by Kris Dinnison
The fact that Rick Moody titled his most recent book of short stories Demonology should tell you something about how concerned he is about fitting into the mainstream. Moody's fiction, including the novels Purple America and The Ice Storm, which was made into a major motion picture, tends both to win awards and twist knickers. All this makes his upcoming visit to the University of Idaho (as a part of their Distinguished Visiting Writers program) worth a look.
Moody's affinity with the written word began as he was growing up on the East Coast. "Reading was first," he explains. "I was pretty preoccupied with books as a young person, and writing just came out of my desire to try to contribute to that big pile of books in my room. I used to follow the bestseller list really closely when I was in fifth, sixth grade, always wanting to have read as many of those books as possible. I don't do that anymore, but I still read a whole lot."
That early love of reading included not just bestsellers but an understanding that the classics of literature had something to offer him as a modern reader and writer. "It's not the job of the classics to make their case to modern readers," Moody says. "It's the job of modern readers to understand the past. But that said, the great written works of antiquity have proved their value because they embody and support humanist ideals... Those who neglect the classics are doomed to a lifetime of Seinfeld reruns, I figure. I'd rather have the classics, myself."
With all this reading under his belt, Moody made the leap from reading stories to telling them. That writing began in his early teens and then evolved into the prolific and diverse writing Moody publishes today. In addition to fiction, both novels and short stories, Moody creates essays and other contributions for some of the world's most prestigious publications, including The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire and The Paris Review. But fiction, he admits, is his first love. "Non-fiction writing doesn't come that naturally to me," Moody says. "I really have to flog myself to get it done sometimes. Fiction has more liberty built into it. I really like that feeling that I can go in any direction. It'll probably be a while before I try to write another non-fiction book like the one I'm about to publish. It was really draining."
Perhaps Moody's love of fiction writing stems from the fact that he populates his stories with such interesting characters. "I love them all," he says. "In my mind, they are a big room full of extremely neurotic, troubled people who nonetheless owe their lives to me. Just the crowd you would love to have at a cocktail party, huh?" As unconventional as those characters are, readers come to love and identify with them because Moody shapes their stories in ways that are at once universal and unique.
Moody also uses unorthodox structures such as liner notes, catalogues and stage directions to shape the stories. At first this may seem like just a gimmick, an author playing with form, but as the characters reveal themselves, readers realize that Moody's choice of format is totally appropriate in each case. "The style comes first, or suggests itself as the best way to tell the particular story," Moody says. "There's no question of jimmying the form to fit the content. The form and content are inseparable somehow."
Moody's unusual characters and unique story construction both set him apart, but it is his willingness to deal honestly with life's dark underbelly that attracts some readers and repels others. His characters often deal with tragedy that is stark and unresolved. For Moody this is not just some trendy generational angst presenting itself, but a way of seeing the world that doesn't gloss over the hard stuff. "I think along these lines even when I'm not telling stories. I just like stories that indicate how people really live without rose-tinting," he explains. "Bland affirmation, without the hardship of life, that's for the thin-skinned. I like to read difficult books, too, so it's a complete worldview. Just how I am."
But don't get the idea that Moody's stories are just relentless reality, a la Raymond Carver. This dark truth- telling is paired with some tension-relieving humor and some images readers won't soon forget. In the first story of Demonology, a man in a rubber chicken mask assaults a groom at his wedding reception. In the story "Boys," twins chase their sister around the house with nose-hair clippers. These images are funny out of context, but within the stories they are funny, profound and unashamedly ironic. "I do find dark stuff really funny. The tougher life is sometimes the funnier, I think," says Moody. "The hearse that gets stuck in the mud, the bride left at the altar. These things strike me as incredibly funny somehow, and perhaps it's nervous laughter, but it's laughter nonetheless."
However, Moody admits that not everyone finds his sense of humor appropriate. "I recognize that not everyone agrees with me on this," he says. "In fact, the people who dislike my work -- and there are plenty of them -- usually find their ire locating itself in this area exactly: I have a grim sense of humor that they think is indelicate."