The Diviners, by Rick Moody

When is a novel like a doughnut?
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The Independent Culture

Rick Moody's latest is a state-of-the-nation novel. Set mostly in LA and Hollywood, it charts the exploits of a cast from various carefully selected demographics - a Chinese-American, an African-American, an Indian, a fat woman, a bulimic, a self-harmer, a masochist and so on - as they orbit a proposal for a non-existent miniseries about water-diviners. The Diviners is at base the hyperextended story of a wild goose chase.

Relieved by this helpful conceit of any real obligation to form or follow a plot, Moody consoles the reader from the outset with blasts of fortissimo style. The first chapter, grandly entitled "Opening Credits and Theme Music", describes over 12 effortful pages the light of morning sweeping the earth. It's 12 pages of virtuosity, certainly, but virtuosity that points at nothing but itself. Though the rest of the novel is chock-full of razzle-dazzle and bling-bling, it also proves to have a swollen brainbox but an atrophied heart.

Part of the premise is that in the absence of the miniseries, the novel provides an analogous saga in the (free) form of plot. This allows for almost infinite padding, and gives the author free rein for his owlish pronouncements. It's acceptable, though tedious, that every ancillary character in the book be honoured with an extensive back-story, but patience wears thin about the time that Moody demonstrates his capacity to prise instruction from a diamond ("around which orbits the force of the African slave labour used to produce the diamond in the mines and the use of diamonds to finance and facilitate rebel activities designed to...") or a brick ("The brick comes from an oven somewhere, a kiln, from some locale plentiful in the labour necessary to produce a brick...").

Ostensibly The Diviners is a satire on the scheming venality of LA folk, and by extension on American greed, desire and frustration in general. But these characters' traits are so exaggerated as to preclude any depth at all: we encounter a deeply unpleasant film producer, some extremely vapid PR girls, an awfully hard-working Indian immigrant, and so on. Still, making people behave in this way relieves an author of the obligation to observe them carefully, so at least someone's happy.

The prose bears all the marks of that ironical, geeky, clever-clever McSweeney's style that hovers like a plague of smug locusts over contemporary American letters. So we have the chapter told as sociology study, the faux-explanatory fondness for nonsensical metaphor ("the contagion of desiring passes back and forth like in a closed-circuit diagram") and of course the ceaseless, mindless riffing on perceived staples of US culture, such as this:

"The great benefit of the Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut is the sensation of nothingness. The satori that is Krispy Kreme is the obliteration of self, the silencing of the voices that are attached to the oppression of life."

Whether you're a writer or not, that simply isn't what a Krispy Kreme doughnut is. A Krispy Kreme doughnut is a mass of stodgy, overcooked gunk under a shiny glaze. So's this book.