The Rest of the World: Hotels of North America by Rick Moody
Rick Moody is a sly one. His Hotels of North America comprises a series of fictitious hotel reviews by a one Reginald Morse, and in its depiction of Mr. Morse’s tendency to talk more about himself than the subject of his “criticism,” it’s conceivably part-intended as a preemptive strike against any book reviewer who would denounce the American writer’s sixth novel. It has Mr. Morse reducing the motels and inns he complains about for RateYourLodging.com to mere reflections of his own troubled life and self, and in so doing it insinuates that this is what all criticism fundamentally entails. Hence, the task of appraising Hotels of North America becomes one fraught with difficulties and pitfalls, since the novel itself suggests that the person who belittles questionable furnishings or, in this case, questionable prose is very often simply giving vent to a frustrated career, a comatose love life, or a stubbed toe.
However, this is already to render a disservice unto the novel, since its anthology of online hatchet-jobs encompasses much more than the egotism and solipsism inherent to criticism. To begin with, its premise — as witnessed by the book’s “preface” — is that the North American Society of Hoteliers and Innkeepers (NASHI) have latched onto Reginald Morse’s quirky reviews and assembled them into a compilation. The purpose of this collection is not only to encourage the reader “to book another room,” but also to aid NASHI in their “ambitious plan to improve hotel service in this country.” The thing is, from the very first entry in Morse’s series, we realize that this enterprise is fatally flawed, since no matter how much the Hotels of North America improve their services and listen to (the rationalizations of) such customers as Morse, these customers are always going to bring their “baggage” to their otherwise spotless rooms.
For example, in this first entry, Morse gripes that the “[t]oo much mustard and brown” in his bedroom provides an unwanted reminder of his “alcoholic grandmother back in Westport.” Accordingly, he awards the Dupont Embassy Row hotel two stars out of five, and from there he commences an achronological tour through America and beyond, which as could be imagined, winds up being more an achronological tour through his past and present. As such, he inadvertently refutes NASHI’s belief that the quality of a hotel alone is sufficient to ensure the quality of its reviews, because every hotel, B&B and IKEA parking lot (yes) he evaluates becomes little more than opportunity to dimly yet acerbically take stock of his failings, failures and uncertain future.
Luckily, Morse proves an amusing and articulate guide to his own life, even if the format in which he chooses to write his autobiography exposes him as self-important, if not downright egomaniacal. His various exploits are chock with dry observations and witty self-deprecations, Moody’s crisp stylings bringing him to life as an embittered yet resiliently spirited individual. During one stay in an abandoned hardware store — just after he separates with his wife — the “top-ten online hotel reviewer” exhibits his arch drollness when he rhetorically asks his readers, “what was keeping me from running loose across state lines with a one-legged prostitute and some open containers, plotting embezzlement and get-rich-quick schemes, insider trading and arms dealing?” In an earlier ‘review’ he recounts an episode involving an exposed “portion of the intimate area of my own person”, while in another he admits to being excited by the presence of a Pet Shop Boy in his London hotel despite the fact that he “understood only vaguely what a Pet Shop Boy was.”
For all his ornery charm, there’s nonetheless something indelibly pompous and self-absorbed about Morse’s need to frame all of these picaresque anecdotes and biographical vignettes within the format of criticism. When he praises the Equinox hotel in Vermont and prizes the establishment with four stars, it’s clear that this adulation is less for the “extremely white sheets” that were “probably labored over at great length by a crew of teenagers,” and more for his successful “illicit liason,” in which he “assumed some highly combative positions” on these same sheets. Accordingly, it soon emerges that almost every “bad” hotel in the novel is attached to a bad experience, and that almost every “good” hotel is attached to a good one. Therefore, when he lauds the Davenport Hotel and Tower in Spokane with a maximum of five stars, the accompanying tale of romance makes it hard to shake the suspicion that he’s merely lauding his own life and personage with five stars, egocentrically brandishing both before his modest readership in order that they join in with and validate his narcissism.
In other words, the setup of Hotels of North America militates against liking or caring for its protagonist to any significant degree. That said, it’s precisely this setup that lends the novel its wider significance and relevance, that qualifies Morse as a representative of the kind of consumerist individual who scapegoats “the dismal Presidents’ City Hotel” so as to save himself from taking responsibility for the dissatisfaction and misery that is his own life. He focuses his unhappiness on inns that serve “only cheese grits” and expects life-satisfaction from such “amenities” as “towel warmers” and “onsite e-book readers,” hoping that such distractions will spare him the need to do anything to confront his past or improve his present.
To take another example, in a Tuscaloosa joint called La Quinta, he unhappily and needlessly swallows down some Ambien, a drug that may cause “profound personality change.” However, when “attempting to isolate possible causes of [the] profound personality change” he later experiences, he unbelievably asserts that La Quinta’s “earth tones, at least for me, certainly brought about profound personality change.” As unsavory and borderline shocking as this denial and self-delusion is, it’s with such a passage that the book transforms itself into a critique of consumerist society, of a society which believes that the consumption of hotel rooms, hats and handbags is enough to compensate for the alienation, estrangement and unhappiness this consumption helps to perpetuate.
As for this unhappiness, the medium of the hotel review conveniently permits Morse to retreat from himself just enough to evade its sources, even though he’s at least marginally aware of this evasion. At one point he addresses his fellow users of the RateYourLodging website, posting that some of these users “will imagine that the great number of hotel reviews I write are due to some desire to avoid the child.” Here, “the child” refers to his only daughter, the daughter he can no longer see frequently due to his divorce, and the daughter whose absence represents an absent future he vainly tries to fill with consumption and consumer reviews. He has other grievances as well — a stalled career as a motivational speaker, a father who abandoned him when he was a child — but these are touched upon only in passing, only as devices for underscoring how his present, itinerant lifestyle is just an excuse not to be alone with himself and his problems for too long.
As essential as it is to the main concerns of Hotels of North America, this habit of mentioning his backstory only in momentary fragments can be something of an irk at times. Unsurprisingly, Morse acknowledges his own ‘oversights in the only way he can: by criticizing someone else for the same fault. During one appraisal he derides another reviewer for publishing such incomplete haiku as “Hotel room not clean services bad,” carping that it barely “conveys the specifics of your dissatisfaction.” This is somewhat rich coming from him, insofar as he spends the entire novel disguising existential wounds and frustrations as issues with “moldy curtains” and workers “yelling in Spanish”, and insofar as, when he does fleetingly broach such wounds and frustrations, he does so chiefly to underline his unwillingness to broach them in any depth. On the one hand, this is a slight annoyance that proves to be the novel’s main weakness. On the other, it galvanizes one of its main strengths, which is that it encapsulates a society, which, somewhat ironically, is increasingly participating in a simulacrum of “communication” (e.g. hotel reviews, social media) so as to prevent itself from having to communicate with any intimacy, consciousness or depth.
In the end, this withholding of information also helps Moody to bolster the overarching theme of Hotels of North America in another way. Specifically, omissions like his girlfriend’s name (known only as “K.”), the underlying reasons for his marital infidelities, and why he suddenly “vanished not long after posting a final review” compel the reader to project her own narrative, ideas and self onto the novel, in much the same way that Morse projects his self onto the numerous lodgings in which he stays. Because of this compulsion, the book accedes to the level of meta-literature, self-consciously questioning the extent to which a writer can provide anything beyond a ‘novel’ way for the reader to experience herself again and again, through the prism of the language which has been arranged on the page before her.
This accession and this self-consciousness are both cemented by an “afterword” written by Rick Moody himself, who goes off in search of the character he himself has purportedly given birth to and defined. It’s as if he’s tacitly confessing that he has no idea who this “Reginald Morse” person is, that the latter is more the creation of his audience than of his own ‘pen’. If we take such a confession to its logical conclusion, it’s also as if he’s tacitly confessing that Hotels of North America is about whatever his audience thinks it’s about, and is only as good as this same audience thinks it is. Put differently, he once again strikes preemptively against the book critic, affirming in advance that even this critic’s recommendation of a sharp, clever yet occasionally bleak novel with a generally unsympathetic lead is little more than an expression of the critic’s own subjectivity, and is therefore no reliable indicator of how the rest of the world will receive his sixth work. So, once again, he proves that he’s a sly one, and simultaneously urges each potential reader to go discover the trenchant social criticism of Hotels of North America for themselves.