Monday, February 3, 2014

The Ice Storm, by Rick Moody

It's a rare day when I prefer a film to the book on which it was based.  In fact, Lost Horizon is the only example that comes to mind. It's been a good many years since I saw Ang Lee's production of The Ice Storm, but I think it has a slight edge over Rick Moody's novel. For one thing, the film had a young Christina Ricci in the role of the sharp-witted, adolescent nymphomaniac, Wendy. Even now, it's Ricci's Wendy who sticks in my mind much more indelibly than Moody's.  Still, the book was worth reading.

I picked up the novel for a couple of reasons.  The synopsis said it was peppered with nostalgic early-1970s detail. This was the era of my own awkward, painful adolescence -- I feel no nostalgia for it per se, but I felt an almost morbid fascination with every mention of toe socks, game show host Gene Rayburn, shag carpets, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. These were things most of us were relieved to bury in an unmarked grave, to be forgotten as quickly as possible, but it was hard to stop wondering what social or aesthetic embarrassment Moody was going to unearth next. Also, the book was set in suburban Connecticut, where I spent nearly a decade of my adult life.  I'm not pining for that, either -- in the late 1990s, much of the state struck me as hollowly materialistic and status-obsessed, and I was curious how affluent New Canaan had looked to Moody two decades before.

There is also the title theme:  it doesn't matter how wealthy you are in Connecticut when winter hits. Like the expensive houses and landscaping it coats, ice is exquisite and mesmerising, but it can also be deadly. It sparkles, but it only reflects; it doesn't illuminate.

New Canaan sits on Connecticut's gold coast -- the stretch of land that runs east-west along the Long Island Sound. It's effectively a strip of leafy, posh New York suburbs, home to the families of bankers and stock brokers who commute in and out of the city by train.  Benjamin Hood, Moody's main character, is indeed a stock broker, although he's quickly falling out of favour at his firm as a younger member seems to have captured the fancy of the partners with his new-fangled schemes. Ben is also cheating on his wife, Elena, with their neighbour, Janey Williams. The Hoods have two children:  Paul, who is away at boarding school, and Wendy, a 13 year-old who is simultaneously idealistic and prematurely cynical. The rapidly loosening social mores leave Wendy even more unmoored and confused than puberty alone would have. She's restless, life is ugly, and grownups generally suck.
Somewhere the popular girls were trapped indoors with their ephemeral crushes, the infatuations they shared with no one. And elsewhere the half-dozen poor boys of New Canaan High, whose fathers would have to go out into the snow and run the plows, watched TV from couches covered in flame-retardant vinyl. The sleet and snow turned the last light a sullen yellow. The sky looked awful, nauseating. Wendy wanted to know why conversations failed and how to teach compassion and why people fell out of love and she wanted to know it all by the time she got back to the house. She wanted her father to crusade for less peer pressure in the high school and to oppose the bombing of faraway neutral countries and to support limits on presidential power.
Wendy's mother, Elena, is also ill-prepared for the sexual liberation of the 70s. She is keenly aware that her marriage is stale and uncommunicative, but she has a household to run and two children to consider. She plunges into every self-help book and method she can find (and at that time, self-help gurus were sprouting like the grass on Greenwich lawns). The Ice Storm takes place on the weekend following Thanksgiving 1972, and in the middle of serving a dinner of holiday left-overs to Ben and Wendy, Elena realises that none of her books, tapes or chants will save her. Her life is going to pieces just as surely as the war in southeast Asia.
And the turkey was no longer moist. This conclusion was unavoidable. Above all, she and Benjamin agreed on the necessity of moist turkey. This was an area where progress had certainly delivered miracles. And yet this moist quality seemed to last through the first serving only. One had to guard against dryness in leftovers. One had to reheat gravy. And Elena had failed here. She knew that if she ever suffered a real and debilitating mental illness, its onset would not be the result of a failed marriage or because of twentieth-century spiritual impoverishment; it would be caused instead by these details, by a pen mark on the designer pantsuit she'd bought for the holidays, by the slight warp in her Paul Simon album, or by the acrid taste of old ice cubes. These small things led to a bottomless pit of loneliness beside which even Cambodia paled.
The Hoods' teen-aged son, Paul, decides to spend part of his Thanksgiving break in New York, pursuing the affections of his wealthy, graceful fellow student, Libbets Casey.  As with all teen-agers, Paul knows more than his elders, most especially when it comes to sex and drugs.
He had perused Davenport's dog-eared copy of the Kama Sutra; he knew what love was. He was going to pursue this education. He didn't want to be as sad as his parents.
Ben Hood's capacity for introspection equals his insight into office politics and the latest market trends: practically nil. He can't see that his mistress is mentally unstable, nor that his wife is unhappy. His affair is not making him especially happy. In fact, when Elena finally confronts him about it, he claims it makes him feel wretched. But he encourages her to pull herself together, and they'll go off to a party whose guest list includes 20 or so of New Canaan's well-off couples.  To the shock of both Ben and Elena, the hostess greets them in the foyer with a large bowl to receive their car keys.  It's to be a 'key party', which ends with the women picking a random set of keys from the bowl and going home with the man who owns them. Ben and Elena retreat to their own car to recover and discuss this development. After a few moments of chilly (literally and figuratively) discussion, Elena concludes that she intends to participate in the key game and returns to the house, leaving Ben, bewildered, sitting in their car. He reflects only for a moment.
His capacity for drinking surprised even him, but it paled in the face of his capacity for self-deception. His denial was significant enough to suppress even any notion of denial. He concealed in himself all notions of motive. So as he lifted the pewter flask again -- warm from its proximity to the heating vents on the dash --any questions about the key party or its farcical possibilities failed to occur to him. Where his motives were concerned Hood was like a blind man without a cane. He was night diving. He was flying without instruments. He was going to this party.
After an aborted tryst with Janey Williams in her guest room earlier that afternoon, Ben Hood had discovered Wendy in the basement family room with the Williams' older son, Mike, both in an incriminating and semi-dressed state. While her parents are out at this swinging party, Wendy walks back over to the Williams house, half hoping to resume her frolics with Mike. Instead, she finds only the younger son, Sandy, at home. Where is Mike?  Sandy suggests that he's probably out wandering around in the wintry weather looking for Wendy.

Sandy is 13, prepubescent but precocious in the way children of affluent, suburban parents tend to be. He explains that his talking G. I. Joe action figure now repeats only one phrase when the dog-tag chain is pulled. When Wendy pulls the cord, though, the doll spits out a different phrase. She returns it to Sandy who merely contemplates it, torn between childlike hope and adult doubt, the former likely to fade away before his voice starts to change.
Together they stood over the prone body of G. I. Joe with Lifelike Hair, now supine on the folded comforter at the foot of Sandy's bed. Somehow the idea of trying him again, of going back to the well one more time, felt pointless to Wendy. She recognized a moment here in which she saw the machinations of chance in the universe, and she didn't want to ruin it. Sandy was adorable in this light. He couldn't wait. He wanted to dispatch Joe, because he had some dignity wrapped up in the notion of inferior goods and dumb culture and stupid America. He was one of those kids who spent hours in front of the television shouting That would never happen. Sandy Williams expected to be cheated. He was ready for it. And it came to pass almost every time, and in this way the world seemed good and true.
And while the parents are negotiating the 'key party' at the neighbours' house, Wendy and Sandy are confronting a sexual exploration of their own, made slightly creepy by Moody's descriptions of their immaturity.
And something strange was happening right then. Wendy noticed Sandy was sitting on the bed with his pillow across his lap. Some emotion was overtaking them. She knew what this meant. She knew that Sandy was emerging briefly from under the rock where he lived.
The following morning brings an awkward collision, when Wendy, having spent the night in the guest room with Sandy, bumps into her mother, who had come home with Jim Williams. Neither of the adults knows the whereabouts of their own spouses, but both vaguely agree that their children's behaviour requires some disciplinary attention. While Elena bumbles around to fix a breakfast in Janey Williams' kitchen, Jim takes it upon himself to deliver the lecture, oblivious to any twinge of irony or hypocrisy.
Now, your mother, Williams went on, your mother . . . left the party with someone else. I want to be honest about this. I have to be straight with you. Okay? And so we can figure out what kind of situation she's in. She has taken advantage of this opportunity that same way we have. She might be happy about it, she might not. We don't know. But she can't call now, because the phone lines don't work and probably there are trees down along the roads. The electricity is out, and the roads are dangerous. And that's why she's not back yet. But when she gets back and when Mike gets back we will all sit down, Sandy, and probably Wendy you can count on sitting down in your house, too, with your dad, and have a long conversation about what's happened...
This is serious. Imagine, Sandy, if Wendy were to get pregnant right now, when you are thirteen and she is -- what? Thirteen, too? Imagine what Wendy would have to go through over at the high school in her maternity gowns, trying to cover up the fact. And then how would you two take care of the baby once you had it? Who's going to take care of it while you are at school? Who's going to pay for the obstetrical care or the delivery of the child? Do you expect us to carry the expenses you two incur through stupidity? Hell, no! And who's going to teach this kid the morals it needs to have? Its morality is already a little sloppy based on the job you're doing now. Get it?
The carnage wrought by the ice storm, both in emotional and physical terms, exposes the glass houses of New Canaan as costly but fragile vessels whose contents rarely live up to expectations -- their own, each or others'.  


  1. Oh. It has nothing to do with extreme weather conditions and natural disasters then, does it?

    1. No, more like man-made social disasters, including bell-bottom jeans. :-)


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