Darkness visible

The Black Veil

Rick Moody <em>Faber and Faber, 288pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0571200567

Rick Moody, author most famously of The Ice Storm, is the latest novelist to write a memoir about depression. He searches for the origin of his melancholy by tracing his paternal line to the 16th century. More ambitiously - and spuriously - he ties his depression in with a sense of national shame about the Puritans' treatment of the Native Americans. This is also a book about language and writing, and an attempt to position its author in the tradition of the great American novelists, with particular focus on Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, we are told, had depressive tendencies, liked graveyards, and was interested in "lineage".

Hawthorne once wrote a story called "The Minister's Black Veil", inspired by a clergyman called Joseph Moody, about a man who took to wearing a veil and refused to remove it even when he was dying. (Moody's grandfather claimed Joseph was a relative of theirs who lived in the early 18th century.) Moody seizes on this as a fitting metaphor for emotions of depression: isolation, guilt and self-disgust. He punctuates snippets of his own history with analysis of, and quotations from, this story, which, by the time it is finally reproduced in full, at the end of the book, is wearisomely familiar to the reader.

In his preface, Moody says his narrative will be "fitful", because it follows the twists and turns of his obsessions. "Readers in search of a tidy, well-organised life may be surprised." But his endless digressions are often tedious, and he is capable of being at once frivolous and pompous.

When he decides to wear a black veil himself to see what it feels like, it seems silly (he turns his visit to Wal-Mart to buy one into a comic skit). When he laments the impoverishment of contemporary culture, or the fate of the Native Americans, he sounds merely grandiose ("To be an American . . . is to be a murderer . . . Cover your face"). Above all, he is fanatically self-obsessed, a real pub bore.

Yet there are wonderful sections. Like Jonathan Franzen, fellow-chronicler of suburban white American ennui, he writes brilliantly about family disharmony. Moody's parents divorced in 1970, and he conveys the trauma of being in a "detonated nuclear family" with an admirably light touch. He is also very good on his descent through alcohol and pill-popping to breakdown; the passages about being in hospital are funny and moving.

What does it mean to write a memoir? Moody acknowledges the impossibility of a truly "factual" account. "Any memoir is a fiction . . . just as many fictions are veiled memoirs." And what, after all, is memory? Moody chooses a characteristically extreme but fitting image: it is "just a . . . series of protective encasements for identity, like chain motels at the edge of canyons".

Rick Moody comes from a line of New England car salesmen, "a tribe of dissemblers, loose with facts, rich in stories". He believes there is not much difference in what he does as a writer. History, too, he thinks, is "only the stories of storytellers", and the same goes for family. (Joseph Moody, by the way, turns out to be no relation.) In any case, human beings are ultimately unknowable. In this confusing and relativist context, Moody's curious book makes perfect sense.