Review of “The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions,” by Rick Moody
It has become fashionable to write a memoir too soon. Not that one doesn’t have a great deal to recall even when one is ten years old: All kinds of events are etched in memory, and many seem significant, and they can be put in service of various larger causes. Fictionalize them. Write travel books or spiritual explorations. But don’t assume that being famous is tantamount to being interesting; don’t publish a memoir unless you have a life story that warrants one. Rick Moody is a gifted writer whose dense prose can be extremely evocative. When he’s actually telling a story, he keeps you right in the palm of his hand, and The Black Veil has some really magnificent passages. The preface, about Moody’s childhood, is extremely strong and very funny. Later in the book, Moody chronicles with great passion and skill his descent into depressive madness. He evokes the private terrors of alcoholism so sharply that you feel ready yourself to give up drinking at once. His narrative of entering a hospital for rehabilitation therapy is smart and acute, manifesting his gift for ironic self-consciousness. He conjures not only the despair that brought him to the hospital but also the humiliation of being there. Poignantly, he tells us how he separated himself from the hospital experience as quickly as possible and how his friends and family, once he got out, insisted on his forgetting where he had just been and what had happened to him there. Moody is also strong on character. Though his intimacies with others always seem compromised and insufficient, his insight and deployment of representative details make the people in this book thrillingly plausible. There’s an acuity in his descriptions that makes you ache. That he can convey this while dramatizing his own emotional harshness is a considerable achievement.
It’s a shame that, despite all these virtues, The Black Veil is an unsuccessful book. Personal history can be self-revelatory, but Moody’s is too self-obsessed. He recounts every rambling thought that ever entered his head, so that reading this book feels like eavesdropping on someone’s interminable psychoanalysis: It’s often excruciatingly dull and unmitigatedly narcissistic. To supplement the self-obsession Moody uses two devices, both centered on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” an intensely weird and rather moving story, which Moody reprints in its entirety at the back of the book. Moody uses the tale as an opportunity to philosophize about literary criticism as well as to pursue his family’s genealogy.
Unfortunately, Moody is no Harold Bloom. His insights into this story are ponderous and often banal, and the passages he quotes from other people’s commentaries on it remind me of those smatterings of famous prose that undergraduates sprinkle through their term papers to prove they have done the reading. Moody so ably proposes a high standard for literary criticism that his failure to rise to it is all the more obvious: None of the criticism here is wrong, but it hardly supplements our knowledge or enjoyment of Hawthorne’s dark story.
Moody’s genealogical investigation presents the story of not only every damned Moody who ever trod this humble planet but also how he got their name and where he found out whatever he found out about them. We learn whose farm abutted whose and who begat whom and what everyone ate for breakfast. Similar material is often privately published for the British landed gentry and distributed for the edification of a few people. I think of volumes such as Prideaux: A Westcountry Clan, a book that has rightly had very little circulation outside Buckinghamshire. It’s lovely if you are a Prideaux, but no one would dream of putting the volume into general circulation.
The one authentically interesting relative Moody ever supposed himself to have is the one who may have inspired Hawthorne’s story. This man, Handkerchief Moody, wore a veil from the day he accidentally killed a friend until his own death. Rick Moody seems to see in him a model for all that is dark and strange and mysterious in himself. But the engagement with Handkerchief Moody soon becomes fanatical, the name repeated dozens of times, details of his life endlessly recatalogued, and Moody’s overidentification with him takes on a ridiculous quality. A whole chapter is devoted to Moody’s description of how he decided to take the veil himself; how he went to Wal-Mart for the fabric; how he fashioned the veil; and how he wore it (mercifully, not for very long). The image of Moody with his black nylon headcloth draped over his eyes attempting to recapture the dignity of his ancestor seems pathetic and awfully silly; and though Moody does laugh at himself in this section, he doesn’t seem to understand how his mania has now exhausted and annoyed his readers. One wishes he would make something more of his family history than a tired private joke.
Moody’s other problem is an affected imprecision of language. In many places his descriptions are lyrical, elegiac, and effortlessly compelling. But elsewhere he tends to resort to metaphors that sound good and mean little. After a college experiment with Australian Quaaludes, he reports, he was “talking like a reptile,” which does not appear to mean that he was (like most reptiles I know) silent. The idea of reptiles seems to have him in its grip; a few hundred pages later he describes himself wandering through a department store on a “reptilian promenade.” Reptiles in my experience like to sit in the sun; the idea of any of them strolling the aisles of a department store (or natural equivalent) at any speed seems most implausible.
He shows a great affection for italics; perhaps 5 percent of the book is in italics. They give the whole book a childish quality, rather like the Encyclopedia Brown stories in which the most important dues are italicized, as though emphasis could not be achieved by tone and content but only through typography. The prose appears to scream, demanding attention it hasn’t earned:
In the weeks after, she gave up hope of controlling herself, a control she never much exercised anyhow, and I’d come home from my job, where I was now a post – graduate, M.F.A.-holding typist and filer of memos, a reader of manuscripts by the very lonely, to find her already lit, drinking in front of the television with a glassy look, sitcom turned up louder than appropriate, wearing her wild kingdom expression, draped in the same clothes she had worn for several days, she would remember nothing of this exchange.
Moody is an extremely talented writer, but his memoir suggests he should stick to fiction.