The first thing I did when I picked up Garden State at the library was to make sure that it was not the source material for the film directed by Zach Braff. That movie has, among other things, given rise to the popularity of the Shins and the new "hipster" indie set as a cultural institution. Some other films (those by Andrew Bujalski come to mind) mine similar territory, but never to the blockbuster degree that this film did. And it is hard to see what makes it so seemingly great. I will say that there were a couple good scenes in the movie (when Peter Sarsgaard smokes pot with his mom the morning after their big party, or the scene in the rock quarry, or whatever) but overall I found it average, and it's biggest saving grace is that it is not as bad as The Last Kiss.
So I was happy that Garden State was its own different thing. I also thought it would be instructional for me, a not-quite-ready-to-quit-yet writer, in what it takes to get a first novel published. Here's the thing about Rick Moody: he got his MFA from Columbia University. It's one of the top programs in the country--and also one of the most notorious for being expensive and generally unwilling to provide funding for its students--and Rick Moody is its most famous alum. This book was published in 1992, when Rick Moody was 31. That's pretty young for your first book (these days), and in a way Garden State is the official beginning of the purported "MFA Movement" in contemporary literature. Except that Garden State is actually really awesome.
Not to say that every writer who has their MFA has no soul, or something, but there is a general concern that they have "figured out the nuts & bolts of literature" and therefore write cookie-cutter stories and novels. I do think that is true for many graduates of these programs, and many of those that aspire to this level, and it may even be true for Rick Moody in some of his other work, but definitely not in this novel. It might be useful to compare this to Purple America, which came out four years after this, and which was one of the first posts on Flying Houses. In between these two books came The Ice Storm, which is an awesome movie and a book I want to read now even more. Surprisingly he only has one other novel, The Diviners, in 2005. As we might have learned from our previous post, it pays to be selective.
So which is better--Purple America or Garden State? For my money--Garden State. And that is not to say that Purple America is bad--only that it is more comic and less realistic. The opening chapter of Purple America shows off more literary tricks than anything in Garden State, but his debut is easily the more moving of the two. I read most of it yesterday, Labor Day, horribly, horribly depressed. And it didn't make me feel much better, but I could definitely relate to most, if not all of the characters, and it already holds a special place in my heart for having been with me on this troubling day. That is what makes books more special than movies. The experience of consuming it colors one's opinion.
This book is about many young people in their early to mid 20's living in New Jersey, most in their parents' houses. The fact that I moved back to my parents' house almost exactly one year earlier on Labor Day also plays a certain role in this reading.
It is about Alice Smail, who used to be in a band called Critical Ma$$ with Scarlett, and L.G. Scarlett lives in her own place above an exterminator's office. L.G. still plays music but is coming to grips with the fact that he has to work as a carpet salesman in order to make a living. The other main characters are Dennis, Alice's boyfriend of sorts, and Lane, Dennis's step-brother. Alice's mother and Dennis's mother are also notable, as is Max Crick, who works as a cable installer and sometime drug dealer--but the real heart of the story is Lane. Every time that Lane appears, the novel hits its stride. But it would not be as good if it were only about him, if he were the main character. As it is, Alice is pretty much the main character, but Lane will capture most readers' sympathies. He has recently moved back home with his mother because he could not take living in the city and working his job. At the beginning of the novel he is lying in bed for days, barely able to speak. Later he will be awoken in the middle of the night and brought out to a party, which causes an event which bisects the novel beautifully.
I have to mention that Garden State bears more than a passing resemblance to my first novel, Daylight Savings Time, not the least of which is the occurrence of that day (but in April, not October) as a significant moment in the narrative, but also in its depiction of "young people who don't know what they want to do with their life" and drug use and an "ensemble cast." Where it differs is that, while I really don't know what I'm doing with my life, nor did I know anything about my characters, Moody knows his characters inside out. And their experiences ring true, while the experiences of my characters ring spoiled brat, i.e. the author. So basically, Rick Moody accomplishes what I hoped to accomplish with my first novel, except his takes place in the suburbs while mine takes place in the city. His narrative is also just more finely chiseled.
Like I said, I read the majority of this novel in a day--but it would be hard to say it is an instant classic. It's a very good book, a very, very good book, and it might be on a top 10 list of the best novels of 1992, but I don't know if it would win the NBA. Anybody that is in their 20's and confused about the bitch of life that is a career--this book is for you.
It's also oddly appropriate that I read it after Franny and Zooey. Just one of those things, that one of the main characters in each book is named Lane, and I think this book does not accidentally bear other similarities. It may not be about praying, but it is definitely about nervous breakdowns.
If there was one single aspect I had to mention as a facet of the "MFA Movement," it would be the "listing concept." Many works in contemporary literature by MFA graduates feature weird lists of things, like if they are able to be comprehensive about a certain subject then they are really smart and deserve the title of all-knowing, all-seeing writer, who can describe anything and everything. Occasionally, Moody works this to his advantage:
"Silence, then. Alice didn't say anything. Lane breathed. He was looking back and forth down the corridor. Then he just started talking. All these decisions came about as though they were made somewhere else, not in his own head. It was like taking dictation. He told her about where he was, about how there was this day the second week there when he had suddenly known he would survive, about how everything cleared in that moment. Like some long, involved fugue coming to its resolution. Lane told Alice about women. He told her his crimes--not even knowing if she was listening. He told her about the woman in his philosophy class in college. He told her about how there'd been another girl at the patent law firm. He had never said a word to either of them. He had spent so much time alone. He didn't know how many afternoons had passed this way. There was no way to start all the conversations he owed. He didn't even know where to begin. Books might be better than people. He told her how he was afraid of women and afraid of men too, and how he felt at the roof party, and how it felt when he fell, and how he had wanted to jump, and he told her about civic corruption and philosophical disenfranchisement and the hypocrisies of patent law. He told her about his lust for the outdoors. He told her everything that had gone wrong, everything he had lost, everyone who had hurt him, and then he told her about his father." (180-181)
This book is 210 pages long and moves much more quickly than Purple America. I am guessing that being able to identify with the characters helped move me along, but I also know that this is a very good novel, and one that all young writers should read--a) so that they know the market, and b) so that they know how good a first novel has to be in order to be published today. It's a shame that Zach Braff had to use the same title--a movie of this book would have been so much better. So, so much better.