Behind the Literary Veil: Lo! Just Another Narcissist

The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions , by Rick Moody. Little, Brown and Company, 323 pages, $24.95.

This may not turn out to be the worst book of 2002, but I bet it’s the only contender written by an acclaimed literary novelist, an ambitious writer, skilled and intelligent, who once seemed on the verge of great things. The Black Veil is part memoir, part literary criticism, part genealogical investigation; but the memoir is elliptical and slight, the literary criticism scattered and unenlightening, and the genealogy inconclusive and insincere. Usually when an embarrassment like this occurs, one looks the other way; in Rick Moody’s case, however, the self-indulgence and bad faith and strenuous posturing are linked to broader cultural trends.

I’m as tired of complaining about the ubiquity of the memoir as I am of the genre itself. But if people who haven’t lived much feel obliged to write about the half-hidden stuff of their lives, if they insist on opening up the cupboard and letting all the drawers hang out, let’s at least have a proper rummage through the intimate knickknacks. We should feel as though we’ve seen the inner workings. And Mr. Moody does tell a few secrets-his big confession is to a period of psychological instability in the mid- to late 80’s, during which time he was drinking far too much and in the grip of a strange obsession: “I woke one day convinced that I was going to be raped .”

He was ill-mentally ill or ill with alcoholism, it’s not clear which (“I never could get anyone to tell me the diagnosis”). Either way, the memoir part of the book is about illness and recovery. Except that the illness is vague and unconvincing, and more odd than interesting. As to the particulars of his recovery after his month-long stay in a psychiatric hospital in Queens, Mr. Moody leaves all that out. “[I]n the months and years after I got out of the hospital,” he tells us, “the word rape gradually began to diminish in frequency in the interior of my skull.” Did he give up booze? If so, was it a struggle? He doesn’t say.

He shares another secret, in passing. He’s explaining why it was a good thing that his then-girlfriend Jen, with whom he lived in Hoboken and who was also drinking far too much, was planning a vacation in the Caribbean: “She had been pregnant. We had ended the pregnancy.” Grammatically speaking, Mr. Moody takes no responsibility for the pregnancy and then claims some part in the abortion, as though he himself had had his insides scraped out. There’s no other mention of this incident in The Black Veil , even though the author declares at the outset, “I’m concerned here with patrimony … with self and the vain reiteration of self implicit in fathers and sons.”

Here’s part of his patrimony: When he was young, his grandfather and father both told him he was related to Joseph Moody, who is mentioned in a footnote in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Joseph (Handkerchief) Moody of York, Me., like the protagonist of Hawthorne’s story, wore a veil over his face, a symbol associated with mourning, guilt and concealment. Ever since he heard about this, Rick Moody has been “obsessed” with the veil, and with the Hawthorne story (which is reproduced in its entirety at the end of the book), and with the link between the story and his family. He dedicates a big chunk of his memoir to the life and times of Handkerchief Moody. At one point, Mr. Moody even makes a veil for himself (or rather has a girlfriend do it for him). He thinks of his obsession as a gloomy hereditary predisposition (a “genetic inclination”), and also as confirmation of his literary sensibility. The first unformed idea for this book came to him some 15 years ago, just after his illness: He thought, ” I should write something about the Hawthorne story, sometime, because I was like the guy in the veil, or he was like me, or at least the idea of the veil connected that time back in the early history of the nation to me getting out of the hospital.”

In one chapter, Mr. Moody walks us through the Hawthorne tale; in another, he runs through the long history of the lit crit it has inspired; in yet another, he tracks veil imagery through the rest of Hawthorne’s work. Unfortunately, he uses “The Minister’s Black Veil” to show off his cleverness, his education and his literary sophistication-and as commentary on his own life. It seems to me that the priorities here have been neatly reversed.

Hawthorne’s tale sends Mr. Moody and his father on a five-day car trip to Maine “to locate the origin of the veil among Moodys,” a journey “in pursuit of lineage” that takes place in 1998. Along the way, we learn perhaps more than we need to know about lime (“Lime, of course, is as old as civilization itself, the Romans themselves used it”) and the lime quarries in and around Thomaston, Me., where an ancestor worked. When the expedition is almost over, Mr. Moody admits to himself that Handkerchief Moody isn’t a relative after all-an irritating anticlimax. We learn some 20 pages from the end of the book what Mr. Moody knew four years ago: His connection with the veil is merely wishful thinking. He wanted a personal link to Hawthorne and so allowed himself to believe in an apocryphal family legend; and for more than 270 pages, he allows his readers to believe in it, too.

What’s the lesson here? “Maybe it’s simply the case that concealment is essential to identity ,” he writes. Or this: ” any memoir is a fiction … just as many fictions are veiled memoirs.” Toward the end of his last chapter, Mr. Moody reaches down into our big bag of national guilt and comes up with a four-page meditation on blackness, including “the black scar of Manifest Destiny … the brutality visited upon those who preceded us here” (i.e., Native Americans), which is relevant because the Moodys (some of them, anyway) have been around since colonial times and were therefore possibly involved in extirpating “savages.” Here’s our author’s utterly unearned final flourish, the last words of his book: “To be an American, to be a citizen of the West, is to be a murderer. Don’t kid yourself. Cover your face.”

Mr. Moody is capable of writing well, and there are passages about drunkenness that ring true and achieve a certain painful beauty. He also makes quite a few clever remarks, such as this one: “Christmas was an odometer for the mileage between people.” But this clever remark, like many others, is marred by an annoying tic, the gratuitous use of italics. Mr. Moody italicizes compulsively but not consistently: Often, instead of setting off quotes with quotation marks, he italicizes them; sometimes he’s adding emphasis; sometimes he’s signaling ironic detachment from what he’s writing (as when he refers to his current girlfriend as ” my paramour “); sometimes he’s just trying to jazz up a dreary passage (a sketchy account, say, of his great-grandfather’s career as a stonemason) with a little typographical tilt-it’s up to us to figure it out.

I think Mr. Moody has forgotten how writing, thanks to the magic reach of the author, can connect with the reader. I say “magic,” but the conjuring trick requires hard work and a kind of egoless immersion into another world. Has Mr. Moody forgotten about readers? The man who wrote so fine a novel as The Ice Storm has lapsed into literary narcissism, convinced that his every sentence is precious and that his writing can make any topic fascinating-even a tongue-tied relative’s boyhood diary. Mr. Moody toys with stylistic embellishments and strikes literary poses, but he neglects his primary duty as a writer, which is to delight and instruct.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.