Published by Little, Brown and Company
Review by W. R. Greer
There's an old joke that goes something like the following: An oilman dies and is met by St. Peter at the pearly gates. St. Peter tells him that heaven has all the oilmen it can handle. If he wants entrance into the kingdom of heaven, he has to convince another oilman to leave. So the oilman starts a rumor that oil has been struck in hell, and fairly quickly, all the oilmen in heaven are headed to hell. When St. Peter sees the oilman who started the rumor heading that way too, he stops and asks him where he's going. "To hell," replied the oilman, "there just might be something to that rumor."
A similar joke is central to Rick Moody's The Diviners, except instead of being about oil, it's about a screenplay which doesn't exist. There's not a whole lot of dramatic plot involved in The Diviners, but this supposed screenplay is more of a tether that binds all the characters and story together. In New York City, Vanessa Meandro is a large woman who binges on Krispy Kreme doughnuts and runs an independent film production company, although she's more of a tyrant than a boss. She likes to terrorize her mostly female staff and reduce them to tears. Her business partner is an action film actor named Thaddeus Griffin. He's using the company as a vehicle to lend his presence to serious films and hopes to find a dramatic movie that will make him a serious actor in the eyes of the public. Mostly what he does is try to bed the female staff, as well just about every other attractive woman in New York City. One of the staff he's sleeping with is Annabel, whose nickname for Vanessa is Minivan and tolerates working for her because she wants her own screenplay produced. Annabel has either lost or never received a treatment which Vanessa is demanding she give to her. So Thaddeus and Annabel sit down and invent one, spinning up a ridiculous idea based on a non-existent book by a non-existent author and calling it "The Diviners." It's a 13-part miniseries about those special few throughout history who have had the ability to find water using only a forked stick and their unknown, but special, place in history. It begins centuries ago when the Mongolian hordes swept across Europe and ends with the founding of Las Vegas in the Nevada desert.
Vanessa loves the idea. Moving from barely profitable independent films into a big-time television production will help her bottom line and her prestige. She has her staff work on finding the author, creating a buzz around the project, finding just the right writer, and selling it to a television network. Soon everybody wants in on it, competing versions of the project are created by others, and perhaps even the original author is found. It's not that it's a high quality product, but different characters hope "The Diviners" will provide fame, fortune, or power for those interested in acting in it, directing it, writing it, producing it, or broadcasting it. The fact that the screenplay doesn't exist doesn't seem to faze anyone and they're all willing to embellish it with their own ideas and dramatic flourishes, regardless of any historical inaccuracies. Even those who know the project is fake get caught up in it.
The Diviners is about greed, ego, ambition, and the lengths people will go to get ahead in the game of life. Rick Moody adopts a literary style to reflect this in this novel. Each chapter is told from a different character's perspective in an almost stream-of-consciousness style where characters are stuck with labels for the rest of the chapter. Long paragraphs that last for pages will introduce everything about the character before the character does anything in the chapter that might move the story along. This is the "treatment" and background you'd use as if you were pitching this chapter to a producer. Everything you ever wanted to know about the character and whole lot you didn't want to know are revealed, and then their actions are added to the storyline.
Rick Moody obviously intends The Diviners to be a satire. It's written in the style of a television drama with a large cast of characters and the different chapters (episodes) follow each character's plight around the fake screenplay that binds them all together. Then another chapter comes out of left field telling another episode about another character tangentially connected to the plot or another character in some way. He highlights the shallowness, phoniness, and lack of honesty that runs rampant through not just the entertainment industry, but through the rest of society and business as well. Most of the characters have found a way to use their industry ties to achieve nefarious ends. Want a free meal? Tell the restaurant you'll shoot a scene there. Want to gain the attention of an attractive woman? Offer to find her the company of someone connected to movies, if not a role in a movie itself. Need to find a new way to pamper that temperamental pop diva or rapper? Tell them you'll get them involved in the movies. Better yet, a leading role in a 13-part miniseries called "The Diviners" is just the perfect vehicle for that career transformation! Everybody wants to be in movies or on television.
The problem with The Diviners being a satire is that, for the most part, it's not particularly funny. Some of it does work. There's a running thread about Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Rick Moody has captured names and titles that hit just right with his attempts to skewer the stereotypes. Thaddeus Griffin made it big with an action movie called "Single Bullet Theory," and you know exactly what type of movie that was without being told anything more about it. The most-watched television show, in which we get to "see" a whole episode, is "The Werewolves of Fairfield County," and most of the country is on the edge of their seats for each episode. At least you get that impression. Rick Moody can fashion his prose so that those moments of insight gleaned from his descriptions of behavior or character are just right and create those "aha" moments when you know the author has connected with you. Parts of the novel are thought-provoking, and anything that makes you think must be a good thing. Right?
Yet a whole lot of this novel never connects with you. There are chapters that are just painful to read. They're told in a voice that is full of a jargon related to that character's perspective and it goes on and on and you just want the chapter to end. When it's over, you realize you could have saved yourself the trouble and skipped the entire chapter and not lost much of anything to the story. A lot of The Diviners is like the industry it wants to satirize. It comes across as a one-joke story that goes on for too long, overreaching in its attempts to grab its audience. For the first half of the book, I found it easy to put it down without an urge to pick it back up again. I left it alone for a couple weeks because I just couldn't bring myself to read it anymore. There weren't any characters I even cared about. Once I passed the halfway point, the tempo of the book picked up, the interactions of the characters began to make sense, and I was eager to see how the production of this screenplay that never existed would eventually unfold.
As I approached the final chapters, I wondered whether the good or the bad in this novel would win out and if I'd be willing to give The Diviners my recommendation. Reading those final chapters was difficult and when I finished, I was relieved to be done instead of sorry to see it end. I wasn't sure what ultimately happened to some of the characters, and I'm not sticking around for future episodes to find out. The fact that I could never get immersed with any of the characters remained the fatal flaw for me, and the satire wasn't biting enough to overcome that.
There are those who will probably enjoy this book more than I did. Those who know the people and industries satirized here or are part of that big city madness to make money, be seen at the right events, and profit at your adversary's mistakes. Perhaps more of those "aha" moments ring true to those intimately involved with them. For me, though, The Diviners was a disappointment on a promising premise that never played out to my satisfaction.
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