Hotels of North America sounds like a reference book you’d find only in a dusty travel agent’s office. In Rick Moody’s latest novel of that name, it’s more like a self-published manuscript containing a top TripAdvisor user’s most prized reviews. It’s the great American crowd-sourced business rating novel.
User-submitted review sites have given us something unexpected and delightful over the years: small reservoirs of satire and pathos, a way to gather together the sum of many people’s shared and yet not-shared experiences. The anonymous horde have exercised their poetic license on kitschy T-shirts printed with howling wolves via Amazon reviews and offered awkwardly personal insights into their relationships via Yelp reviews of the restaurants where they met their ex, and we have all benefited.
In Hotels of North America, the site is the (fictional) RateYourLodging.com, and the reviewer is one Reginald Edward Morse, whose writings have, per the preface by the director of the North American Society of Hoteliers and Innkeepers, been collected into a volume to be left in hotel rooms for the perusal of travelers. Morse begins reviewing in 2012, but some of his reviews consider hotels in which he stayed decades before; we hear about hotels where he stayed with his ex-wife, hotels where he stayed with a woman he refers to as a language arts instructor, hotels where he stayed with his girlfriend, K., and hotels where he stayed alone.
Slowly, we learn poignant tidbits about K., something of a partner in crime who goes by different bird-related pseudonyms at each hotel, and about his marriage, the daughter it produced, and the affair that ended it. Morse himself claims to be writing these reviews for extra money (suggesting that Moody may not be aware that such sites typically function on a volunteer-only basis), as he’s left a career in finance to be a motivational speaker -- a successful one, he insists despite the evidence. Morse finds minuscule excuses, or none at all, to divert the focus of the review from its customer service or its offerings of cookies in the lobby to morose meditations on the evolution of intimacy in a marriage, the nature of hotel sex, and the horror of feeling utterly alone. “Your former state is now sandblasted, as abraded as anything else could be by the ravages of time,” ponders Morse in a review of a stay, with his ex, at Americas [sic] Best Value Inn in Maumee, Ohio. “What is more tender than mutual recognition of failure?”
RateYourLodging, apparently, is more of a LiveJournal than a TripAdvisor.
Moody’s prose, as befits the writer’s writer he is, possesses a sinuous, entangling power. His long, far-ranging sentences beguile with surprises and the sheer beauty of craftsmanship. He’s also funny, and Morse’s reviews read like a hysterically exaggerated version of the most ridiculously self-centered Yelp comments (e.g. “i had the hugest crush on the daughter of the owner and i would come in after class when i was in jr high and try and talk to her. but the skate store next door opened up and all the skaters got to her and one of them got her pregnant”). The concept of our hotel stays as a form of second life, one that runs parallel to the lives we spend at home, is intriguing, and Morse’s own hotel story serves as proof that this second life often catches us at our highest highs and lowest lows -- his honeymoon, but also the weeks after being kicked out of his house. The hotels of North America deal in extremities.
Ultimately, Hotels of North America feels more like a story experiment than a novel. Morse’s distinctively neurotic, overly articulated style, while reminiscent of such great characters as Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire, never registers as fully real -- perhaps because the hotel review framing keeps him at an awkward distance, and requires devices, such as antagonistic commenters, to prod him into revealing more and more about himself. Yet his character remains thin and mysterious, and his motivations unconvincing; meanwhile, his serpentine style and erudite vocabulary bear marked resemblance to both that of the hotelier who composed the preface and to Moody’s own afterword, blurring together the “characters” into one garrulous fussbudget.
The novel contains many moments of profound insight and pointed comedy, but the framing ultimately falls a bit flat, leaving us, at least, with the pleasure of having bathed ourselves in Moody’s luxuriant prose. And in an era of monotonously MFA-ish, spare style, that’s no small thing.
The Bottom Line:
Rick Moody’s latest novel misses on character development, but his decadent prose hits the mark.
What other reviewers think:
Newsweek: "This is a very literary novel, cleverly constructed and written in an arch, clever, very literary voice, at once mannered and unrestrained, like an aging patrician after his third drink."
Kirkus: "Lively and lightly written. Not the strongest of Moody’s books but of a piece with them, offering a sardonic but entertaining look at modern American life."
Who wrote it?
Rick Moody is the author of six novels, including The Ice Storm, and several short story collections. He’s also published a memoir, The Black Veil, and an essay collection on music.
Who will read it?
Readers who prefer distinctive, memorable characters and unconventional narrative structures.
“As I write these lines it’s early spring in the Northeast, and Americans of every age and station are getting back into their cold, muddy, salt-befouled automobiles.”
“Hair-care products are an important part of any lodging experience. A seasoned traveler, that is to say, a person who is never home, a person who’s putting up at an expensive hotel with a language arts instructor while his wife (I regret to say) is in an apartment no more than two miles away, is in a position to profit in the area of travel-size hair-care products.”
Hotels of North America
by Rick Moody
Little, Brown and Co., $25.00
Publishes November 10, 2015
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