The exorcist

Rick Moody talks about car crashes, why a man can't really know what it's like to be a woman and his new book, "Demonology."

Published February 5, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Seven car crashes, a subway smash, a propeller splice and dice, relationship meltdowns and a drive-by at McDonald's: Disaster seems inevitable in "Demonology," Rick Moody's newest story collection, a series of calamitous happenings. The saddest tragedy of all takes place in the title story, a wicked twist on All Saints' Day, the day after Halloween. A mother dies of a broken heart and her children are present to bear witness. Her brother mourns and ponders the significance of angels and evil spirits, including alcohol, while composing verbal snapshots of the snapshots that she left behind.

Dark and moody, yes, but don't despair. Humor is another Moody trademark. In a second story, sexual politics are brought to the table, literally, as a female academic, spread-eagled on the kitchen table, uses two shoehorns as a speculum to demonstrate to her cross-dressing boyfriend why he can never really know what it's like to be a woman.

Salon recently talked to Rick Moody to find out more about the demons behind "Demonology."

In the title story, the narrator talks about a "local news photo that never was: my sister slumped over the wheel of her Plymouth Saturn after having run smack into a local deer." In "The Mansion on the Hill," the narrator's sister is killed while driving to her wedding rehearsal. Two other stories have two collisions each, and in another three cars crash. What about car crashes intrigues you?

"Demonology" is the matrix story for all the other stories -- what it does for the book as a whole is generate a lot of calamity. After a while, the car crash ended up becoming the calamity above all others. It would just turn out that there was a car crash in every story even if I had not intended one at the outset. Like in "Boys" -- I had no idea there would be a car crash in "Boys." It's just a little one, but there it is suddenly, as an emblem for trauma.

Ever been in a car crash?

Little ones. I was in one the night Ronald Reagan was elected, in Providence, R.I. There were a bunch of us drinking and we were all really pissed off. We decided we were going to crash the Reagan celebration party at the Biltmore in downtown Providence, and we got in a car, somebody's used car. Four or five of us packed into this car. There's a red light by [the Rhode Island School of Design], where you go up the hill to go to Brown, a major traffic difficulty there on a good day, and we ran the red light. A car plowed into the side of this friend's car, but we were only going 35 miles an hour. No one was injured.

Part 2 of "The Carnival Tradition" takes place on Halloween, and so does "Demonology." "The Mansion on the Hill" starts with a chicken mask. "Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal" includes cross-dressing. What's the fascination with dressing up?

The masks are partly a reflection of the fact that this book was written while I was trying to finish another called "The Black Veil." Masking is the central image in that book. The two books simply started to overlap. As for Halloween, it's just something that I always loved as a kid. I like how much of the collective unconscious seems to swirl around on Halloween. Everything comes out onto the surface: Clinton masks, Monica masks. When I was a kid we always liked to dress as vagrants.

"Purple America" has an incredibly compassionate and liturgical first sentence -- one sentence for three pages, with "whosoever" beginning each new thought. In "The Mansion on the Hill," you use repetition and variations for more than a page and a half of continuous questions. And you employ the same technique in "Carousel," "Forecast From the Retail Desk" and "The Carnival Tradition."

I think those litanical passages have been some of my best work, and it's work that people really respond to. I don't want to overdo it, yet it comes really naturally to me. And I think that what comes naturally in the arts is something you have to fully investigate. The impulse obviously comes from music and it comes from biblical language. I just have to do it until I've done it so thoroughly that I can't do it anymore.

A lot of contemporary writing is cinematic in that its primary relationship is to what is observed, to how things look. And you know the writing school commonplace that you have to try to get the other senses into the story somehow. My orientation is really toward sound. I come at a lot of what I do as a frustrated musician. Sometimes I look at Nathan Englander stories or Allegra Goodman stories -- those great New Yorker realistic writers -- and I say, "Goddamn it, why can't I just behave and just tell a story like everybody else?" But as soon as my ear becomes involved in the act of storytelling, the musicality of prose comes to the surface. I'm trying to find a spot where I can do that and not go overboard and sound purple. That's what "Purple America" was about really, trying to go as far in that direction without seeming purple.

Do you listen to music when you write?

I listen to music when I write, yeah, especially instrumental music. And very monotonous, simple kinds of experimental and serious music are important to me. I also like Indian classical music quite a bit. And electronic, some rock 'n' roll. But not as much rock 'n' roll as when I was younger.

Do you remember what you were listening to when you wrote "Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal"? That last scene, in which you describe female plumbing in explicit detail, is quite the feat.

I don't remember what I was listening to. It was '98, and I was pretty into Richard Buckner that year, if I remember correctly. As for the story itself, I had to talk to a biologist for that. It took about a month to write that whole story and then a month to write the last page, just to make sure I did it right. The story was assigned to me at the time when Fiona Giles was doing "Chick for a Day." This was my reply to her challenge. It's a story by a male writer written in the first person from a woman's point of view, in which that woman tries to prove to her cross-dressing boyfriend that he will never know what it is to be a woman. So, in other words, it's so convoluted and paradoxical that it demonstrates all the convoluted forces having to do with the politics of gender. I happen to believe that the masculine can't ultimately know what the feminine is, but I was trying to embody the complexity of gender politics, not write a treatise.

In "The Mansion on the Hill," the male narrator works at what seems to be a wedding convention center. Do those places really exist?

Mine is hyperbolic. The genesis of the actual marriage-planning business in the story is a hall my mother went to in Jersey. She came to dinner with me one night and had just been at a marriage of a friend's daughter, and it turned out to be at a multiroom marriage facility. It makes perfect sense from an American point of view -- if you're just renting a minister and you need space, why not? It certainly takes all the mystery out of the ritual. But that's no surprise. That's what we do in America: Take all the mystery out of everything until we're just left with a business.

Where do you see yourself now, as a writer living a writer's life?

I just want to be able to keep producing. The process of publishing is really grueling and I'd rather be thinking about writing something else than concentrating too heavily on the grueling part of publication, so I think about work, about the next book -- as with this nonfiction book I'm trying to finish.

Do you think that nonfiction truly exists when there's a narrative story you have to tell, when you have to fill in the blanks?

I tried to tell the truth in "The Black Veil," my next book. I tried not to make up anything. There's only one passage in the whole book where I fudged a little, and I admitted it on the page. The exercise, when I first imagined it, was to try to escape from novel writing for a minute to see if there was any relief in this other neighborhood, the neighborhood of truth. Turns out there's no relief.

What relief were you looking for?

From the awesome responsibility and difficulty of extended narrative. It's so hard. I'd love not to write another novel.

Why is it so difficult?

For me it's like torching your apartment because that's the level on which you have to use everything that you have. It's as if all your worldly possessions got burned in some conflagration, and now you're coming back to an apartment that's just sheetrock and fried electrical wire. That's how I feel afterward -- that I can't possibly put myself through this again.

Let's talk about truth in fiction. You bookended your collection with "The Mansion on the Hill" and "Demonology." Both are about the death of the narrator's sister. In "Mansion," the sister dies in a car crash. In "Demonology," the sister dies from a heart attack. When I first read "Demonology" I believed it was a true story, until I read "The Mansion." Is my first reaction right?

"Demonology" is mostly true, and it is what it is. Some of what I have done in my work amounts to insisting that literature has no genre, that genre is a late addition to the literary gesture, and so I have allowed "Demonology" to be described however various editors wish to describe it. For me it's about preserving an actual person, a person whom I loved, in language, but that's not to say that everything in it is true. "The Mansion on the Hill" is purely fictional, meanwhile, but it is obviously taken up with similar issues for the simple reason that I was not done with them. In some ways I wish I had never published "Demonology." I only keep publishing it because it seems to help other people. I haven't read the story in several years. I didn't even read it in galleys; I asked someone else to read it for me. I can't read it aloud. I don't even look at it.

In the commentary to "Demonology," you also say, "I should fictionalize it more, I should conceal myself." Yet elsewhere you've very bravely revealed yourself -- your bouts with drugs, alcohol and depression, time spent in a psychiatric hospital.

I think openness is an important spiritual activity. I try not to be stupid about it, and my life has not been all that interesting, so there are no Anaïs Nin-esque revelations to yield up. But I think that I want to pass out of this world known completely by others, not a cipher, not a James Gould Cozzens locked in his house reclusively. I write to be in relation to readers, and I want these readers to have an experience of me, so that when I leave here, as soon I must (I'm paraphrasing Montaigne), they may have some idea of my habits and opinions. And once people start writing profiles of you, and so forth, this all comes out anyhow, so you may as well be the renderer of the facts.

Does writing help in thinking about all of that?

I think it does, certainly. You know the Beckett play "Happy Days," the one where the protagonist is buried up to her neck? Remember the sound when she first opens her mouth, the torrent of language that comes out? It's a real primal gesture of communication. When I wrote "Demonology," that's about the level on which I was operating. And it's not meant to arrive at a solution to the trauma of that time. It's meant to just be a freeing up of that voice. I suppose the idea is that we as readers in experiencing the truth of that gesture know better what it's like to be human. That's the kind of work that makes me feel enriched -- like I was there. A parallel example is that tremendous Lorrie Moore story, the pediatric oncology story in "Birds of America," "People Like That Are the Only People Here." It does the thing for me that other people say "Demonology" does for them. I felt stronger when I read that story. I hope one day I can write something as valuable.

By Michele Scarff

Excerpts from Michele Scarff's novel, "In-Between," were selected by Mary Gaitskill for the New School MFA Chapbook Award Series.

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