Bookforum | Dec/Jan 2006

One of the many good qualities of Rick Moody's The Diviners is that he has written a Hollywood novel that separates the meaning of Hollywood from that of Los Angeles, a real city erased by the mythology created by a million hours of movies and television shows set there arbitrarily. The movie industry is not an unproductive lens through which to look at this city, it being a company town and all, but ever since Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, the conflation of fire and judgment have fed on a complicated circuitry of resentment and the relief of envy, especially for writers.

The resentment is usually justified. The subject of Hollywood makes readers, or at least critics, nervous about something, an anxiety they render as knowingness. Writers of novels set in Hollywood face this when critics assume that their books are disingenuous manifestations of revenge. Such reviews inevitably conclude with a sour, droll comment on the novel's prospects as a movie, usually reckoned dreadful, as though any novel written by a screenwriter—or even any novel about Hollywood—must be a treatment. Moody has already suffered this assumption about The Diviners, which is unfair but not unexpected: I've already seen at least one review end with the anticipation of the book as movie. The Diviners makes its subject the reason for that anxiety and knowingness.

The Diviners is a real novel, its messiness, contradictions, and unresolved ending leaving the possibility of adaptation likely only if the book were stripped down to the frame of a few characters and their subplots. But I make a limiting judgment by imagining the film called The Diviners, when it's more appropriate and faithful to the novel's broad scale to imagine a television series based on the book, since television, and not the movies, captivates Moody, television in relation to whatever is left of the novel as something worth doing—reading or writing—with one's allotted time. Over the last ten or so years, television has become a greater font of story than the movies: Story is as much the subject of the book as Hollywood, and the novel is filled with stories. Every chapter rigorously and enthusiastically introduces new characters with new stories that are linked together through action—cause and effect—or, more allusively, though no less powerfully, through the characters' shared ambitions.

The novel begins with the light of sunrise in Los Angeles, and, following the light around the world, settles, for the most part, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, carefully avoiding Los Angeles. We then meet the character least absorbed by the modern world, "Rosa Elisabetta Meandro, in insubstantial light, entrails in flames . . . a specter . . . of a Brooklyn past, someone buried under layers of sediment." Her daughter, Vanessa, runs Means of Productions, a minimally successful independent production company in Manhattan, with four women employees, Annabel and Jeanine, personal assistants; Madison, the development girl; and Lois, the embezzling accountant. Vanessa shares the cost of her office suite with Thaddeus Griffin, described at first as a television actor, though his credits seem to consist of three action films, Single Bullet Theory I and II and Full Magazine. The star wants to produce, and among many of the projects pitched is the imagined Michel Foucault story. A marine biology major from Union College, well read and thoughtful, Griffin's a credible picture of a movie star, most of whom, in their singularity, are smarter and more interesting than they are ever depicted as invented characters. It can be depressing for a writer to discover the intimidating brilliance of movie stars, and Moody does not compete with his creation by mocking him. His actor is the source of the story that gives the book its title. "The Diviners" is the yarn spun out by Griffin to Annabel, the summary of a nonexistent novel, the historical saga of a family of dowsers that begins on the Mongolian steppes and ends, a thousand years later, in Las Vegas.

There are three layers of storytelling in the book. There are the narrated lives of the characters of the novel; there are the synopses of the movies and television shows that some of them have made or want to make; and then there are the movies and television shows they watch. Whenever the novel returned to the daily lives of these characters, I was happy to follow Moody through all of his digressions and elaborations, and to dig through the piled-up sociological, emotional, and political insights that form big, ambitious summations. The formal, or schematic, themes of the novel are woven into the dramatic action: The oppressive attraction of the light of the world that starts in Hollywood distorts everyone in the book. Thus, the force of Hollywood as Moody understands it ruins us first by establishing neat models for life that messy reality will never achieve. By failing the fantasy, we become ever more miserable: Hollywood then ruins us with another fantasy—the dream of success in Hollywood.

The problem is that "The Diviners," the pitch, is an idea that no one, either in real Hollywood or, more important, according to the laws of the human universe of Moody's own creation, would ever take seriously, as a movie or a miniseries. It's not enough for a reader to say, "This is the point. Hollywood is stupid," because the excitement over the idea contradicts the reasons for the success of another story told within the novel itself, that of the hit television show watched by all the characters, The Werewolves of Fairfield County.

In Fairfield County "the human species has spontaneously come to express a genetic crisis." A wolf pack forms each night from the normal human social substance of a soap opera, families divided within themselves, towns divided by class. The Thanksgiving episode is a perfectly good episode for a successful television show:

The ubiquitous deer of Fairfield County are beginning to suffer with a strange, inexplicable wasting disease, and the governor . . . has declared open season, with high limits. . . . No one is meant to eat any of the venison, until state regulators are certain that the danger is passed. . . . The wolf pack, who will be gathering this weekend for the full moon, is in grave danger not only of being pruned in the indiscriminate blasting away at bucks and does, but they're also liable to be famished, too desperate to go without deer, notwithstanding the wasting disease.

This episode—which is about the hidden viciousness and affection within a community—connects emotionally to the passions of the desperate moviemakers. I hope that Moody doesn't think that Werewolves is a dumb idea, or that the success of the show says that its fans are stunted for liking it, as though an entertainment about sympathetic werewolves looking for blood were for him the moral negation of a miniseries about diviners finding water.

Of course, The Diviners, the series, would be impossibly expensive and thematically too confusing, obstacles that the power of a star can sometimes overcome, but a miniseries that has no characters running from start to finish cannot work. An actor like Griffin would know better. He would be the first to shoot it down. Still, what Moody gets right is that the Holy Grail of Hollywood is gaining wealth by producing immortal work. And I think what burdens him, what he lays out as the specific and human crisis within the book, the drama of life that Moody so enthusiastically explores, and what is expressed symbolically as a "genetic crisis," is a historical crisis, perhaps just the situation of the novel in the era of the potentially endless television series. I'd rather watch Deadwood than read Cormac McCarthy—I already know his tricks. I'd rather watch The OC than finish most of the novels I start. Where The Diviners, the novel, is brilliant—and there's enough brilliance in the book for it to be taken seriously—Moody brings, without embarrassment, the worthiest lesson of great television into the novel, which is that a truly good series can continue to surprise an audience with the amount of depth achieved by the invention (that's the hard part) of a good situation for a few characters from a wide social spectrum, most of them helplessly weak, and who are made to face one other.

So, yes, I was disappointed by what feels like Moody's indulgence of or unresolved queasiness over his own attraction to television. Or maybe I'm not reading the book with enough benevolent humor. The last chapter, "Epilogue and Scenes from Upcoming Episodes," introduces a scene that takes place in the inner chambers of the Supreme Court, bringing into the novel a new layer of social and political reality. I hope that Moody is not succumbing to irony in place of bitterness and, having set so many promising stories in motion, that he means it when he anticipates upcoming episodes—even if he doesn't know yet whether he intends a miniseries about water or one about people who want to make a show about water.

Michael Tolkin's fourth novel, The Return of the Player, will be published next August by Grove/Atlantic.