In his new novel Hotels of North America, Rick Moody unspools a narrative from a series of online hotel reviews penned by a broken-down, middle-aged man named Reginald Edward Morse, a former finance trader, sometimes motivational speaker. Morse’s nonlinear entries are seemingly verbose ramblings that sometime mention the hotel they purport to be reviewing. In the opening entries, Morse seems most concerned with such aspects of mid-to-low-level hotels as the “assisted-living” school of interior decoration, the “unfresh” quality of individually wrapped cookies dispensed at various chains, and the ubiquity of jazz music piped into forelorn lobbies.
In an entry dated March 7–22, 2004 (posted March 22, 2014) about the Capri Whitestone in the North Bronx, New York, Morse writes: “What is it we really want from hotel life? We want the closest thing we can get to home. We want a reminder that home exists — that place you can come back to after a long inadvisable journey where they are in theory happy to see you. A place where the pillow awaits the impression of your head. A place where when you step in out of the rain, you breathe a sign of relief.” Taken altogether, these dispatches tell a fragmented story of midlife heartache, the gravitational spiral of alcoholism and infidelity, and other enigmatic life sorrows, all told with varying pitches of tenderness and dark humor.
With the publication of his sixth novel and 12th book, Moody is no stranger to blurring the boundaries of form — from The Black Veil: A Memoir of Digressions to his highly anthologized meta-story, “Demonology,” that recounts the premature death of a beloved sister. In addition, the author stays busy writing regular music columns for The Rumpus, performing live music himself, teaching, and offering advice as a life coach (which can now be found on Lit Hub). With Hotels of North America, Moody has also extended the narrative beyond the covers of his book, inviting readers and friends to pen their own hotel reviews and post at RateYourLodging.com, the site where Reginald Morse was featured as a top reviewer. (The author also posted his own reviews during his recent book tour.) Indeed, in both life and work, Moody plays with the possibilities of form and the role of the author in today’s ever-changing world of consumption and content.
Recently, I asked Moody a few questions about Hotels of North America, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, teaching writing to art students, and his favorite form of punctuation. We communicated via email.
S. KIRK WALSH: How was the writing of Hotels of North America different from your earlier novels?
RICK MOODY: Well, I wrote it in little blasts, just a bit at a time, and I didn’t write it in sequence. The reviews were all written in a sort of randomized, haphazard way. I just let the voice happen. And then I cut away a lot after the first draft to try to reveal a story arc of a kind. In general, it happened in a much more loose and improvised way than the other novels. Less planned out, more like jazz.
Do any of your earlier works — novels or stories — feel like a precursor to this novel (thematically or character-wise)?
I mostly used the third person in novels, up until The Four Fingers of Death. (That is, if you believe that The Ice Storm is basically third person, even though it has little, strange outbreaks of first person.) I can only stand a first-person narrator if s/he is very complex, layered, hard to believe, and so on. I think maybe I did the best with first-person in Hotels.
Was there a particular spark or moment when the character or voice of Reginald Morse emerged for you?
I wrote, as I say, quite a few more reviews than I actually included in the book, and they are remnants of Reg that didn’t quite fire all the way. I was always balancing hotel reviewing with telling his life story. Sometimes the reviews were just reviews. So that stuff got thrown out. But I think I sort of heard Reg’s voice in my head from the beginning.
What was the intention or impulse behind the shared initials of Reginald Morse and Rick Moody?
Accidental, believe it or not! Or, maybe, a subconscious action that was lost on the particularly gullible author of the work. I mean, I knew his initials were R. E. Morse, and that was obvious to me. But the R. M. = R. M. thing was opaque. You know, S. Kirk Walsh, I tend to think of my name thus: Hiram Frederick Moody.
What do you hope the reader walks away with after reading this particular series of hotel reviews by Reginald Morse?
I have no hopes, really. But I think the novel is about the variety of longing and isolation that is peculiarly 21st century. The longing and isolation that occurs most potently online. The hotels are a sort of way station that is a symbol of the other way station of the contemporary: the internet.
Recently, in a conversation with George Saunders, Jennifer Egan talked about the hyper-enmeshment that is possible now, due to the internet and social media. She talked about how this changes the story that one needs to tell. Do you feel like this is the case for you and your approach to narrative? Has the rapid consumption of “content” altered how one tells stories or experiences them?
I did try to write a more ordinary novel, you know, starting in 2009, and at a certain point I felt that the traditional novel could not speak to the now. So, I junked that attempt and tried to make a novel form instead that was more responsive to the way I think we are living these days.
With the writing of this book, were you seeking to make a cultural comment about online personas — hoax-like disguises or digital fragmentations of self — that can emerge on the internet (in reviews or comments sections)?
I don’t know if I was trying to make a comment, but I was certainly trying to deal with those problems, which are problems of subjectivity. There is no more contemporary question than: what is the nature of the subject now?
Were you in conversation with a particular book or author when you began this novel?
Pale Fire, a little bit. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” by Borges. I was reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales while I was writing it. I think the form of that work (discrete stories, formal restlessness, low comedy) may have had an effect.
While I was reading Hotels of North America, I did find myself thinking about Nabokov’s Pale Fire and the character of John Shade. That kind of mysterious narrative-within-a-narrative that takes more than a few reads to figure out. Was this kind of Nabokovian nonlinear, dimensional approach a part of your storytelling intention?
Yes! I mean, I didn’t really notice how Nabakovian it was until I was nearly to completion. (The preface was suggested by my editor, Ben George, so it was probably a little less Kinbotian before that preface was added — it was the last thing that got written in the book.) But Pale Fire is one of my very favorite books. It was a real life-changer for me.
Why or how was that novel a life-changer for you?
I read Pale Fire first at Brown, while under the tutelage of the estimable John Hawkes, who was a pretty rabid Nabokov fan. In that year I also read Lolita, Bend Sinister, Laughter in the Dark, Pnin, and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. I loved all of them, but Pale Fire was the standout for me. I found the form (poem by Shade, notes and commentary by Kinbote) really incredible. I just didn’t know of any other contemporary book that was quite as inventive with regard to form. Then there was the fact that it somehow managed to have a story crammed into those notes and commentary. I liked the slippery first person, how much pathos there was there in a nearly imperceptible way. The idea that Nabokov was too cerebral, which has credence in certain backwaters of the critical community, seemed crazy to me, because Kinbote’s half of the novel exuded feeling, if only you were willing to read inferentially. The first time through I was probably not smart enough to understand the tremendous ache of Shade’s poem, but in succeeding readings, it’s the poem, in fact, that is the most awe-inspiring accomplishment of the work. Shade is an imperfect poet, it seems to me, but the grief that suffuses the poem, even in its fair-to-middling qualities, is immense. Nabokov, that is, made a mediocre-on-purpose poem, with flashes of genuine greatness therein, when poetry was not his primary form, and then surrounded it with the incredibly clever, delusional, menacing Kinbote sections.
There are other issues, too, like whether or not we’re supposed to believe Kinbote about his monarchical status in the “distant northern land” of Zembla, from which he alleges to hail. All of this results in, as the critics say, a dazzling performance. Succeeding years have made me slightly impatient with Kinbote, but Shade only deepens with time.
I wondered if, at any point, you considered not calling this series “a novel”?
I don’t know if it’s really a novel. But then I don’t know what else it is either. It’s mostly fictional. Reg Morse is fictional. So it is a fiction of a kind. But I don’t know what a novel is. If we had more time, I could persuade you that any number of totally non-novelistic things are, in fact, novels. The best I could do is put in the line (in the afterword) about being forced to use the word “novel.” I like novels best when they have nothing at all in common with the tradition of the American realistic novel. I like when they don’t really seem like novels all that much.
You mentioned to me once that you have been teaching a writing class in the art department first at Yale and then later at New York University. Could you talk about this course a bit, and how teaching writing to artists is different from teaching writing to writers? Did you end up making this bridge because of your wife’s career as a visual artist?
I did, in fact, start teaching at Yale, in the art department there, because Laurel, my wife, was there. But I also knew Gregory Crewdson, who is chair of the photography department, and it was more the collision of these things — knowing Greg, being married to Laurel — that made me a reasonable hire, I think. First, I taught a three-week writing class to the photo students, and then I taught it to the whole school of art (any discipline), and then I started doing it in the art program at NYU, too. I love the artists so much! They have no preconceptions about writing at all, and are willing to do anything with it, regardless of whether the result is a well-made story or not. In some ways, I think they are more intrepid that the writing students of my acquaintance. And, it bears mentioning that the formal properties of Hotels of North America may owe something to my art students, too.
Could you elaborate on how your art students might have informed aspects of your new novel?
The art students are really creative thinkers in the conceptual way. They are constantly coming up with interesting shapes for the work they deliver in my class. I’ll give you an example: I have one particularly gifted student called Jonathan Clark, who has recently been working on a new alphabet, which is a mixture of Japanese characters and logos from Hawaiian airlines (he grew up in Hawaii, and argues passionately for the role that aviation plays in the lives of Hawaiians). From this alphabet, he has been fashioning a haiku, about his childhood in Hawaii. The results are both incredibly beautiful to look at, and very evocative and expressive as poems, too.
The container for Hotel of North America — the compendium of hotel reviews — is just the kind of thing my art students might try to do.
How has your career as a life coach gone so far? Is it a more rewarding profession than writing or teaching?
I love it, and it’s very moving to me (I just moved it to lithub.com, by the way), and I hope I don’t have to give it that much more time than I’m giving it now, because it feels just about right at present.
What is your favorite punctuation mark?
Semicolon! You have to be a real believer in advanced punctuation to use it with any kind of commitment.
What is your favorite part of the United States, and why?
I sure like the Southwest. I really wish I could live there, but now is not the time, unfortunately. The scoured-out quality of the landscape feels like how my heart feels sometimes. I love the saguaro cactus. I love the influence of Mexico and Latino culture. I love the borderlands.
Given the choice, would you write at home, at a café, at a residency removed from daily life, or a hotel room?
I no longer have a choice, really. Because I have a kid, and I’m trying to be available to her. So, I have to write where I have to write. I am answering these questions 10 feet from her, and it’s time to put her to bed. I do the best I can with what I have at hand, right now. And that accounts for the novel I just published, I think, more than anything else.
How has the experiment gone of having others write reviews on Rate Your Lodging? Has it evolved into the sort of interactive narrative that you had envisioned?
It’s great. I like projects that are not confined to the space between the covers. I want the projects to stretch beyond the routine book container in some way. Or projects where the hardcover and the paperback differ significantly. Or projects that never end. There are ways that Hotels of North America could now continue indefinitely. Which would be fun!
Do you inherently trust or distrust critics?
What is your relationship to online reviews in real life? Do you use them as a reference?
A little bit. I like Yelp. I like its anarchy and poor grammar and punctuation. But I don’t pay that much attention to online reviews, in general. As I have said before: there’s always someone online who thinks that Moby Dick is the dullest book ever written.