In Dale Peck's notorious New Republic nuking of Rick "The Worst Writer of His Generation" Moody, the hatchet man sniffed, "No doubt Moody is even now at work on a sprawling 'social novel' in the manner of The Corrections." Perhaps Moody's new novel arose at that very moment, a defiant spit gob in the face of Peck's windy detraction. It does have a bit in common with Franzen's classic: a throbbing modern American canvas teeming with colorful send-ups of the way we neurotically live now; a family romance featuring a troubled boho loser brother, a crabby sister who underachieves in love and overachieves in business, and a demented parent; and many set-piece ruminations and sentences with delusions of Proustian grandeur. Some of the most impressive passages are written from a demented character's point of view.
One difference is, Franzen wasn't kidding, and Moody (The Ice Storm) mostly is. He tosses off hundreds of notions and characters in The Diviners (Little, Brown, $25.95) without giving us one reason to give a shit, emotionally, about any. They bear fanciful cartoon names à la Thomas Pynchon and Anthony Burgess (including references to their work). The point is intellectual amusement, not social-novel sweep. Though his brain-damaged-POV passages are almost as bravura as Franzen's (including those of a drunk, an autistic child, and a head-injury victim), he doesn't invite us to feel for them, only revel in their cracked linguistic virtuosity and insightfully bent perceptions.
Franzen's central Corrections metaphor of rebuked hubris and painful self-knowledge was on the level. Moody's Diviners metaphor is just an extended, shaggy-dog gag: Diviners are dowsers, people who use quiveringly sensitive forked sticks to detect underground streams. Moody's demented-parent character, hallucinating alcoholic Rosa Elisabetta Meandro, savors reveries about her diviner ancestors who were run out of Italy. Her irritable daughter, Vanessa, an obese Krispy Kreme addict known as "Minivan" behind her back, is a distaff Harvey Weinstein whose highbrow indie-film company, Means of Production, is producing a miniseries (called The Diviners) about rampaging Mongols whose dowsing obsessions somehow lead to latter-day dowsers at the dawn of Las Vegas. Vanessa is tired of making little prestige pictures like the Mary Kay Letourneau biopic Offenders ("Lili Taylor's finest moment, really"). She wants the big hit—The Diviners.
The MacGuffin everybody's chasing in the book is the script to the miniseries, supposedly based on a potboiler by a famous hack novelist. But there is no such book, and there isn't even a script, just a treatment (opinionated summary) of the imaginary script from the imaginary novel. It's concocted by Vanessa's much-abused employee Annabel and her lover (also Vanessa's business partner) Thaddeus Griffin, the vaguely Bruce Willis–esque hack action-flick actor attempting to revive his career.
Everybody's a fraud, winging it, inventing their own version of The Diviners, dowsing for the next hit like water in the parched showbiz desert. "Gluttony, selfishness, megalomania, chocolate addiction, pathological lying, promiscuity, obsessive-compulsive disorder," rhapsodizes Moody's omniscient narrator. "The world of cinema." Moody connects this preposterously sprawling world and all its showbiz-obsessed characters via coincidences so outrageous they'd make Dickens blush. Vanessa is pitching the miniseries to a TV mogul who has a kink for crippled girls and resembles a mogul hero of Kurt Andersen's 1999 novel, Turn of the Century, an artfully smart, awfully heartless satire that may have influenced The Diviners more than Franzen's book.
The Diviners (the real novel, not the imaginary miniseries) is also set just after Bush's 2000 "election" by the Supreme Court. Moody renders the whole country as an image-crazed whorehouse, a mad chase for scripts, hanging chad, and other bits of enriching and corrupting paper, and still more lucrative lies.
Except politics aren't really the point to The Diviners. Moody has wrought a mock masterpiece that exists strictly for incredible sentences like vast crags histrionically lit, for purple prose's majesty, for riffs that go on for shameless pages. For fun. (There's even a Dale Peck character, for no particular reason at all, "Randall Tork, the greatest wine writer in history.") And, undeniably, it's much fun to read—often as much fun as Franzen, though without the gravitas. It's not a complicated, overwhelming feast like The Corrections, but it does induce a Krispy Kreme rush.
Rick Moody will appear at Seattle Repertory Theatre (155 Mercer St., 206-634-3400; free), 7 p.m. Fri., Oct. 10.