The year is 1973. As a freak winter storm bears down on an exclusive, affluent suburb in Connecticut, cars skid out of control, men and women swap partners, and their children experiment with sex, drugs, and even suicide. Here two families, the Hoods and the Williamses, com face-to-face with the seething emotions behind the well-clipped lawns of their lives-in a novel widely hailed as a funny, acerbic, and moving hymn to a dazed and confused era of American life.
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A Stark and Dormy Night
Some things work in audio, some don't. The Ice Storm works. Well. The narrative voice, mostly paraphrasing what its characters are saying and thinking rather than quoting them directly via dialogue, makes it quite a good listen. I had originally tried reading the book in print about a year ago, had difficulty getting into it, and when (just 30-40 pages in) lost it, I didn't rush out to replace it. But when I got a chance to listen to it, I thought it might just be a better listen than a read, and that proved to be true.
That the narration is good helps, of course, but what I'm really referring to is the author's narrative voice, especially as he shifts his perspective among the four Hood family members and occasionally throws in his own personal musings.
My favorite character in The Ice Storm is 1973. Not to sound smarmy about it, but all of the human characters are not exactly charismatic, not likeable in any sense. They are interesting but they are highly damaged and dysfunctional. But the setting is as much a character as the characters who people that setting -- New Canaan, Connecticut, on Thanksgiving, 1973.
One could have chosen New Canaan as one's favorite character, since the tony suburban setting is crucial to where the characters are at the start of the book and where they end up after the events of the day (and night). But I choose the time rather than the place -- 1973. If America "lost its innocence" in the wake of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, a decade later, in the wake of Nixon's Watergate scandal and the arrival of the sexual revolution in a buttoned up suburb, America's jaded and browbeaten heart and soul had completely frozen over.
I had just started college in the fall of 1973 and was stunned by a presidency that killed itself off with hubris, a world that began its long slow burn with the oil embargo that followed the Yom Kippur War, a crime-ridden city (New York) that was on the verge of bankruptcy (both literal and metaphorical), and a culture that was in the last stages of perverting the utopian social ideals of the 60s into the dissolute self-absorption of the "Me Decade".So I remember it well. Too well. Not very fondly. Rick Moody uses that moment in American social, cultural and political history, lashed both literally and metaphorically by a deadly ice storm, to recount the demise of the American family, both literally and metaphorically.
My favorite passages in the Ice Storm were the ones where the narrator steps away from the point of view of a particular character and riffs on a particular cultural element of the era -- politics, style, music, TV, comic books, religion, et.al. Had the book been written contemporaneously with its era, these references would surely feel dated. But looking back two decades, during its writing in the early 90s, the commentary benefits from hindsight, from treating its material more as historical or cultural artifacts, as sociology.
Although I am more interested, personally, in pop culture, both of that era and others before and since -- music, TV, fashion, comics, etc. -- the passage I liked best was the send-up and tear-down of 70s-style new age spirituality, the fads I could never understand at the time and no one understands in retrospect, with EST getting the most of Moody's narrator's attention.
No one is sympathetic enough to truly qualify, but Paul would be the one I would choose if I had to, especially if I could go to dinner with him today, when we're both in our late 50s, and compare notes about our late teens in 1973. Sharing his age and his gender, and therefore much of his teen angst, it would be an interesting discussion. I guess what this really means is that the person associated with The Ice Storm that I'd really like to take out to dinner is author Rick Moody, since Paul is almost surely his alter-ego, the autobiographical portion of the proceedings.
Then there is the movie. Director Ang Lee is highly acclaimed these days for blockbuster productions like Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, but before embarking on that phase of his career, he made a handful of smaller, family-oriented films, of which The Ice Storm was the last. It is my fond memory of that movie that made me want to read the source novel in the first place. The book has a different feel, made up so much more of interior monologue, where the movie is distinctly visual in style. But both are excellent in their own media -- if you like it (my wife didn't like the movie, hated it in fact, and therefore has zero interest whatsoever in reading or listening to the book).