How to Write: Rick Moody’s “Hotels of North America”

Hotels of North America may be a fictional autobiography masquerading as a series of equally fake online reviews of North American hotels, but that doesn’t keep it from being saturated in a lot of truth. All this soul-sucking anonymity of postmodern America, this wallowing in temporary and shallow lodgings, what the book’s “author” Reginald Edward Morse poetically elevates as “the nomadic life,” is a hefty stretch of despair and disillusionment, a peeling back of the bright wallpapers in these so-called hotels that hide the terrors under low-thread count coverings. It reminds me a lot of the way that David Foster Wallace’s short stories often started out under the guise of being one thing (“Little Expressionless Animals,” “Octet,” “Mister Squishy”) only to inevitably become something else–or, really, to have been the other all along.

To be clear, none of the entries in this book are traditional hotel reviews. The only thing, really, that each entry has in common with the format of a review is that it tends towards lengthy lists that recount numerous traumas or sorrows, those that are most directly the sense memory inspired by one dismal room or another. The novel is a master lesson in craft, but here are some examples, each complete flash fiction in of itself:

My parents were parted early in my childhood. My father was an organization man, and he was often away, and he simply stopped returning to our address after a certain time. No explanation was offered. Or maybe there was an explanation but it was so vague as to be uninterpretable by the likes of me. What a dreadful experience for a young boy who just wanted the company of his dad, who just wanted to whack at baseballs in the backyard with the old man, who just wanted to be taught to use a circular saw, who just wanted to learn the rudiments of five-card stud or blackjack, who just wanted to understand the precise location of the clitoris or how to pronounce clitoris, or who wanted to learn how to order meat from a waiter, or who wanted to say the word meat with great gusto, or who wanted to learn the proper way to mix and shake a martini, or who wanted to learn to say good little piece of tail, or who wanted to contemplate the necessity of moving on, or who wanted to neglect to shave, or who wanted to learn the specifics of firearms, wanted to be able to eject a used shell, to drive with one hand and dangle the other out the window, to belch without shame, who wanted to drink in the morning, who wanted not to bother flushing the toilet, who wanted to learn to walk naked from the bathroom without worrying about who saw him, and who wanted to cut down his colleagues, his personal friends, in midsentence when he had to. Who would not want his dad when his dad was gone?

Note the precise way in which Moody builds and layers the narrator’s attempts to grasp at memories, both positive and negative–anything that would allow him to bring back his father, to better make sense of his own life and his own failings. See the contrast between words that stand for objects (clitoris) and words used simply as words (clitoris), and realize that everything has significance here. Such lists can also be comic, too, with the exaggerations in this next example quickly becoming distorted.

My feeling then was of forlornness, of the desperate inadequacies of this human linguistic apparatus that we employ to forestall, a little longer, aloneness, and of how futile these fumblings so often are. In the next lurch of solitude I began trying to add to the list of things not to say to someone in your marriage: Don’t ever use a pen while lying on the bed; don’t ever forget to put the cap back on a pen after using the pen; don’t ever use a pen if it’s new; put items in the refrigerator at ninety-degree angles; do not throw things in the bathroom trash if there are already a lot of things in the trash; don’t ever lie on the bed, made or unmade, in your clothes; don’t get into the bed without having showered; don’t put your bag on the bed, don’t put your bag on the chair, don’t put your bag on the counter, don’t put your bag on the table; don’t ever do the laundry; don’t bite your nails; don’t put the toilet paper facing out; don’t put the toilet paper facing in; don’t accelerate quickly; don’t wear those colors together, don’t wear those colors together, don’t wear a stripe and a plaid, don’t wear that shirt, that looks bad on you, that looks bad on you, that looks bad on you too, are you sure you want to wear that, that looks bad on you; please stay out of the house a couple of nights a week so I can have some privacy; don’t put that there; don’t put that there; that plastic cup was given to me by my grandmother; don’t use my towel; don’t use my bathroom; you don’t understand your own family; you don’t understand your own role in your own family; you don’t understand what people think of you; you don’t understand other people; you don’t understand me, you don’t understand yourself; I need money for clothes, I need money for credit cards, I need money for school; don’t cut your meat on the plate, that sound is awful, cut your meat on the cutting board before putting it on your plate; don’t touch me.

Again, though, look at the specificity of the commas and semicolons here. Look at which phrases Moody chooses to repeat and emphasis, almost like a poem, as he gets hung up and fixated on the sorts of small things that, over time, can end a marriage, or how those small things (pens, laundry) can oscillate into large ones (you don’t understand me) before going back to banal irritants again (cutting the meat). The italics in the above example are all Moody’s, too; there’s a very important difference between wearing those colors together and wearing those colors together, with the stress indicating the frustration of having to repeat oneself in the first place. My favorite line, however, is the one that starts to conflate arguments: “That plastic cup was given to me by my grandmother.” This speaks to the speed of Moody’s writing, to the pace–this is great stuff. You’d be hard pressed to find better examples–maybe something from Lorrie Moore (who has a short-story collection called Birds of America)?

The novel grows a bit wearisome under the weight of its depression, even if it ends (nonlinearly) with a review recollecting that initial burst of fresh love, as opposed to the review that details, in stark brutality, the ending of another love: “Things go wrong that you can no longer fix, and when you come to this realization, that problems have completely crowded out laughter, that the beloved is not going to laugh again, and that there is nothing you can do at all to cause the beloved to laugh, this is the moment at which you attempt to impregnate the beloved in a hotel in Rome, in a charming neighborhood near many tourist destinations of choice.” And yet, the whole thing also remains playful, a multilayered work that Nabokov might’ve enjoyed–take, for instance, “Rick Moody’s” afterword to the novel, a Pale Fire-esque conceit that uses the poetic reviews as a launching point for yet another exploration of the soul, of meaning. “This is not a book about hotels but a collection of writings about what it means to be alone,” this fictional version of Moody concludes. Those who can handle reading about that, who can find home and inspiration in a possible future that does not involve being alone in endless anonymous rooms, will find much to appreciate in Hotels of North America. The remainder will carry on writing reviews that serve to help them erase themselves from the narrative; let us learn at least this much from the novel–focus on subjects, not objects.

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