Up Close and Personal; A Death as Fiction, as Fact

Demonology , by Rick Moody. Little, Brown, 306 pages, $24.95.

There is a sense in which reading fiction especially short stories, which by definition must cut quickly to the chase is like eavesdropping. It’s eavesdropping with permission, of course; that’s what the binding means. Nevertheless, most stories represent a conversation the author is having with himself, just as criticism is frequently a conversation the critic is having with the author (who happens not to be present).

But some books are so personal, they can make you well, make me doubt the relevance of literary criticism. Rick Moody’s new collection of stories, Demonology, is one of these.

Mr. Moody, once dubbed in these pages one of New York’s “literary lion cubs,” likes to challenge the literary stereotypes imposed upon him. His first two novels, Garden State and The Ice Storm, were traditional (if unusually well-written) narratives set in the New Jersey and Connecticut suburbs; they naturally drew comparisons to John Cheever’s work. Flattering as that was, Mr. Moody disliked being classified as a chronicler of the suburbs. So in his next book, a collection of stories called The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, not only were the settings conspicuously urban, but the techniques had become experimental, postmodern, metafictional, and the subjects widely diverse. Whereupon Mr. Moody’s work was criticized for being too cerebral, too ironic: It lacked authentic emotion. His response was Purple America which, as the title suggests, was a veritable emotion-fest.

In short, Mr. Moody can be expected to do the unexpected, and even his failures are interesting. Devoted Moody readers, then, who probably expect something weird or different or both from this collection, may be disappointed. Mr. Moody isn’t going for weird this time around, though he does play a few postmodern tricks. Mostly he has more urgent matters to deal with.

The 13 stories in Demonology come in very different shapes and sizes; several have odd, parenthetical plot lines. But they are all, ultimately, about the same thing: the vicious randomness of tragedy. Again and again, he zeroes in on the unbelievably offensive fact of death.

The seminal tragedy and inspiration for Demonology was the untimely death of Mr. Moody’s sister while he was in the midst of writing Purple America. A sister dies in three of these stories: “The Mansion on the Hill,” “Boys” and the title story, which so closely renders her death that it’s not exactly true to label it fiction.

Other stories include a shooting (“On the Carousel”), a motorcycle crash and a child with leukemia (“Forecast from the Retail Desk”), a fatal boating accident (“Hawaiian Night”), a near rape, cruelty and arson (“The Carnival Tradition”), drug addiction and failure (“Wilkie Fahnestock, The Boxed Set”), suicide, madness and fatal illness (“Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13″). For the most part, such tragedies are not even the subject of the story but a mere event among other events all random, all sad and depressing and stinking of frustration and disappointment and failure.

Demonology both the story and the collection is a shriek of pain, a rending of garments, a howl. How does one critique a howl?

Years ago, John Barth wrote an essay entitled “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which had to do with the “used-up” quality of various literary conventions (realism, for one) given the existential truth that had become apparent in the last half of the 20th century: that human beings are as alienated from one another as they are from nature, that the search for meaning is doomed, that meaning itself is a fiction.

In the aggregate, the stories in Demonology comprise a literal as well as a literary expression of Barth’s thesis. In tale after tale, the overarching emotions are despair and a nearly paralyzing grief. Demonology is a literature of emotional exhaustion. And at the end of the book, in the title story, it is fiction itself that Rick Moody finds used up and inadequate.

In that final story, the author is torn between wanting to make art out of something otherwise unredeemable (death at a young age) and wanting to make it ugly as ugly as it really is. “I should let artifice create an elegant surface,” he admonishes himself at the end. “I should make the events 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 should have a better ending, I shouldn’t say her life was short and often sad, I shouldn’t say she had her demons, as I do too.”

The story is a seemingly random compilation of memories imposed upon a two-day chronology of events two days that ended with Meredith’s death. The technique is unpolished, the emotion veers wildly between raw, in-your-face grief and a kind of spooky, reportorial calm. But “Demonology” is not really a short story at all; in his autocritique ending, Mr. Moody lists the essential elements of fiction that are missing. It’s more like an essay.

Still, like Lorrie Moore’s similarly journalistic story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here” (her baby son was diagnosed with cancer), “Demonology” won an O. Henry award for best short story and has already been included in several anthologies. I don’t know what to say about that. Do editors give extra points for real blood? Or is it their helpless gut response to the dropping of all artifice, to the author’s despairing admission that “figurative language isn’t up to the task”?

If it’s the gut response, I sympathize. I’m not sure I can do my job properly either. It seems totally beside the point to ask whether these stories are good, or bad, or entertaining. They’re overwhelming. For me, the appropriate response to a book like this is an answering cry, a matching confession.

So here goes. Here’s my review: There was a period in my life when so many things had gone wrong, and they had gone so terribly wrong, that my beliefs about the meaning and value of life itself underwent a crippling dislocation. One result was that, for the longest time, I could not write anything. It wasn’t writer’s block; it was that, in the face of horror after horror after horror, I could think of no adequate response. I had absolutely nothing to say. But I imagine that if I were a brilliant writer, and if I had been able, during that period, to put words one after another on a page, with luck they might have sounded like the stories in this collection.

Nan Goldberg has written reviews for The Boston Globe, Salon and the New York Post.