Demonology by Rick MoodyRick Moody
Little, Brown ($24.95)

by Eric Lorberer

Zigzag, whirlpool, connect-the-dots: if you were to chart the progression of stories in Rick Moody's Demonology, you'd draw anything but a straight line. This restless energy seems fitting; as opposed to the steely precision of The Ice Storm or the epic thrust of Purple America, Moody's stories try out strategy after strategy, searching for a new way to say it while no doubt also keeping all his writing muscles limber. In any case, Demonology is a collection remarkable for the ground it covers both formally and emotionally, a winning display of why Moody is increasingly recognized as one of the great prose stylists of his generation.

Moody's penchant for pushing the boundaries of form accounts for a great deal of Demonology's wandering teleology. The delightful "Surplus Value Books: Catalog Number 13," takes the shape of a rare book dealer's listing of prized acquisitions while simultaneously telling the tale of the narrator's undying love for one Anna Feldman; the result is a work in which Nabokov meets Woody Allen, its pleasures bound to produce both belly-laughs and sophisticated inward chuckles. "Wilkie Fahnstock: The Boxed Set" goes even further, providing the liner notes and track listings to a ten-volume collection of mix-tapes that beautifully sketch the life of "a confused, contemporary young person, a young man overlooked by the public, a person of meager accomplishment, a person of bad temperament, but a guy who nonetheless has a very large collection of compact discs!"

If that phrase doesn't make it perfectly evident, Moody excels not only at rendering the minutiae of real people but at pegging the universal archetypes behind them. "Boys," for example, spins the domestic saga of twin brothers from the moment of birth, all while riffing on the phrase "Boys enter the house." This vertiginous repetition, like some brilliantly and perversely edited film, catches the boys at points of entry (figurative as well as literal, of course) throughout their lives—up to the moment their father dies, the moment when "Boys, no longer boys, exit." But what is truly remarkable about the story is how it manages to detail the lives of these particular characters while simultaneously telling a much broader story—in this case, one of masculinity and culture.

Another formalist trick up Moody's sleeve is the story rendered in a single unstoppable sentence, reminding me of the question poet Robert Francis asks in "Apple Peeler": "Why the unbroken spiral, Virtuoso / Like a trick sonnet in one long, versatile sentence?" The answer, of course, becomes evident in the telling; Moody peels his love poem to perfection in "Drawer," a two-page ditty whose protagonist has junked his beloved's armoire on the beach ("She called it an armoire, which was the problem") and contemplates the word and their breakup with tidal fervor:

He'd walked upon the beach whistling lullabies, but he'd never learned how to say the word armoire with any conviction at all, and he would have included demitasse and taffeta and sconce and minuet, actually, he'd gone gray trying to learn all these words, he'd become an old unteachable dog trying to learn how to say these things, how to say I love you he supposed.

Lovely as it is though, "Drawer" is just the primer for "Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal," a later story in the volume that brings Moody's comma-spliced craftsmanship to a startling fruition. Boldly announcing its intention to update Joyce, the story is one long "unbroken spiral" of a couple in trouble, a couple so firmly entrenched in feminist literary theory that their interactions are completely subsumed by it:

Arguing about Lacan's late seminars, about the petit objet a, or about the theory of the two lips, about the expulsion of Irigary, I think that's what it was, though I'm willing to bet most couples don't argue about such things, at least not after two or three margaritas, probably not under any circumstances at all, but then again we weren't really arguing about that, not about French psychoanalysis, not about the petit object a, not about Irigary and that sex which is not one, but about something else altogether, it's always something else, that's what was making me so sad.

Moody's academic send-up is completely on target (indeed, the story should be required reading in all graduate literature courses), but far more impressively, it plumbs the very subject of the theory it sends up—the cultural relation between the sexes—and does so in the context of its jargon-spouting characters. Toward the end of the story, Moody's female narrator questions the "ineluctable modality of the vaginal" with a dramatic home exam:

I pulled the metal folding chair from under the kitchen table, situated it at the end of the table, situated it for spectatorship, I have a vagina, I said, I have a uterus, I have a cervix, he nodded wearily, and I said, Man's feminine is not woman's feminine, and he nodded wearily, and I told him to quit nodding, and I asked him if he happened to know where his shoehorn was.

It should go without saying that Moody doesn't rely on these flourishes of form to craft his fiction, a point easily proven by glancing at some of the more traditionally rendered tales here. The unforgettable "Forecast from the Retail Desk" shows how the ability to see the future is "like having really bad acne," but argues with heartbreaking persuasion that "there was a time when everybody knew the future, but a few wise types elected to forget what was to come, as we all elect, eventually, to forget the past." In the book's pitch-perfect opener, "The Mansion on the Hill," the narrator speaks to his dead sister about his job at a wedding/reception emporium, and the woeful turn it takes when the "Rip Van Winkle Room" is schedule for the services of her still-living fiancé and his new bride. Then there's the book's exquisite finale, the title story. Bringing us full circle, "Demonology" is also the story of a dead sister, offered as a series of snapshots; it builds into a moving elegy that culminates with the writer, who we've seen can extemporize endlessly, questioning his own resources:

I should fictionalize it more, I should conceal myself. I should consider the responsibilities of characterization, I should conflate her two children into one, or reverse their genders, or otherwise alter them, I should make her boyfriend a husband, I should let artifice create an elegant surface, I should make the events more orderly, I should wait and write about it later, I should wait until I'm not angry, I shouldn't clutter a narrative with fragments, with mere recollections of good times, or with regrets, I should make Meredith's death shapely and persuasive, not blunt and disjunctive, I shouldn't have to think the unthinkable.

It is in thinking the unthinkable, of course, that both "Demonology" and Demonology lay bare the truth in fiction, the lodestone for which we readers yearn and return. Like his fellow wunderkind David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody is one of a rare breed who manages to be both smart-alecky and just plain smart at once, and who never lets his prodigious talent for playing with language outstrip the depth such language has to offer.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001