Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Book 3: Purple America, by Rick Moody (Infinite Feast XVI)

The past election seemed to make everything in this country binary: conservative or liberal; good or evil; red and blue. Simplified reality for our 24 hour headline attention spans. Reading the newspapers on certain days, one would think that the United States had never heard of Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty or that other Kramer haired scientist’s idea of a relativistic universe. At least to certain segments of the population, complexity and depth were concepts to be feared, better ignored or shouted down, then dealt with in a reasoned way. Fortunately, great art refuses such limitations.

Rick Moody’s moving and elegant novel Purple America, tries to depict the mess that the contemporary world really is. But what makes Moody’s portrayal so tragically insightful and poetically true, is the author’s refusal to dwell in a nostalgic American utopia. This novel is less a criticism of modern America and more an all-encompassing debunking of many false, yet widely believed American myths. Bravely, he tackles the gods of the “Greatest Generation” and shows that true history isn’t always the story line we’ve come to accept. The greatest generation created the nuclear bomb and many of the problems the world faces today. They solved the crisis of Hitler, while creating a new one with the Cold War.

Drawing heavily on traditions of both modernism and post-modernism, Moody follows a drunken, broken man named Hex who has to attend to his dying mother (Billie), when her second husband (Lou) abandons her after 15 years of tiring caretaking in a wealthy Connecticut suburb. Hex is afflicted with a stutter and his mother is losing the ability to speak, and this allows Moody to play with language, bringing in the time leveling of Woolf and Joyce and the societal genocide of White Noise. For the most part, these are welcome influences that add to the story and help Moody to place this narrative in the grander context of 20th century literature. The specter of nuclear holocausts darkens the skies of the novel, as Lou works at the local nuclear power plant and Billie’s first husband Allen, worked on the Manhattan project. The radiation poisoning that literally afflicts many of the novel’s characters is an apt metaphor for the more spiritual demise of the America Moody is illustrating. The characters are sick, but so too is the world they inhabit: an environment amidst annihilation, rapid alcoholism, disconnected sex, personal histories of abuse, sorrow and loss. Love comes to the fore as a redeemer, but even it seems unable to counter the weight of purple catastrophes.

Moody wrote this novel in 1997, before red and blue states dominated the cable news scream fests, and this seeming predilection on his part, contributes another rich layer to the themes of this socially invested book. Flashbacks to the tumultuous 1960s highlight the long history of America’s dilemmas with drugs and social inequality. Everyone and no one bear the guilt.

Purple America has it faults, just like the characters that fill its pages. Moody has a tendency to overwrite, creating strings of redundant sentences. Instead of sticking to a single powerful metaphor, he detrimentally goes for two or three, lessening the effect of the original comparison. Moody’s modernistic influences also cause him to constantly shift narrative voices, usually with great skill. But in a few cases these Babel tongues become overbearing and didactic, outright criticism of suburban lifestyles, mini-malls, and fast food diets reading more like a sociological lecture than DeLillo’s more eloquently distanced and subtlety suggestive imagery. Like a jockey, Moody would be better served tightening the reins of his language. The shifting voices can also be frustrating, as when Lou’s views of society appear a bit too sophisticated for his character or when Hex’s drunkenness doesn’t cause his perspective to be as confused as it should be. At these moments, the reader feels like Moody isn’t in complete control of his creation, that he’s a pitcher who is throwing a 100 mile per hour fastball but isn’t quite sure where it’s going to go.

However, Purple America is a novel about broken people and human fallibility, and in the end, Moody’s deftness for tunneling to the essence of his characters is unassailable. Billie, Hex, Lou, and Jane have never been high enough in life to be considered fallen angels. These are regular people, spotted with a leprosy of errors and failures, unsure of the future and how to survive in the nuclear purple sky present. They live from one moment to the next and most of the time, even this is too much for these characters to handle. As Hex must decide whether or not to accede to his mother’s demands for assisted suicide, black and white zeros and ones are left behind for a dirty puddle of lavender complications. There are no villains in this book, but nor are there heroes – just normal people, desperately trying to find coherence in a world that offers nothing but riddles, mocking indifference, and way too many things to fear.

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