As a young celebrity literary lion, Rick Moody's biography was broadcast as part of the marketing behind his books: Ivy League—educated (Brown, Columbia) scion of a broken Connecticut family with ties to the Puritans; writes scathing portrayals of America's disaffected middle class; Generation X's Updike, only darker. Fame came early when his first novel, The Garden State, won a Pushcart Prize and his second novel, The Ice Storm, was made into a popular Hollywood film. He followed with a book of short stories, Ring of Brightest Angels Round Heaven; another novel, Purple America; and another book of short stories, Demonology. His most recent work, his first of nonfiction, The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions, Moody investigates a purported family connection to Handkerchief Moody, an 18th-century figure who supposedly wore a veil his entire life after accidentally shooting and killing a childhood friend, and said to have inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Minister's Black Veil."
Biography and autobiography, as Moody makes clear in The Black Veil, are elastic. On the afternoon he meets PW for coffee to discuss his new book, Moody, who is 41, could easily pass for a Greenwich Village hipster, dressed head to toe in black, with faded jeans, worn leather jacket and boots, and a skullcap pulled low. As if to underscore the multiple ways of presenting oneself to the world, the following week, at the ceremony for the Young Lions Fiction Award at the New York Public Library, he appears clean-cut, almost tweedy, in pressed khakis, a tie and a green wool blazer.
Moody's work has almost always been self-consciously stylish. He's a playful writer, known as much for his serpentine sentences as for his confrontational take on suburbia. The latest work, as usual, shuns convention. In addition to offering a personal history, it includes a near-comprehensive analysis of modern literary criticism written on Hawthorne, a discourse on recovery and a genealogical detective story.
"The collage orientationis very close to how I am thinking about material right now," says Moody, citing the work of W.G. Sebald and William Gaddis as inspirations. "So, the idea for me is to try and make a book that is laterally constructed, rather than A to B in the traditional way. It's digressive, it wanders, it meanders, but it all circles around the image of the veil. That's the way in as far as I'm concerned. In this way, veiling is literally built into the project."
After speaking to Moody about deconstructing the memoir form, it becomes clear that he is keenly aware of the limitations of trying to tell the truth. "The therapeutic structure, that sort of VH-1 'Behind the Music' structure of 'we fucked up for a long time and then we got sober and now everything's great' is deceptive. It's really a code. It's become systemic in the memoir in a way and really obfuscates things. People are having trouble getting to the story because this structure has become the plot structure for the memoir."
"There's definitely an element of suspicion built into people viewing the veil," he says. "The act of concealing is something we want to undo. The memoir as a form in the contemporary moment theoretically is about unconcealing, about opening up, about doing that talk show thing. Here's how I was hurt, and here's how I'm getting better now. My memoir wants to reveal and conceal at the same time. It's about veiling, and it admits that you can't uncover all the way, there's always that layer of veiling."
He writes toward the end, "When I started this book, I told myself I would conceal nothing"—and goes on to indicate how he has fallen short. By the end, the book is a record of his failure at producing the "honest" memoir.
To Moody, memoir and fiction are two different tools for seeking the same result: a semblance of truth. He says, "Completely honest is impossible. It's a great idealistic undertaking that can't be done. But for literature, it's absolutely necessary. Literature is on a dialectic that has fiction and nonfiction on either end, and it's swinging between these two things. When it gets bored in one spot and gets energy from another spot—together, they form one narrative." He finds the insistence on specialization in American letters troubling. "The real world implication of The Black Veil for me is that it will not be shelved with my other books, which is incredibly irritating to me. I want people to read it in the context of everything else I've done."
He says that the move into memoir after so many books of fiction was prompted by an effort to deal with material from his most recent story collection, Demonology, in which the title story is a thinly fictionalized tale describing the actual accidental death of his older sister. In The Black Veil, Moody discusses how he had so shut himself away from the world that he missed a string of phone calls from his father informing him of his sister's death. In retrospect, the writing of the story in Demonology was a kind of effort to make up for the event itself.
An amateur songwriter, he remarks after overhearing an Elton John song on the cafe's sound system, "Hearing him sing when I was in the eighth grade actually made a bad period in my life more bearable. I want to write books with that level of value. That's my ambition—to save lives with my stories. If it doesn't work, then I'll fail trying."