In the Obama Moment: Rick Moody

The novelist Rick Moody is one measure of what has changed. He has been known as a generational figure, the “wrathful” child of the fiction he grew up reading, “striking a blow,” as he puts it in conversation, for the children of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. “Rabbit treats his children so despicably, you know, and the kids in the Cheever books don’t get off so well either.”

Rick Moody has lived 40 of his 47 years in the peculiar public and private distemper that Rick Perlstein calls “Nixonland.” But early in the new year, within a month or so of the Obama inauguration, Rick Moody will become a father for the first time in his life — his own proof that we can all grow up sooner or later, that perspectives can shift.

My prejudice in this conversation, and the next one with Robert Coover, is that “novelists get there first,” in their feeling for what’s developing. We touch here on comic novels, the publishing meltdown, Moody’s own musical ambitions with his modernist folk band, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, what’s missing in blogs, and “white guys from Connecticut.”

I live in Brooklyn now, and I’ll give you two examples of what I see — totally anecdotal — as a beginning of a change of attitude in my city. The first was right after 911. I was just coming back from Washington about a day and a half later. I was riding the subway, and there was a bi-racial couple sitting across from me, a Jamaican guy of African descent and his white girlfriend. And the Jamaican guy was singing softly to himself, and as they were getting up to get off the train, the guy got up, walked across the aisle to me, and kissed me — for no reason. I was just sitting there. Everybody in this whole car was thinking — this is the B train, and it’s going to go over the Manhattan Bridge right past the smoking remains of the Trade Center buildings. It was all people were thinking about, but what they were thinking about at the moment was: this stuff that was taking place in this city for 30 years prior to this moment can’t be sustained. We can’t keep living like this — you know, at one another, red in tooth and claw about our differences and our violent distaste for one another.

The second thing I’d say was the night of the election, in Brooklyn. It was unbelievable. It made New Year’s Eve look like a dry run. It really was all these people feeling optimism and tremendous relief that we didn’t have to play out this ‘I’ve got more money than you’ and ‘Fuck you!’ Maybe that’s done for a while.

CL: I always thik of you, Rick Moody, as a child not only of so much fiction you’ve read, but of all the fictionists of the mid-century — son of Cheever, son of Updike, son of Mailer and Roth, or whatever. As you grow up and outgrow those emotions of childhood and the “wrath” that Thomas Pynchon celebrates in your work, what’s the next perspective?

RM: The truth is I’m about to have my first child in a couple of months. My wife is pregnant. In looking back at my career it’s really obvious to me that there was an intergenerational, Oedipal, parricidal rage undergirding a lot of those early books. I felt when I was writing The Ice Storm that I was striking a blow for Rabbit Angstrom’s children. That was uppermost in my mind. Rabbit treats his children so despicably, you know, and the kids in the Cheever books don’t get off so well either. They’re just chattel, just something to be moved around from story to story. So I felt like I wanted to say what it felt like to grow up with these Swinging Sixties parents and organizational men of the Fifties and Sixties…

CL: The ‘phallocrats,’ as David Foster Wallace called them.

RM: But I think that work is done. And Wallace is a good example, because I think with the publication of Infinite Jest in 1997, things really tilted around to my generation a little bit. It’s also true that we are now ineluctably middle-aged adults and our responsibility is to try to reflect more points of view and more kinds of psychology — the culture of the whole, if possible, from this vantage point that we have now. I can’t anymore just write about my generation or just about upper-middle-class white guys from the suburbs. I feel this may be an Obama perspective, this responsibility to try to have all kinds of characters in my work.

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  • Some guests really bring Chris’s usual verve to the fore:

    “Who will be the sort of toilet training stylists for people interested in words?” (31:10)

    And there’s something to be said about the potential for conversations to entrain interesting conversational style. Not merely co-emulation, not exactly the “Medici Effect” or even the “Wisdom of Crowds.” But something, possibly, of the simpler dimensions of intersubjectivity.

    The discussion about blog writing specifically reminds me of LibriVox founder (and fellow Montreal blogger) Hugh McGuire advocating for academic blogging. In a first post, he talked about his perception of poor writing on the part of academics and offered blogging as writing practice:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hugh-mcguire/why-academics-should-blog_b_138549.html

    The tone of that first post was rather harsh and McGuire posted a second entry about academic blogging in which he described how liberating blogging can be:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hugh-mcguire/why-academics-should-blog_b_146167.html

    While McGuire is a blogging advocate in this context, his work in general is clearly “pro-book” and he has made repeated comments about the importance of physical books and libraries. Even his LibriVox work, public domain recordings of public domain books, celebrates books for their literary quality. In this sense, I perceive McGuire and Moody to be “fighting the same fight” (especially since I personally tend to take the opposite approach). One difference, though, is that McGuire positions himself in the Web-savvy context without reference to (perceived or real) generational differences.

    Moody made repeated comments about chronological age and “generational categories.” While he may still be rather young, some sections had a bit of the “kids these days” feel of discussions of generational differences. Of course, these discussions have been occurring in almost any cross-generational context. The main specificity of those discussions relating to people born during the 20th Century is that those generations tend to be perceived as predefined and named (especially with reference to Baby Boomers and “Generation X”). Sociologically interesting, but relatively inconsequential in terms of the tenor of those cross-generational “debates.”

    The term “experience” seems quite relevant in this context, especially if it can be linked to the well-known definition of “experts” from a cognitive perspective. In this context, one might argue that experience, instead of chronological age, is the main differentiating factor between “generations of” writers (or any other set of practitioners). The Psychology 101 rule of thumb, based on extensive research by Herbert Simon and others, is that it takes ten years or ten thousand hours of practise to make an “expert.” (Clearly, there are other necessary but insufficient conditions to make an expert, but this one is more germane to the discussion and more widely understood.) According to more recent research, this practise can be gained through different means, including “hands-off simulation” (my own term, based on Philip Ross’s Scientific American work on that body of research). Socially, the association between age and expert status only makes indirect reference to practise, which might explain the “generation gap” statements in the context of writing expertise.

    Which brings me back to blogging and writing style.

    While blogging is a relatively recent phenomenon, it would be difficult to associate it with a specific generation. In some parts of the World, a large number of teenagers maintain personal blogs, and there might be a tendency for “blogosphere outsiders” to assume adolescent blogging is the most representative form of the art. But there are bloggers of any age and of any level of expertise, from widely published authors and well-known journalists to “geeky” specialists of computer technology and amateur photographers. On occasion, blogs even serve as a way to distribute texts which were previously available offline (public domain books, epistolary archives, etc.). Blogging, of course, is merely a “medium” (the “channel” in Jakobson’s model of verbal communication). The fact that a given text is available on a blog has no implication in terms of the style of that text.

    But there is something of a “blogging ethos,” a set of tendencies commonly observed in blogging contexts.

    McGuire associated some of these tendencies with the potential for blogging. But some of McGuire’s colleagues have described these tendencies in broader terms.

    During a recent intervention of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, self-labelled “blogging evangelist” Arianna Huffington mentioned several key dimensions to blogging. Through those mentions, a broad concept of “rawness” was constructed. Not that all blog-writing is “raw,” but blogging tends to follow Eric Raymond’s “release early, release often” principle from the FLOSS movement (“Free/Libre Open Source Software”). In literary contexts, this principle can be understood as the basis for an “aesthetic of the draft.” Following this principle, authors release their “early drafts” («premiers jets») as blog posts. Any of these drafts may be the object of a “rerelease,” a slightly more polished version of the same text. In software development, versioning systems handle this chain of releases in a very elaborate fashion (sometimes with “nightly builds”). Perhaps more importantly, FLOSS development allows for diverse people to contribute to these different versions, in an organic type of collaboration. Early bloggers, some of whom had a background in computer technology, seem to have used this release model implicitly. But instead of organic collaboration, most blogs rely on “feedback systems” like comments and trackbacks (notifications of posts on external blogs with links to an internal blog).

    From a reader’s perspective, the literary quality of most blog posts may seem rather low. From a blog writer’s perspective, blogging is practise. Low-stake practise. Despite the literary importance of Queneau’s «Exercices de style», most people would apply different criteria when reading writing exercises and published material. If a “blog-born writer” becomes famous, these early drafts may become as valuable as early sketches from a well-known painter.

    Blogging is just over ten years old. If Simon’s “ten year law” is accurate, we should now get the first blogging experts. They may be hard to find but, surely, even Moody knows a blogger whose writing style are up to his standards.

  • potter

    “What a great interview!!”

    I have not read anything by Rick Moody though I have heard the name and now I am curious. I like his calm, his perspective, and that he seems to be a genuine grown-up at the time when perhaps the grown-ups will emerge.

    A big thumbs up for Brooklyn.

    About blogging- in general I think it’s good to wonderful . It encourages people to write and express themselves, to know/show another part of themselves, maybe improve their skills, yes get comments, also to read others-to think, to learn, to discern.

  • nother

    Nice stuff…felt like I was eavesdropping on a stimulating conversation at the next table.

    My own little quibble for the sake of quibbling is with Moody’s defense of novels vs. blogging. For the most part bloggers are not would-be novelists, although a would-be novelist may very be a blogger. Blogging is value-added to expression. Blogging is more about the writer than the reader. It’s about standing tall on the hill and howling. Novels are about leaning your back on the soft part of the bark, with only a sliver of shade and the brim of your hat coming between you and that horizon…or with time.

    Cuz – time – is the dividing line between the two.

    Blogging is about running along side the train, trying to keep in step (even as the trains become faster) and yelling random urgent earnest thoughts to the occupants inside – just in case you never see them again. Novels are about Thoreau hearing the train rumble from afar – through the rustling of old chestnuts and the plopping of hungry fish – and longing for some connection with those departing passengers.

  • sutter

    Touching base after a long cyber-absence to say that I also thought Moody was a bit unfair toward bloggers. Moody was very impressive — my new copy of The Ice Storm should arrive today — but he also seemed like a man lost between generations: Still battling the Rabbits of the older generation and awaiting his first child, but simultaneously slipping into curmudgeonhood himself.

    (On a side note, I thought Moody was a bit unfair to Jonathan Safran Foer too, but more than that, I’m surprised that he either hasn’t read Joseph O’Neill’s wonderful novel Netherland, or has read it but does not consider it the leading “post-9/11 novel.”)

    This is sounding more negative than I intended — I very much enjoyed the interview. And hello to my old friends!

  • jazzman

    Sutter: You old legal-eagle, I was just thinking about you last week wondering if you’d gone for good – glad to see you’re still extant and hope you’ll continue to post at the new ROS. As you may have noticed in this incarnation, the commenting is a mere shell of the former glory days when there was a produced show 4 days a week. A few old diehards potter, nother, sidewalker, flow etc. are still semi-active but I miss the spirited exchanges of yore. Maybe it’s because of the focus more on personality than philosophy or provocative subjects – I don’t know but occasionally find time and subject for opining.

    Peace,

    Jazzman

  • jazzman

    I neglected to mention the penultimate diehard OliverCrangle’sParrot – sorry OCP.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    No problem jazzman. I’ve been rather remiss on posting lately (busy, busy, busy). The shows have been great and the threads too. Chris you have really been doing some excellent work with getting some great folks to chat about the state of things. Very much appreciated.

    Happy holidays and much peace to jazzman and all!

  • potter

    A bit of trivia ( not for OCP) to get conversation going…. anyone else here remember Olivercranglesparrot’s original name on ROS?

    Best Wishes to all my old friends here.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Ooo, ooo, I know this one! Alas, I’m disqualified … bummer shucks.

    Meanwhile, potter is bearing down on comment number 200k. Cheers…

  • potter

    I’ll give a hint—- had something to do with a food that we love.

  • nother

    Sutter…in the house!

    Was OCP the nachos guy? Ugh, it’s right on the tip of my mouth.

    Jazzman, I’m looking for a Gil Evans recording at the Rainbow Room in 1951. Do you have any idea where I could find that – if it still exists?

    And along the lines of the discussion at the end of this interview:

    It is only the unimaginative who ever invents. The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and he annexes everything.”

    – Oscar Wilde 1885

    And btw, I’m a big fan of electronic books…bring it on! I love the thought of being on a train and only having to decide at that very moment whether I’m in the mood for Dickens, or Nietzsche, or fluff…all right at my finger tips. (and the font and layout of the pages looks just like a novel). Not that novels will go away, the djs at my local bar keep playing vinyl.

  • jazzman

    Potter I remember OCP’s former incarnation but I must recuse myself in the interest of inclusion – I personally have never indulged in the alluded aforementioned delicacy we all are purported to love and as Cathay Casein Cafes are as rare as parrots teeth, preparations of the ilk are probably the parrot’s personal penchant and not known or noshed in the main (pun intended.)

    Nother I’ll check into it.

  • potter

    Okay I am coming clean- I don’t remember it myself and it’s bothering me in my rare spare time & when I wipe away the tears ( we had a real ICE STORM Rick) and the block looks like a terrible tornado hit- trees broken ripped up branches everywhere- my garden smashed).

    I remember the Cheese part. I think Nother has the Nacho part right… not sure. Okay OCP I come out with my hands up.

    Someone recently showed us a “Kindle”. I was surprised that it did not have a back light to read in bed ( if you happen to share your bed). I can see the great advantage (and expense to convert a whole library) and agree that it does not replace books.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Potter, so sorry to hear about the weather. We’re getting some arctic blasting right now out here in the North West. Brrrrr. Our doggies love it though.

    My old name: CheeseChowMain (sic). This became a term I used, and later adopted by some other folks. It indicates that someone is peddling/spewing bologna. Obviously, the current administration (and all the previous one’s as well) meets this criteria often. The uniqueness of the last eight years is, in my personal estimation, a nearly complete collapse of veracity and ethics within the executive and legislative branches in concert with the worst journalistic practices I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime, along with a citizenry that has been asleep and polarized (no mean feat). Perhaps, the Obama/Biden administration is proof of a wake-up call. Color me skeptical.

    I digress… Thus, I found myself muttering Cheese Chow Mein after listening to the various rhetorical arguments for Iraq conflict 2003 – ????, which arguably exceeded even the Cheese Chow Mein standard and could be referred to in more colorful terms. But, let’s us not quibble over such details. I’m told this dish is brought to light in the movie ‘Animal House’ but I haven’t verified this. And of course, I’m furthering Ludwig Wittgenstein’s private language argument. Finally, I should mention, I myself have never eaten Cheese Chow Mein. I haven’t found the venue with the right chi.

    Best regards to you Potter, et al.

  • jazzman

    OCP You say you’re in the North West – I somehow had the idea that you were in the Boston MA area. I miss the profile page.

    Peace and Happy Holidays to ALL,

    Jazzman

  • jazzman

    Nother I have checked with my sources and the web (as have you I see) and can find no reference to any Gil Evans recordings in 1951 or the Rainbow Room. (What hipped you to the idea that this recording exists?) The best I can suggest is e-mailing cugny.laurent@neuf.fr and asking him.

    Merry Christmas,

    Jazzman

  • nother

    Jazzman, a friend of mine told me how much it would mean to him to get that recording – I was under the assumption that he had the good fortune to see him play there. From the research I did, it seems very possible Evans played there. I was hoping to surprise him, but I’m with you in thinking the shows were not recorded.

    But it means a lot to me that you took the time to check into it. Thank you.

    Peace to you and yours and Merry Christmas.

    PS. to anyone still reading this thread, I just came back from a breathtaking movie, “Slumdog Millionaire.” It reminded me how special the movies can be. Don’t wait for the dvd, this is a cinema experience. Happy Holidays to all.