by Rick Moody
(Little, Brown & Company) $24.95

BALANCING ARTISTIC concerns and commercial viability is the challenge of the modern fiction writer. This is especially true in America, where novels are considered first of all idea banks for Hollywood, and works of art as an afterthought. Most writers fall short of that challenge, either unable to explore the complications of consciousness, or spurning linearity completely, treating words like "story" and "narrative" as if they're kryptonite that will kill sensibility.

Rick Moody is one of the few whose prose bridges this aesthetic divide. And with rare exception, that bridge is strong enough to support readers as they travel back and forth. His work, from the slacker dislocation of Garden State to the keep-up-if-you-can kaleidoscope of the short stories in Demonology, employs the full palette of human emotion without being straitjacketed by structure. And though he demands a lot from his readers, his talents allow him to do as he likes without losing them.

Ironically, most people familiar with Moody do not think of him as one to stretch the boundaries of form. They think of him as the New Updike, due to the massive success of his second novel, The Ice Storm, a suburban nightmare that was movingly adapted to film by Ang Lee. Speaking via phone from New York, Moody acknowledges this misperception. "Writing 'realistically' is what I thought I was supposed to do to get published," he says, and The Ice Storm, his first novel put out by a major publisher, hews a realistic narrative line. "The thing is," he continues, "all the stream-of-consciousness stuff comes naturally to me--it's who I am as a writer. Trying to restrain myself to write more realistically, that requires much more hard work."

Fluid and confident from start to finish, The Ice Storm records one choice rip in the unraveling fabric of the American dream, expressed through the story of two families, the Hoods and the Williamses. Set over the Thanksgiving weekend of 1973, the affluent town of New Canaan, Connecticut is rendered as a peaceless purgatory, where the sexual liberties granted by the '60s have fermented into new variations on adultery, and new doctrines like the I Ching and Gestalt therapy are used in the most cynical ways, as badges to show that you had shed the theological astringency of mainline Protestant dogma. What separates Moody's suburban disease from Updike and Cheever is the rich color he brings to claustrophobia, creating a world of hollowness and decay without romanticizing it. Everyone is looking for a way out, but there is none. It's a suburban take on Sartre's No Exit, where all the doors lead further inward, into the radiation of the nuclear family.

Though Moody was already a rising name when Lee's adaptation was released, the movie brought him an accidental audience that, chances are, he otherwise would have never had. And though he's certainly grateful for the opportunity to be read by more people, he isn't interested in catering to their more mainstream expectations. "That crowd is never going to be happy with the rest of my work," he says, "and there's nothing I can do about it, exactly."

When Purple America, his first novel after The Ice Storm, came out in 1997, those extra readers did a double-take. The two books are radically different. But as his work crossed into new territories, Moody found that his core audience was happy to join him, no matter how tricky the terrain. "They're a voracious, protean, ambitious bunch of readers that seem to be willing to go wherever I want to go. And whoever they are," he laughs, "they only seem to want me to do more weird shit. And I'm happy to try and be as weird as possible."

From the mouth of a less agile writer, this would be self-serving, but Moody's facility with nuance and dynamic allows him to write "weird shit" without leaving readers feeling that they've been conned. The first chapter of Purple America epitomizes this facility. It's a four-page paragraph about a man giving his convalescent mother a bath, written in a biblical cadence that's lyric without being precious: "Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his mother's body, he shall never die. Whosoever knows the latitudes of his mother's body, whosoever has taken her into his arms and immersed her baptismally in the first-floor tub, lifting one of her alabaster legs and then the other over its lip, whosoever bathes her with Woolworth's soap in different sizes, whosoever...."

This sort of approach, which is pretty constant through all of Purple America's 300 pages, is further explored in the pages of Demonology. Even more so than in his other collection, 1995's The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, Moody treats the trappings of normal narrative as options, not obligations. On one hand, there's "Wilkie Ridgeway Fahnstock, The Boxed Set," which is a short biography of an unremarkable life, conveyed through a list of mix tapes, the songs on them, and anonymous liner notes that provide some, but not much, context for those songs. Its art-for-art's-sake showiness is trumped by its originality and humor. On the other hand, there's "Demonology," a cut-and-paste memoir in which Moody attempts to come to terms with the sudden death of his sister. His motivation in writing about her death is not to tidy up the helplessness of that loss, but to sit with the helplessness.

Moody uses short stories as a way to play around, without running the risk of a major loss of time and energy. "With short stories," he says, "I can be more fanciful with respect to form and structure than I can in novels. If I mess it up, then I've only expended two months' work." Not that novel-writing has been free of major creative mishaps. "With Purple America, I first tried to write in the first person, and it was a disaster. I had to chuck eight months' work and start all over."

Between the success of his fiction and the name recognition that The Ice Storm brought, Moody is as famous as you can be without being a best-selling author. Yet he's very thankful for the inherent anonymity that his profession brings. "The only time I ever felt famous," he says, "was when The New York Times ran an article about me, with my picture, on the front page of the City section. For about five days, everywhere I went, people were like, 'There's that guy from the paper!'" And any sense of fame was contextualized when he tried to contact a certain well-known rock star. "When I was editing Book Forum, we were trying to get Shirley Manson to write a review, because on the Garbage website she said she'd liked Purple America. Getting in touch with her," he continues, "was impossible. I tried her manager, her publicist... and nothing ever happened. So being a 'well-known writer' is nothing compared to real fame."