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Rick Moody's first novel, "Garden State" (1993), immersed in the misdirection, aimlessness and substance abuse of the slacker generation in suburban New Jersey, was a form of cultural filler.
Optioned for a recent film by the same title, the novel is steeped in the vagaries of a twentysomething crowd without redeeming purpose or cause. The talents of Moody as a novelist are employed on behalf of a demographic group that doesn't yet deserve to have its story told.
His latest and more substantial effort, "The Diviners," promises to separate its author from the shortsighted self-gratification and peculiar fetishes of its characters -- mostly associated with an independent film production company in midtown Manhattan -- and accomplish something worthy of Moody's gifted prose style: to critique America's slavish doting on mass media rather than merely immerse his characters in it.
The cover art for "The Diviners" is the first clue that Moody has opened up a New York apartment's airshaft of space between the author and his subjects. A darkened movie theater, with nearly every seat filled with a rapt audience member (a crowd that clearly didn't show up in the first several weeks after the release of "Garden State"), gazes up at the heroic figure of a muscled Hun holding aloft not his weapon or the spoils of war but a dowsing stick.
Will Moody's readers be treated to a sweeping historical epic of the "diviners" who searched across continents for the commodity most essential to human life, fresh water? Dowsers employ a polished, forked branch of witch hazel, or later, brass rods, to search for water -- and sometimes other precious materials -- hidden beneath the surface of the earth.
Arguably every great civilization has had to locate and tame its sources of fresh water in order to thrive; the United States, from the Tennessee Valley Authority to the Hoover Dam, being no exception. Yet what Moody tosses out to his reader is not the multigenerational, transnational saga of dowsing, but an assortment of media-absorbed promoters who are engaged in selling this "treatment" of dowsing as a television miniseries.
Moody's perspective was not sufficiently distinguishable from that of his subjects in "Garden State," but in "The Diviners" he effectively removes himself -- as if he were looking over the heads of the theater audience -- from the hackneyed material of the historical romance to skewer the full cast of characters who produce and promote and broadcast such dreck to the docile consumers of mass media.
So "The Diviners" is a "treatment" of America's addiction to televisual entertainment. Most of the characters exhibit some weakness for substance abuse, whether it's alcohol, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, scarification or sex. The one character who is a direct descendent of dowsers -- though this inherited trait remains unknown to others -- is Rosa Elisabetta Meandro, an elderly Italian landlady barricaded in a Brooklyn brownstone, whose grandfather and great- grandfather turned barren fields on the Italian peninsula into bounty with their magical powers of divination.
Rosa's thirst is slaked with the brandy bottle, however, as her paranormal gifts -- she overhears the microwave transmissions of cellular telephone calls, mostly regarding "The Diviners" -- are treated as a symptom of encroaching dementia.
Rather, it's Rosa's daughter, Vanessa Meandro, who moves to center stage, a plus-sized diva who terrorizes the lackeys in her independent film production company, Means of Production.
Dubbed "the minivan" by her employees, partly for her storage capacity and partly for her penchant for running over anything that gets in her way, Vanessa is a compulsive eater with an unsatisfiable appetite for the hot, fresh signature glazed doughnut of the Krispy Kreme franchise.
Vanessa is a verbal bulimic, and her monologues to her employees and other menials are such a spot-on send up of business-plan bloviation that they punch the reader's admission ticket to the show. If James Joyce had lived to be 120 years old and were holding a lease in a barely furnished Brooklyn flat, his Molly Bloom soliloquy would sound like Vanessa's rants.
In her mother's view, Vanessa represents "the flood of language." Pitching her story to the studio by telephone, Vanessa launches her project, which must be drastically excerpted here: "Thirst. I know it's a broad topic, but it's an urgent topic, whether you know it or not, a topic that is at the heart of American entertainment today. I'm a collector, Mr. Maiser, that's the first thing I want to explain to you, and what I collect, Mr. Maiser, are Moroccan pitchers.
"That's right. We at Means of Production are very serious about our Moroccan pitchers . . . They perfected the art of the pitcher in Casablanca and Tangiers in the 11th century, at a time when Christian and Islamic and Jewish influences in the area were at their peak . . Think about it . . . That's right, Mr. Maiser, what we're talking about today is a multigenerational saga, but not one that's confined to a particular disenfranchised population, like 'Roots' was or like 'Holocaust' was back in 1978 . . . So this is a proposal that confronts thirst on a historical basis, but it's also a proposal that actually slakes thirst."
Presumably there will be product tie-ins, given that one of the miniseries underwriters is the Universal Beverage Corp.
Most of the principals of "The Diviners" are attached to the entertainment industry in some fashion, as agents, screenwriters, producers, "talent," promoters or gofers. They bond around an episode of the "must see" TV series, "The Werewolves of Fairfield County."
Like the projectionist in the booth at the back of the theater, Moody looks down on a cast of characters who are wholly saturated with visual media. Ironically, the novel on which the "treatment" for "The Diviners" miniseries is purportedly based is a hoax.
Moody presents his reader with a long and entertaining novel whose characters will themselves never turn to print fiction as a medium of cultural expression.
In a trenchant critique of a post-literate America, Moody suggests that our thirst for meaning will not be slaked by the relentless stream of "enhanced reality" television and debased Hollywood film.
By Rick Moody
567 pages, $25.95
Joseph M. Conte is a professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo.
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