On the front cover of Rick Moody’s The Diviners, there is a quote from novelist Henry Sutton, writing in Esquire:
America’s greatest living prose stylist has written a comic masterpiece.
Well, thanks for the tip, Henry; but you didn’t say what author you’re talking about, or the title of her book. But the cover was decisive for me anyway: its bright bold illustration persuaded me to buy it, despite my knowledge that the Observer review when The Diviners came out last year was headed Water Torture, or that (at time of writing) its only rating on amazon.co.uk is a lonely one-star (“The final straw was probably the 3 page analysis of parabolic arcs to describe someone falling off a bicycle”). I like a challenge.
And a challenge The Diviners most certainly is. It’s a barmy, almost perversely unwelcoming megalith of a book. The opening chapter – or, if you will, “Opening Credits and Theme Music” – is a twelve-page description of daylight breaking across the world, westward from Los Angeles. No stereotype is left unexplored:
…in London, light upon the pigeons of Trafalgar, and light upon the pickpockets of Piccadilly Circus, light upon the orderly shops of the Fulham Road, light upon the bobbies and light upon the lorries and the black taxis, light upon the disenchanted royal family. Light upon Belfast, light upon the coils of barbed wire in Belfast…
Six pages might have been fun. Maybe eight. But this – why not? – overture is at least a declaration of what to expect from The Diviners. You can’t say you weren’t warned.
And I persisted. The book becomes a lot more human after this, and is readable enough in its way. Each chapter of sixteen or so pages lets us into the mind of a character, like Vanessa Meandro, head of a New York movie production company called Means of Production, who is looking for the next big thing and also for as many Krispy Kreme doughnuts as she can eat. We also visit her mother (voiding her bowels copiously, in a typical touch for Moody, whose previous novel Purple America opened with a three-page sentence describing a man helping his disabled mother out of the bath, or something like that), star of blockbusters Thaddeus Griffin, writer Melody Howell Forvath, cycle courier Tyrone, and numerous others. The problem is that most of these characters don’t recur after their initial chapter, or only tangentially or in reference. Vanessa does, but each time someone else was mentioned – Madison, Jeanine, Vic – I kept trying to think back to the last time they were mentioned, a hundred and fifty pages ago, and failing.
The writing is notable, in one sense or another. Moody is capable of offering us great and terrible imagery in the same paragraph (“The elevator sighs, as if weary at having to deposit yet another payload … the offices of the agents are laid out like a strand of defective chromosomes”), and his style swings around various forms of omniscient semi-detached third person voice. It seems at times like an exercise in styles for him, an attempt to write his own Ulysses. It doesn’t always work, and I am fairly sure that it was the opening paragraph to chapter 13 that made me realise I would not be reading this book to the end:
Dialectical examination of the subject known hereafter as the ‘Ugly Girl’ (UG) was performed on a certain day in May in an American suburb by trained dialectical experts from like socioeconomic demographics, according to participant-observer methodology. Speakers in this northeastern suburb, according to the trained dialectical experts, are undergoing a vowel shift, known as the ‘anomie-related vowel shift’ (ARVS), best reflected in the [a/ä] transformation of nah, as formulated in reply to requests, e.g., Honey, will you please go and pick up some packages of chicken at the corner store? Nah. (See, for example, Stinson, et al., 1985.)
For half a chapter. Now this sort of mock-academic or institutional speak is the kind of thing that George Saunders or David Foster Wallace can make entertaining, but Moody? Nah.
The storyline is simple enough. Thaddeus Griffin, trying to impress a date, makes up a pitch for a TV mini-series called The Diviners, about mankind’s search for water. The idea spreads and through a series of mix-ups, ends up being commissioned even though it hasn’t been written. Even this satire falls flat, as the idea of the series sounds dull from the outset, and the story is far too attenuated and randomized through the character switches to gain any sort of impetus at all.
I didn’t hate The Diviners, but by halfway through its 570 pages, I had come to realise that it wasn’t going to undergo some process of alchemy in the second half and, to paraphrase Will Self talking to Richard Littlejohn, turn into Tolstoy on page 280. The qualities in Moody that gave us The Ice Storm have melted, and left no trace.