I Should Have A Better Ending

It’s happened again. That thematic accident – some might say serendipity – that occurs when I choose a book to read, from the plethora of books lining our book cases, and lo and behold, find that a major theme of the book turns out to be grief, death – even, in this case, death of a sibling.

On this occasion, the book was Demonology, a collection of short stories by North American author Rick Moody. Moody is a fairly well-known author, perhaps largely because two of his novels, The Ice Storm, and Garden State, were successfully adapted into popular films. I really enjoyed both those films, particularly The Ice Storm, (which sometimes even makes it to my ever-changing list of Top 10 films!) and subsequently read The Ice Storm, but I had not made an effort to read any more of the author’s work until now.

A few weeks ago, I was laid up in bed with a head cold, and pouring over our bookshelves for something to read. I suspect that I chose this book because the combination of the rather ‘out-there’  title, and the cover picture of a large, rather creepy-looking chicken mask, made a strange contrast with the quote across the cover from Time Out, describing the book as “Honest, raw and deeply moving.” The words “deeply moving” and chicken masks are not paired together very often so I was intrigued to see how that combination would play out.

Moody novel

Reading back on the blurb on the back of the book now, I guess there were some hints of what was to come: Moody’s new collection of short stories digs deep into American society and reveals the loss of connection that lurks under the surface. The stories are about language, grief, car crashes, love…..

It’s likely that the mention of language, grief, and connection or loss of it were the final enticement to me (on top of the chicken mask), as all are topics I find interesting. It seems that quite a few of the books I’ve recently read, have entwined ideas about language, and our ability to communicate, into stories of love and loss.

As I reached the end of this collection of stories, it became apparent that indeed, a large portion of the stories in Demonolgy include a death. The reason that this fact sneaked up on me is because often, with the exception of the first and last stories, the death in the story is incidental to the narrative, a small shock for the reader perhaps, but not dwelt upon by the narrator, who merely mentions it as a side-note and then ploughs on with the story.

Now that I’ve noted that, I can’t help but be reminded of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel, To The Lighthouse, which consolidated her reputation as a writer who experimented with form. In that novel, a central character from the first part of the novel, Mrs Ramsay, disappears about a third of the way through the novel, and the reader only learns that she has died when that information is imparted in a set of parentheses in the next chapter. There are other reminder’s of Woolf in reading Demonology: Moody’s style of writing in some of these stories, where he crafts a sentence that goes on for pages, or constructs a story by building it up from sentences about the same unnamed characters, perhaps also makes a small nod to Woolf’s experimental writing, such as in The Waves.

One of my favourite stories in this collection, Boys, could be described in this way, as a string of sentences. What ties them together is that they are all about the unnamed “Boys,” most beginning, or ending with, Boys enter the house, and it becomes apparent that the sentences are taking us through the lives of two brothers as they grow up, and come and go from the physical place that unites them, their family house.

….Two boys, one of them striking the other with a willow switch about the head and shoulders, the other crying, enter the house. Boys enter the house, speaking nonsense. Boys enter the house, calling for Mother. 

Moody sketches their lives out with the barest detail. There is just enough information given to allow us, for example, to work out that they have a sister, and then, as they get older, that their sister is very ill:

Boys enter the house, having attempted to locate the spot in the yard where the dolls were buried, eight or nine years prior, without success; they go to their sister’s room, sit by her bed. 

Time seems to be condensed. We don’t know if the boys have entered the house once, a few times, over a few weeks, or over a year or more, in-between each little snippet of information that we receive about them entering the house yet again.

…Boys enter the house carrying cases of beer. Boys enter the house, very worried now, didn’t know more worry was possible. 

As readers, we are left to work out for ourselves the events happening around the boys, based only on the information that we receive about their behaviour.

Boys enter the house weeping and hear weeping around them. Boys enter the house,  embarrassed, silent, anguished, keening, afflicted, angry, woeful, griefstricken. 

Based on only these snippets of information, and the sudden absence of any further mention of the sister, the reader is left to draw her own conclusion, that the sister has died. Meanwhile, the boys’ lives continue on at the same pace. Boys enter the house, on vacation, arguing about politics, with new girlfriends, announcing new professions, bringing with them their children, carrying out their own father. Life, Moody seems to be saying, continues on after a death, and life is not sentimental, it doesn’t stop to mourn.

There are other stories in this collection where the death of a minor character is just an incident in the larger narrative. The collection, however, is bookended by two stories, each told in the first person by a narrator who is deeply affected by the death of his sister. Reading the first story, The Mansion on The Hill I understood this collection to be fiction, but after reading the final story, Demonology, I was less sure where the line between fiction and fact merged. How could I consider this to be fiction when, in the final paragraph of this story, the narrator turns in on himself, saying I should fictionalise it more, I should conceal myself (…..) I should make the events orderly, I should wait and write about it later, I should wait until I’m not angry, (….) I should have a better ending….

I suspected that there had to be an autobiographical element to the recurring motif of a brother experiencing a sister’s death.

So I did some online research, and very quickly verified that Moody’s sister had died suddenly, when he was an adult and already a published author. She died in 1995, while he was writing another of his novels, Purple America. I found online a number of reviews of this short story collection, all of which referred to this devastating incident in the author’s life as the catalyst for the prevalence of sudden deaths in these stories.

It’s fascinating to see how a person with creative talent can take a devastating experience like the death of a sibling and incorporate all the emotions and memories that experience brings up, into a body of creative work. These stories were strong, sometimes funny, and experiment playfully with form and content – some stories take the form of traditional narratives while others do not. One story is presented in the form of a list of books and another is a chart showing brief notes on a character’s life accompanied by a list of the music he was listening to each year.

I feel glad for Moody, that after the death of his siter he was able to continue to work, and channel his anguish into creating something which we can all share in. These stories commemorates his sister but also offer us all a glimpse of ourselves and how we react as we encounter the deaths that happen around us every day – from being held up on our train journey by a fatal accident, to hearing of the death of an old school aquaintance that we were no longer in touch with, right through to experiencing the death of a beloved sibling.

For anyone interested in further reading:

Flirting With Disaster – New York Times (2001)

Up Close and Personal – A Death as Fiction, as Fact – New York Observer (2001)

Author Rick Moody speaks at Saratoga College (2013)

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6 Comments

  1. All I can see now is a sad chicken on the cover 😦 I didn’t know The Ice Storm and Garden State were written by the same person, but both are very unique films (haven’t read the books).

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  2. I too tend to be drawn to books on grief and loss, although I have one in my stack by Helen Humphries,a favorite author of mine, about the death of her brother that I cannot yet being myself to read. (I haven’t as yet read any books with chicken masks on the cover, and probably never will). In any case, I’ve a bit of a collection going with this theme. And I wonder if you’ve read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion? If not you must. A very close to the bone portrayal of loss and grief, personal and yet a clinical study as well. I would be interested to hear your suggestions too. Great post.

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    • Hi Tandi, thanks! I’ll have to look up Helen Humphries, as I’m not familiar with her. I have read The Year of Magical Thinking twice – the first time a few years before my brother died, and then I read it again after he’d died. I briefly talked about it, in a post called Read About It: https://isthatcoffee.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/read-about-it/ I also own Joan Didion’s more recent book, Blue Nights, about the death of her daughter, which I cannot yet bring myself to read. Many of the books I’ve read in the past 3 years have had grief and loss as central themes, sometimes without me realising that until I’m reading them. If I’ve mastered the whole tagging business, you may be able to find my posts about some of them, under the category of “book review”. Apart from Didion, I have mostly gravitated towards reading fiction though.

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      • Thank, I will look for your other book posts. I dearly love Helen Humphries book The Lost Garden. Quite splendid. I have read Blue Nights and consider it s book which should not have been published. The disorganized thoughts of a women clearly depressed. It reads like a journal that shouldn’t have seen the light of day.

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      • The Lost Garden is also about grief and loss as it happens, although r fictional. But the there is also hope there.

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      • I have also read Blue Nights, in my opinion a book that should never have been published. It reads like a diary of raw pain, which I expect it is. But its not much else.

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