JANUARY 16, 2016
IF THE HETEROSEXUAL Caucasian male novelist has made a unique contribution to the field of contemporary American literary fiction — if he has, so to speak, a story of his own — that is the story of the loser. Wallace, Franzen, Lipsyte, Shteyngart, Eggers, Moody, Lethem — each of these writers has, to varying degrees, contributed to the creation of the full-spectrum loser (FSL), a man whose chronic failings and humiliations encompass every sphere of human endeavor, who embodies the very ethos of failure, whose story offers no redemption, enlightenment, catharsis, or even sentiment. Theoretically, we might recognize that the straight white male doesn’t hold the exclusive copyright on loserdom — that visible minority group members, women, Aboriginal persons, persons with disabilities, and members of sexual minority groups also produce their share of burnouts, wastrels, failures, and flops. But characters whose lives are already touched by persecution or prejudice or patriarchy or ableism or legacies of white privilege inevitably invoke pathos or activate our instincts for social justice.
If, on the other hand, the loser’s anguish is self-inflicted, or directly tied to the mass delusions perpetrated by “his” (patriarchal, homophobic, white supremacist) culture? In that case, laugh away, no ethical asterisk required. The American cinema has, from Chaplin’s Little Tramp on, presented us with variations on the lovable loser (more recently epitomized in films by Richard Linklater and Alexander Payne, and personified by Paul Giamatti and Seth Rogen), the romantic loser (John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton), and the heroic loser (The Dude, Kevin Spacey in American Beauty). But the losers we find shambling through pages by recent Guggenheim- and MacArthur- and National Book Award–winning novelists are of a different breed. There is nothing lovable, romantic, or heroic about the FSL. The very form of his first-person or close third-person narration magnifies the interior landscape of failure, often filtering toxic levels of self-righteousness and self-pity through a lens of suicidal loneliness. And, needless to say, their failures are all-encompassing: they have failed in their professions, botched their marriages, bombed as fathers, sucked as sons, flunked as friends. They are often addicts, frequently narcissistic, always unhappy. Their stories are usually very funny.
To be sure, American fiction offers a long lineage for this type of loser, one that extends back to include the assorted drunks and sad sacks of Ford, Carver, Cheever, and Andre Dubus. Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman might slouch forward as a likely progenitor, but Miller’s belief that Willy’s downfall constituted something of a tragedy separates him from the contemporary FSL, about whom there is nothing tragic. Among the ranks of mid-century losers, Richard Yates’s Frank Wheeler offers a more direct link to the current roster of nincompoops: while Frank visits tragedy upon all those within the blast radius of his malevolent fecklessness (and April, his wife, inadvertently kills herself in the process of sparing the world from Frank’s third offspring), Yates’s derisive treatment of his protagonist serves as a constant reminder that there is nothing tragic about Frank himself.
Who, then, are the definitive FSLs of recent American fiction? In my own personal scrapbook of literary losers, I’d include a snapshot of Jonathan Franzen’s Chip Lambert — recently fired, recently dumped, rapidly failing at his second “career” as a screenwriter — slipping a $70 fillet of wild Norwegian salmon into his underpants. I’d include Dave Eggers’s Alan Clay — a failed businessman and divorcee, whose credit score, at 698, “was 50 or so points below what would qualify him as trustworthy or even human” — who, in one cringeworthy scene in A Hologram for the King, drunkenly attempts to extract a cyst from his neck with a steak knife. I’d reserve ample room for Sam Lipsyte’s Lewis Miner, a.k.a. “Teabag,” whose “meager accomplishments appear pale, if not downright pasty, in comparison” to the towering achievements of his classmates, who make him “shudder”: “Shudder, in fact, is not quite the word for the feeling. Feeling is not quite the word for the feeling. How’s bathing at knifepoint in the phlegm of the dead? Is that a feeling?”
Reginald E. Morse, the narrator and protagonist of Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America, knows a thing or two about wallowing in the phlegm of the dead. The novel consists of a series of Morse’s hotel reviews for RateYourLodging.com; it also unfolds the sequence of embarrassments, excoriations, and catastrophes that have punctuated Morse’s personal and professional experience. Reviewing the hotels, Morse also reviews the wreckage of a life: the imploded marriage, the estranged daughter, the financial insolvency, and the physical decay — the “saddlebags of middle-aged flesh” that confront him in the mirror. “First I was in investment banking, and then I did a little day-trading, and then I became a motivational speaker” is how he euphemistically glosses a lifelong resume of failure. At the Windmere Residence in Charlottesville, where Morse seeks temporary alleviation of his loneliness by paying a Manilan sex worker to chat with him online (ManilPhil91 is uncomfortable with the situation: his boss monitors the video feed to ensure that his male clients “achieve release”), Morse provides a slightly more honest self-assessment: “I am just another guy sweating out droplets of desperation and heartache in the 21st century, there is no reason to look.”
Moody has long been interested in the relationship between our physical and psychological environments. His best-known works, Garden State (1992) and The Ice Storm (1994), both adapted into critically acclaimed films, elaborate a symbolic and thematic link between the spiritual desperation of his characters and the physical desolation of their suburban landscapes. Hotels of North America is in some ways a continuation of this project, though the spaces that shape Morse’s ennui are both physical (the unending sequence of ★★ hotels that constitute the alleged subject of these reviews) and digital: Morse’s articles first appeared on the web, and his “home” on RateYourLodging.com (as his occasional jousting with stroppy comment-section interlocutors serves to remind us) is subject to the tenuousness, placelessness, and incorporeity of the internet. Some take the utopian view that the anonymity of our online avatars facilitates the creation of a radically liberated self, and Reginald Morse discovers something similar in the course of his fieldwork. You are never more essentially “yourself” than when you are alone in a hotel room.
If Morse has a precursor in Moody’s fiction, his most obvious forebear is Benjamin Hood, the crapulous patriarch of The Ice Storm. (“The modern domestic tale,” Moody observes toward the end of that novel, “always features the ordeal and dismemberment of a father.”) But where Hood’s dismemberment is temporally and geographically precise — over the course of Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, Hood will lose his mistress, wife, and home, and be presented with incontrovertible evidence of his staggering parental and professional failings — the dismemberment of Reginald Morse is more diffuse; his entrails are scattered throughout the budget inns, roadside motels, B&Bs, campsites, flophouses, and Ikea parking lots across the United States. Morse’s wanderings are not motivated by any single driving need. He is not “on the run” in any literal sense. The hotels reviewed here are simply the places in which he happened to crash during his long period of unraveling.
Hotels of North America is at its most dyspeptically amusing when its protagonist’s jaundiced gaze lingers upon the shabby accouterment and ersatz luxury of the so-called hospitality industry. When we first join Morse, it is in the Dupont Embassy Row in Washington, DC — the style of hotel that our guide is apt to call “assisted living” on account of the excessively doilied bathroom, the mysterious cotton balls in a little ceramic dish, and a magnifying makeup mirror to accommodate “the macular degeneration of the guests.” (Morse doesn’t think much of the hotel’s complimentary cookies, either — which were, “in the area of mouthfeel, unfresh.” Not exactly “stale,” mind you. Just “unfresh.”)
Morse, as we discover, is something of a stickler for linguistic precision. At the Rest Inn in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Morse recalls that a former lover, “K,” had once remarked that “she had never experienced trauma.” But he rushes to correct himself: “She put it in a more colloquial way, I think, saying something like ‘I’ve never really experienced trauma.’”
You will immediately recognize the sort of mentality we’re dealing with here — the sort of guy whose entire life is in complete shambles but who can nevertheless summon a mighty indignation for the presumptuousness of the clocks indicating different time zones in the lobby of the Radisson in Waterbury, Connecticut, “as though people lodging at the Radisson of Waterbury were imminently embarking for Tokyo.” Prostrate upon the floor of his room in the Viking Motel in Eugene, Oregon, Morse cannot stop himself from undertaking “a close inspection of the carpet’s dust, blood, seminal fluid, Ritz Crackers, and insect parts.” One of Morse’s ongoing grievances concerns “smoove”: that insipid style of nonintrusive jazz (specializing in instrumental versions of “California Dreamin’” or “Isn’t She Lovely” or “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”) that is the ubiquitous soundtrack in ★★★ hotel lobbies. Vis-à-vis “smoove,” Morse reflects,
If you were experiencing catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia, some flugelhorn soloing just might do the trick, could render you functionally unconscious in that way that hotel life can often do, unaware of any aspect of civilization that involves continuity, stability, devotion.
After yet another long travel day, our weary traveler confronts a hall adorned with “door chimes, a white-eyed wooden thingamabob of commercial Mexican origin, and that banal darling of the arty middle class, van Gogh’s ‘Arlésienne.’” He is nauseated by that “kind of horrible hybridization between the comedy of so-called ‘functional modern furniture’ and the tragedy of decrepit rockers and rickety lamp tables with dead lamps” — except now I appear to be quoting from Lolita, and a narrator who sounds strangely akin to Morse, despite the passage of decades. Indeed, there is no closer analogue for Morse’s jaded ethnography of American travel culture than the one provided by Nabokov’s Humbert on his own nationwide tour of motor courts, tourist traps, functional motels, and colonial inns. Morse, whose erudite, scabrous intonations sound like no investment banker or motivational speaker I’ve ever heard, slips into something more Humbertish with reflections on the “gibbous” moon, or an aside in which he notes that “haphephobia” happens to be “one of those half-Latinate and half-Greek technical terms.” Upon reading a sign advertising an “in-room Jacuzzi,” Morse “wondered, naturally, if the absence of a plural in the matter of Jacuzzis indicated a single Jacuzzi in a single room.” Naturally.
This similarity of voice, coincidental though it may be, does prompt the question of what Moody finds in the absurdities of American motel culture in 2015 that Nabokov did not find in 1955. In one sense, Hotels presents itself as very cutting-edge stuff: a life story told through the frame of hotel reviews and embedded online correspondences. But how, exactly, would our experience of the novel be any different had Moody chosen for his delivery mechanism (say) the postcard, or the epistle, instead of reviews from “RateYourLodging.com”? Advertising copy on the dust jacket informs us that Hotels “demonstrates Moody’s masterly ability to push the bounds of the novel,” though readers will discover that this novel is more or less within the bounds that Samuel Richardson established with Clarissa in 1748.
If Moody’s novel does update the formal architecture of the epistolary novel in one small way, it is through the narrator’s occasional responses to the (unseen) comment section on RateYourLodging.com. Specifically, Morse chastises readers who refuse to believe that he is who he says he is: one reader, KoWojahk283, advances the theory that Morse is a paid employee of the Royal Bank of Scotland, while TigerBooty! believes that the reviewer is in fact a teenage girl. Others allege (resuscitating journalist Lee Siegel’s embarrassing “sprezzatura” incident that got him suspended from The New Republic) that Morse himself composed the “KoWojahk283” and “TigerBooty!” posts in an attempt to drum up more interest for his own reviews. The hastiness with which Morse attempts to dismiss this line of inquiry serves only to underscore the fundamental ontological uncertainty that structures the relationships between online avatars, and gestures toward ways in which that uncertainty has always been built into the literary encounter.
Moody’s afterword strains to flesh out some of the thematic implications surrounding the issue of authorial presence. Here, “Rick Moody,” the famous novelist, takes it upon himself to track down the “real” Reginald Morse (we note, in passing, the corresponding initials), and entertains “questions about fraudulence, about the relationship between the fraudulent and the genuine, and about the ways in which the fraudulent can sometimes feel closer to the truth than the supposedly genuine.” In undertaking this literary detective work — in which “Rick Moody” supposedly retraces the steps of Reginald Morse, staying in some of the same hotels, and so on — Moody is in fact following in the footsteps of an earlier version of himself: the Rick Moody of The Black Veil (2002), his memoir, at the center of which lies an examination of various textual fragments that record Moody’s stint in rehab at an institution in Hollis, Queens. In that case, Moody attempted a retrospective reconstruction, not of a fictional character, but of his own past self: he wanted to understand the man who ended up in that institution, the man who he both was and was not. “What had I learned?” he asks, having combed through this collection of letters, notes, records, and other textual detritus from this period:
I had learned that my past didn’t exist except in interpretations of the past; I had learned that there was no videotape, nor audio recording, nor sequence of eyewitnesses who could say, with perfect claim to accuracy, why I had come to be where I was. There were only hypotheses.
The metaphor Moody settles upon (via the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story “The Minister’s Black Veil”) to conceptualize this condition of permanent self-alienation is the veil. Moody’s point — and the closest thing to an answer he can provide to the biographical question raised by TigerBooty! and KoWojahk283 — is that language inevitably conceals the self it purports to disclose, that our words inevitably veil the truth in the process of revealing it. The internet may foreground the “veil” (in the form of the avatar), but the veil itself is always present at the scene of literary production. The unexpected moral of the tale arrives toward the end of “Rick Moody’s” afterword, when he concludes:
the fellow who wrote these lines didn’t want to be located, didn’t want to be more than the posts you have read, and his need to conceal his physical self is a set of instructions about how the work is to be consumed, namely, that it is meant to be read for what it has to say about the world, not for what it has to say about Reginald Edward Morse. Maybe it would be useful to let Morse go, to follow the words instead.
If this quick and dirty regurgitation of Wimsatt and Beardsley (or is it Barthes and Foucault?) strikes us as a trifle dissatisfying, just a tad disconnected from the business of assessing the single-serving sleeves of grape jelly that accompany the Continental breakfast at the Hyatt Regency Cleveland — slightly indicative, perhaps, of the author’s anxiety that an assortment of dyspeptic hotel reviews that simultaneously chart a middle-aged white guy’s plummet into loserdom is just not enough to be served à la carte — then let us take “Rick Moody’s” own advice and let the author go. Morse’s sharply observed evisceration of commercialized hospitality stands on its own, and requires no post-hoc literary-philosophical noodling to justify its existence. My advice, fellow travelers, is to relish the individually shrink-wrapped cookies, enjoy the industrial-strength showerhead, and wring as much pleasure out of the “video incidentals” as you possibly can. Savor the amenities, because Hotels of North America (much like the life of its peripatetic narrator) doesn’t arrive anywhere particularly satisfying. Maybe that’s the point.