starts work for a wedding planning business, ultimately throwing his sister’s ashes over a wedding couple, because, he says, into every marriage some calamity must fall.

When the piece “Demonology” was first published, it was listed as a memoir. However, the following year, it was included in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards for 1997. When asked to comment on the story for theO. Henry Award collection, Moody said there were few things he has written that he would rather talk about less than this. However, he once told an interviewer that he is always trying to muddy the surface of the nonfictional with fictional techniques by paying particular attention to form and structure. Thus, even writing a story about something that obviously affects him powerfully and personally, Moody, as in most of the stories in this collection, seems more motivated by interest in theoretical matters than personal feelings.

Yet, indeed, what makes “Demonology” the most affecting story in the collection are Moody’s efforts to transform a powerful personal experience into something that has universal significance. The title of the story stems from the fact that the sister’s death from arrhythmia takes place within the context of Halloween, her children dressed as demons and monsters, beating back the restless souls of the dead in search of sweets. This demon motif is repeated throughout the story, until ultimately the sister is transformed into a revenant that compels Moody to find a way to use language to communicate his grief. The story ends with Moody, in a common self-referential tactic, considering how he should have constructed his memoir, telling himself he probably should have fictionalized it more, for example, by conflating the sister’s two children into one and making her boyfriend a husband. He says he should have let artifice create an elegant surface for the story, thus making his sister’s death shapely and persuasive rather than blunt and disjunctive. However, it is precisely the blunt, barely restrained voice that makes the story so powerful.

Because Moody is a pupil of contemporary literary theory and other things postmodern (at one time, he was a student of the postmodernist writer par excellence of the late twentieth century, Robert Coover), he may be too intellectual and self-consciously experimental in the rest of the stories in Demonology . Most of them are either inspired by Moody’s study of contemporary literary theory or else seem written as self-conscious experiments in style and technique. For example, in...

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“Wilkie Fahnstock: The Boxed Set,” Moody’s device is to tell the story of a thirty-three-year-old man primarily through sleeve notes for a boxed set of cassette tapes of all the songs that have meant something to him. The basic premise is that American culture from the 1960’s through the 1990’s, as embodied in one “undistinguished American,” can be structured in terms of the various styles of music, such as punk, grunge, funk, and so on, that have been popular. A similar technique is used in “Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13,” in which the reader is given catalog descriptions of second-hand books as a way of understanding something about the mind of the bookseller. In typical, self-referential fashion, one of the books in the catalog is Moody’s own novel Garden State, described as a hard-to-find hardcover edition, signed, and priced at $325.

Many of the stories in Demonology were written to order, as if they were assignments in an MFA creative writing class. For example, “The Double Zero” was written at the request of an editor of a little magazine who wanted to do a special issue of rewrites of great short stories of the past. The story he asked Moody to “cover” was Sherwood Anderson’s heartbreakingly funny story “The Egg.” However, whereas Anderson’s story makes the reader laugh in the deeply painful way that complex humor demands, Moody’s story is just a respectful, well-wrought literary exercise. Changing Anderson’s chicken egg to an ostrich egg in this story told by a boy whose father tries to fulfill the American Dream and make his fortune on a farm is clearly not sufficient to redeem the story from Moody’s humdrum treatment.

The story “Pan’s Fair Throng” was written when a painter friend of Moody asked him to write a catalog essay for a show she was doing. Instead, he made the mythological portraits the friend had painted into the characters of his story. Too often with Moody, the key word is “cute”; in this postmodernist fairy tale, he combines kings and queens and giants and magical transformations with the stuff of modern life, such as sports utility vehicles and Saint-John’s-wort, all the while, in typical Moody postmodernist fashion, commenting on the telling of the story that he is telling—chiding himself for giving away part of the ending and for losing a portion of the tale. The story ends with Moody ponderously noting that all stories issue from one maelstrom, “the demiurge Pan,” and that the teller himself is the dream of the giant in the story, so that ultimately there is no teller, no protagonist, only the mind of a portrait painter who has created the dreams or paintings.

Other tricks and made-to-order pieces include “Drawer,” the shortest narrative in the book—precisely 650 words long—for it originally appeared on the last page of Esquire, as a short-short that was to be no more than 650 words long. Moody said he spent a week cutting 23 words from the story and then adding 21 back until it came out exactly 650 words. Then there is the piece entitled “Ineluctable Modality of the Vagina,” which spins out a tedious argument between two graduate student types who have read French poststructuralist psychoanalysis—such as Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray—fussing about the phallocentric, the reification of the artifice, the romance of the Empire, the elsewhere of the feminine, the threshold of the mirror. The issue is the gender argument about whether a man can know what it is like to be a woman. The story ends with the woman urging the man to take speculum and penlight in hand and see for himself, a tactic that gives Moody the opportunity to describe a gynecological examination, with medical school language of the cervix, ovaries, and uterus. What is the technical gimmick? The seventeen-page story is told completely in one long sentence.

For “Boys,” Moody said that he wanted to do a piece in which practically every sentence had the words “boys” and “house” in it. For Moody, a great fan of repetition and lists, this story is the ultimate experiment with both. Little wonder that he once said in an interview that he thinks “Boys” is the best story he every wrote. Citing Jacques Lacan’s statement that “Desire exceeds the object,” Moody says he feels that his desire to use language to capture emotional states always exceeds the ability of language to do that. Consequently, Moody is self-consciously intent on using language not simply as a clear glass through which to see some ostensible external reality, nor merely as a mirror in the roadway to catch the direct reflections of life’s passing parade, but rather as a purely linguistic device that evokes emotional reality much the way that music, poetry, or liturgy does.

Even in stories that seem at first glance mainly realistic and mimetic, such as “Forecast from the Retail Desk,” Moody is primarily concerned with fictional devices and being cutely satiric. In this story, a man who says he can foretell the future recounts the first public demonstration of this skill when he told a classmate he was going to become paralyzed in a motorcycle crash. When, several years later, the boy is made a paraplegic in an automobile accident while engaged in a homosexual act with a policeman, the narrator wonders if he caused the accident by putting into words an event that had not yet occurred. Because of what he calls a “metaphoric-analytic schema,” he says his heart has become “crenelated with scars of foreknowledge.” However, Moody, as usual, cannot resist the cute factor, noting that one of the man’s forecasts is that the color yellow will become the color that everyone has to be seen in and that Cher will contract a grave immune disorder until she reveals the name of the voodoo magic that preserves her appearance.

Similarly, “The Carnival Tradition,” a novella that squarely anchors the book in the middle, is less concerned with the lives of the characters who inhabit it than with Moody’s attempt to create a novel-like piece that illustrates the carnival tradition described by Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, a theme that Moody ties in with the motif of wearing costumes and disguises. The carnival party theme is played out again in “Hawaiian Night.” Once again, as in “Mansion on the Hill” and the title piece, disguises and costumes center around the death of a woman; in this case, it is Debbie Grimm, who is involved in a motorboat accident that crushes a number of her vertebrae, an event counterpointed by a party of leis and limbo dancing, complete with roast pig.

Demonology was more admired by British critics when first published in England in October, 2000, than by American critics when it was published in the United States in January, 2001. This is mainly due to the fact that the British reviewers saw the book as a depiction of the “troubled soul of suburban America” or the “ailing soul of the U.S. suburbs” rather than as postmodern experimentation, as American critics described it. The New Yorker magazine has named Moody one of the twenty best writers for the twenty-first century. However, whether he will prove to deserve that title may depend on whether he can bring himself to focus on human content rather than merely narrative form.

Sources for Further Study

The Boston Globe, March 23, 2001, p. C9.

The Boston Herald, January 21, 2001, p. 068.

The Daily Telegraph, November 11, 2000, p. 12.

The Guardian, November 11, 2000, p. 12.

Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2001, p. E1.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 21, 2001, p. 06E.

The New York Times, February 15, 2001, p. E10.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 25, 2001): 12.

The Observer, October 29, 2000, p. 12.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 14, 2001, p. F10.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 28, 2001, p. F8.

Sunday Telegraph, November 19, 2001, p. 17.