Rick Moody is keyed into the zeitgeist. A novelist, critic and short story writer, his analysis of contemporary life and culture has drawn appreciation from some circles—and the occasional bit of frustration from others.
His latest novel, Hotels of North America, is based on the phenomenon of online critique: it’s a life story told almost exclusively through one man’s Internet reviews of hotels. The book’s central conceit proves intriguing on its own, but the way Moody illustrates the depth of his narrator, Reginald Morse, marks the book as one of the year’s most interesting reads.
Paste talked with Moody about novels that defy conventional storytelling, piecing together a character’s life through reviews and how criticism of his own work doesn’t slow him down.
Paste: There are quite a few novels that utilize unconventional storytelling methods like Hotels of North America. Which do you particularly enjoy?
Rick Moody: I hope you won’t mind my pointing out that the novels you ask about can hardly be “unconventional” if there are “quite a few of them,” as “quite a few” would appear to lead directly to “conventional.” I think since 1921 it has been obvious that formalism is one way you can do things. But an interesting paradox would inhere in the fact that before 1800 this was the case, too. Look at Rabelais, Cervantes, The Arabian Nights tales or The Canterbury Tales. Masterpieces, all of them, and all of them “unconventional” in structure while being full of pathos.
I figure you are asking about recent “unconventional” novels, though, which I would take to include novels that use subliterary models or parody and formalism as part of their arsenal of effects: Pale Fire by Nabokov, Edwin Mullhouse by Steven Millhauser, Home Land by Sam Lipsyte, The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, I Remember by Joe Brainard, Zeroville by Steve Erickson, etc. I like books that force the novel to behave anew.
Paste: With this novel, what came first: the conceit by which the story would be told or the story itself?
Moody: Conceit first, which is not my usual way of doing things, but conceit in this case was followed very quickly by the voice of Reginald E. Morse. So quickly did the voice come to inhabit the conceit that it almost seemed that the order was reversed. I wanted this hotel reviewer to have a very lively personality, or else the book was not going to lift off. I worked hard on that part. I don’t want conceit to be the uppermost feature of a literary work at all, even if it is easy to talk about this book in that way. Reg Morse, to me, feels like a real person. I would not be surprised if he suddenly turned up at a reading, asking for a share of the royalties. So no conceit at the expense of literary humanism.
Paste: Morse seems pretty mysterious, especially given we can only discover so much about him through his reviews. You piece some things together in the afterword, but how much did you feel was necessary to know about this character as you were writing from his perspective? Did his life come to you in pieces as well, or did you know his whole story?
Moody: I knew he was going to tell his life story, after a fashion, in the reviews, and it took a while to get his life all sorted out. I didn’t want it to be chronological, this autobiography of Morse, because that’s too easy, even if chronology is the most elegant of organizing principles. A real hotel reviewer would not tell his life story in order. It would leak out anecdotally. By the time I went back to do subsequent drafts of these pages, I had his whole life in my head, and it was easier to nip and tuck and reconfigure so that the book had a bit of shape. I used a lot of timelines. One of these timelines now constitutes the endpapers of the hardcover edition, in case you want to see how it all got worked out.
Paste: Did you feel claustrophobic only being able to tell the main part of this story within the context of online reviews?
Moody: No way! I felt liberated!
Paste: When it comes to reviews, it appears some people have reviewed your own work with an unbecoming degree of nastiness. How has your experience of criticism changed over the years?
Moody: I don’t really pay very much attention. I feel very, very, very, very, very, very, very lucky to be publishing at all in these dark times for literary fiction. Especially given the way I have been working: speculative fiction followed by music essays followed by a novel made out of hotel reviews. I think the book reviews, in my case, have lagged the work, but honestly who gives a shit? I don’t read them, by and large. I think I have read one or two reviews in the last 10 years. Book reviews are certainly not really going to affect how I conceive of what I’m going to write next.
Does my daughter care about how my novel is reviewed? She does not care. I am far more focused on what’s going on with her in schooling than I am focused on what gets said about me on someone’s book blog.
Paste: What do you think are the pros and cons of criticism as a whole? Are reviews, of books or hotels or anything, more helpful or hurtful? Do you think explaining experience can reduce the experience itself?
Moody: You really are suggesting some of the issues I was trying to get at in Hotels of North America. All experience is subjective, right? Objective experience, such as it is, is nothing but an amalgamation of opinions such as you might get when these opinions are extremely numerous. But still: there is nuance and variation and paradox in even grand statistical samplings, in the Gallup Poll or whichever. Online reviewing, with its star ratings and up or down votes, with its clicks and instantaneity, is not adequate to the cause. Even the Yelp reviewing, which I have come to admire in a way, is more of interest for its comic infelicities than for its accuracy. Same with Amazon. There’s always some dip shit online who says Moby Dick is the most boring book ever written, or the equivalent. Wait, I’m going to get a one-star review of Moby Dick for you right now! “The story was initially a flop, and with good reason. The structure of the book is confusing, and it’s (sic) logic is retarded. I could say more about the book, but I won’t. This book is a complete and utter waste of time.” An actual Amazon review!
What would be useful criticism? Reasoned, thoroughly argued, carefully assembled, dispassionate criticism of literature (and anything else: light bulbs, dentists, hotels) is, in fact, useful. I love, for example, to read Rain Taxi, the Midwestern book review organ, and I love to read the New York Review of Books, etc. The online foaming-at-the-mouth sadistic ad hominem attack written by trolls with chronic pain they are trying to work out somehow? It tells us more about the reviewer than the thing reviewed. And thus, Reginald Edward Morse.
Paste: How has traveling and staying in hotels affected your own psyche?
Moody: I love and hate travel in very equal proportions. I always hate it ahead of time, and I sometimes feel grateful for it afterward. I keep expecting it all to be good as going to Iceland, you know, and most of it is nothing like that at all.
Paste: Your next book is a memoir. What’s harder for you as a writer: talking about fictional people’s lives or talking about yourself?
Moody: It’s not a matter of what’s harder, it’s just about what I feel like doing at any given moment. I have had a hard couple of years, and there is a lot to say on the subject of these hard times. It will probably lead to my yearning to be back in a fictional universe again, as soon as I’m done with the memoir.