Rick Moody shares joy of language

Fiction writer Rick Moody gave a reading of his work in Griffin Hall on the evening of Oct. 10. Moody is a celebrated and unique writer whose first novel, Garden State, won an Editor’s Choice Award from the Pushcart Press in 1991. His subsequent novels, The Ice Storm (later made into a film by Ang Lee) and Purple America, as well as his short story collections, The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven and Demonology, were equally renowned and have cemented his place at the forefront of contemporary American fiction. Since his early success, he has also received a Metcalf Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Moody is known for his highly original writing style, characterized by a deft lyricism built of long, mellifluous sentences and unusual uses of italics. He has bent the rules and tested the boundaries of fiction, writing stories in the forms of term papers and liner notes.

After being introduced by Jim Shepard, professor of English, Moody announced that he would be reading segments from several pieces to give his audience “a survey of past and recent work.” His hope, Moody explained, was not so much that the audience would focus on the plots of the pieces he read, but that they would become engulfed in and moved by the language.

First, Moody read the beginning of his novel Purple America. He said he would read only two sentences, but these sentences, written in his trademark lyrical style, seemed long enough to fill several pages. In beautiful, musical prose and studied detail, the beginning of the novel described a man bathing and dressing his ailing mother.

Asked how he developed this lyrical writing style, Moody explains that although he originally felt as though he “had to write short, punchy sentences to get published,” since much contemporary fiction is written this way, he loves writing “closer to the way I think – in big, swooping arcs – impressionistic sentences.” As he began to get published with more regularity, he felt freer to pursue his unique writing style.

Next, Moody read a short story from his collection Demonology, entitled “Boys.” The story, which was included in the Best American Short Stories anthology in 2001, follows twin brothers from infancy through adulthood, from childhood sports teams through acne to friends’ weddings, and through difficulties, joys and tragedies. Each sentence in the story somehow includes the phrase “boys enter the house,” lending the story a rhythmic, engaging structure.

Moody claims that when it comes to inspiration for his work, the ideas for novels and stories, he “buys them at the idea store – they just come. There’s no particular route that’s effective every time.”

However, he was able to trace the route to “Boys” for his audience. Moody explained that while at a Bennington College MFA program where he occasionally teaches, he was attending a reading of a Max Steele story. The reading was one of the last of many that he had attended over the course of the week, and he could not help losing focus every once in a while. As his attention began to wander, he heard the sentence, “Then the boys entered the house,” spoken in Steele’s warm southern drawl. Moody was immediately captured by the sentence and wrote it on his hand so he would not forget it. The banal sentence immediately seemed filled with meaning – the perfect sentence, Moody said, to use as the center of a short story of his own.

Moody then read from his latest work, a memoir called The Black Veil. The title, Moody explained, was taken from a story his grandfather used to tell about their family’s relation to a man who accidentally killed his childhood friend and wore a black veil for the rest of his life to punish himself. Moody mused about how he’d always thought this strange – “Most people’s grandfathers tell them they’re related to George Washington” – and read a hilarious section of the memoir vividly describing his grandfather’s zeal for gardening beans. The story also encompassed his and his brother’s struggle when they were younger to choke these beans down at dinner in order to be granted dessert, aptly depicting some of the enormous difficulties of childhood.

Like much of Moody’s work, The Black Veil is experimental, testing its genre’s bounds. Unfortunately, many critics have vigorously seized upon it and reviewed it harshly. One such critic, Moody told his audience, called him “the worst writer of [his] generation.” Moody says that, while he tries not to read reviews, the critical response to The Black Veil was disappointing for him. However, he also says that bad reviews are inevitable for all writers, and he’s sure that if he “keeps his mouth shut for a few years” he can “get back on the right side of reviewers.”

To conclude his reading, Moody read two short pieces he wrote after The Black Veil was published. “After being named the worst writer of my generation, I decided to only write short pieces so as to bug people less,” Moody quipped. These final two pieces displayed his resilience and his hardy and unique sense of humor. The philosophical first selection was an elongated and unexpected list of things that are “good,” from sleeping with someone and forgetting “the explosive part,” to finally figuring out a painting you’ve always studied, to “stories in which narrative is all but absent.”

The second piece, entitled “Cheese: The Proposal,” outlines the publication of a fictional book about cheese written by a man who “doesn’t understand cheese” and believes that “a love of cheese is a love of death.”

Moody’s reading of his work was as varied and unique as his career, at times so funny the audience could hardly contain themselves, at times so thought-provoking and moving that they were silent, letting the effects of Moody’s prose wash over them. Just as he had hoped, the audience became enveloped and wrapped up in the beauty, originality and authenticity of his language, and they kept it with them for a long time afterwards.