The Carnival Tradition (in Demonology, 2000) by Rick Moody
“This was fifteen years ago in Hoboken,” begins Rick Moody’s The Carnival Tradition. Call it the mid-eighties, then, based on that milemarker and the handful of cultural signposts punctuating the novella’s first half: a Hoboken still new to the process of gentrification, a onetime member of Yo La Tengo showing up to a gallery opening. But not always the mid-eighties: the story’s second half takes us back to the era of Pong and the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, moving from urban New Jersey to suburban Connecticut, from a nascent art scene at odds with a working-class neighborhood to a WASP establishment throwing cavernous Halloween parties for their children.
But it isn’t entirely then, either. Each part of The Carnival Tradition follows one half of a tenuous couple, M.J. Powell and Gerry Abramowitz, in isolation; each slowly, deftly, summon up hints of their lives in the fifteen years encompassed by that first sentence, to the point where we’re left with a relatively complete history of each of them across roughly forty years, despite only witnessing a handful of hours in the lives of both.
It’s also that the structure of the novella mirrors and magnifies the action, something that Moody makes literal in its final paragraphs, as the interweaving of M.J.’s story with Gerry’s provides a critical lack of catharsis. And through these two windows into a not-entirely-functional relationship, we’re left with different vantages on the same themes, grand ones scaled down to fit on a city block or a living room: class and privilege and love and desire. The elements in each half shadow and complement one another, but never quite line up: one moment’s insider is another’s onlooker; the neurotic protagonist of one story an emotionally distant figure in the other.
Aside from providing slightly more of a key to his structure than might be necessary in the novella’s final paragraphs, Moody invokes these elements intricately and sparingly, leaving in details that make certain settings vivid and others wrenchingly elusive. Reading it as I first did seven years ago, I found myself relating to its characters’ flawed attempts to open a gallery in a place that, for them, was just less than hostile. Now, it’s the more bittersweet tones of its unwritten years that resonate, the blurred memories and misplaced hopes that remain unresolved at story’s end, that for these characters will likely never be resolved. Perhaps the best way to describe where The Carnival Tradition’s lovers find themselves at its end, older and reaching out to one another but never quite in sync, an unmatched, bittersweet kind of echo, is to venture back to that New Jersey city, to again reference its much-beloved Yo La Tengo. They titled it best, on an album that extols the sort of relationship these characters will never have: Night falls on Hoboken.
AND FOUR MORE
The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton
Reads like a lesson in how to have complete command of your story and characters.
Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathaniel West
True, it’s billed as a novel on the back cover of New Directions’ paperback collecting it with The Day of the Locust, but the fact that it comes to fifty-six pages in that edition is grounds for me to shoehorn it in here. That and the fact that it’s stunning, possessing a sense of corruption and emotional horror throughout scenes and settings that would suggest anything but.
Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link
The first fiction I ever loved was about unreal things, and Kelly Link’s short fiction reminds me of why I craved that feeling of wonder. Magic for Beginners is structurally fascinating, with a layered narrative that never feels overly clever and a sense of loss that infuses the marvels within.
Adopted Town, by Melissa Holbrook Pierson
When I saw Pierson discussing The Place You Love Is Gone, she referred to it as a collection of three “nonfiction novellas” — a fairly arbitrary term, sure, but I’m willing to run with it here. Like Rick Moody’s The Carnival Tradition, it takes as its subject Hoboken in the 1980s, and it makes the geography of a moment tangible and heartbreaking.
Tobias Carroll lives in Brooklyn, New York. He has covered music and books for a number of publications, and his fiction has appeared in THE2NDHAND, 3:AM, Word Riot, and as part of Featherproof Books’ “Light Reading” series. Is he at work on a novel? Yes; yes, he is. Find him HERE.