The Short Version: The compiled hotel reviews of one Reginald Edward Morse, who was briefly the top reviewer on RateYourLodging.com and whose writings reveal certain truths about society, humanity, and one man’s life.
The Review: I’m distinctly self-aware of my writing this review, in a way that I’ve not ever been before, because this book is the compiled reviews of an online reviewer – and his reviews sometimes spin off of the object at hand into broader considerations. Although they go farther than any online reviewer ordinarily might, there is something to be found in Rick Moody’s thesis that a series of writings about something as simple/innocuous as hotels can, in fact, reveal the outlines of an entire life. You, reader, might be able to put together various rough sketches of the outline of my life, for example, by glancing back through past reviews – the introduction and disappearance of names, the development of a career, etcetera. I’m not surprised that a writer like Moody was the one to take advantage of this for a novel’s basis.
My previous experience with Mr. Moody’s writing was a… frustrating one. The Four Fingers of Death was often infuriating, largely because it had such glimmers of excellence hidden amongst the bloat and listless madness. But the thing that’s stuck with me (other than the image of the severed hand crawling through the desert) is Moody’s ability to layer metanarrative in a convincing way: the novel we’re reading is the story of the writing of a novelization of a remake of a sci-fi B-movie but it also contains that novelization as well as a bunch of made-up, never-to-be-published prologue to the novelization. The various annotations and layers of authorship were delightful, even if the nearly-800-page end result was kind of only barely passable, and when I heard about Hotels, I thought: “not even 200 pages with multiple authors and meta elements? Sure!”
The interesting thing is that even at 200 pages, this book feels a little long. I’m not sure if that was the intended point or if Moody’s demons just get the better of him no matter what the length of the book ends up being. But some of these reviews tended to blur together, to feel like they were unimportant to the greater narrative. As a result, were they in fact important – meant to show the full scope of Morse’s writing and the very real fact that not everything is a winner, that even the best on any given site or place will sometimes write a dud? As with The Four Fingers of Death, I can’t tell if Moody is a genius or not. But the question is fascinating to explore.
And, on a micro level, Moody captures the realities of online reviews pretty perfectly. He even excerpts the now-infamous Amazon review of Haribo Sugar-Free Gummy Bears, like a call out from the stage to say “yep, I’m just as good as the real thing” – and it works, mostly. Some of these reviews have barely anything to do with the hotel and others barely anything else – but they all capture the subjective experience that Morse had while staying in a place. And isn’t it nice, sometimes, to have a little context? To know that a reviewer is more than words on a site but an actual person? It makes you feel a little more connected to the reality of the experience, knowing that the reviewer who you’ve come to trust has things going on in life just like you do. And Moody plays it up brilliantly, making something like “Demagnetizing is a fact of life. Which means that on occasion, the subatomics are at work. Atoms are mostly space.” feel simultaneously ridiculous and totally true-to-life for an online review.
The need for connectivity and connection in the modern world is clearly Moody’s target throughout and it’s when he gets too on-the-nose about it that the book stumbles. A review in which Morse replicates an online chat with a potentially fake “boy toy”, where he just wanted some companionship and so talks to this 21-year-old from the Far East, felt a little too strange and ultimately unnecessary: we get that Morse is using the internet to connect with people, even when he’s arguing with some of the more strident commentators, and that particular moment (as well as a few others) felt like a sledgehammer hitting us with something we’re already well aware of.
It should be noted that Moody also captures two other voices in the book: his own and that of Greenway Davies, the director of the North American Society of Hoteliers and Inkeepers (a fictional organization, I was sad to discover). Davies delivers us an introduction to Morse’s collected writings and Moody the afterword – and while Moody’s afterword takes the meta affectations perhaps a half-step farther than was necessary (and it felt a little like needing to reassert one’s own voice after, perhaps, being subsumed by a fictional one), Davies’ intro is one of the best short works of humor I’ve read in quite some time. It’d fit in at The New Yorker as a Shouts & Murmurs except that it is, perhaps, a little too subtle (with a single sentence’s exception, where Davies admits that he hasn’t actually read the book he’s introducing). But when you start the book, you take it at face-value – and you’re led to believe, tenuous as that belief may be, that all of this is real: the website, the society, the people involved. And this is what allows me to forgive the somewhat clumsy afterword, because it pushes the reader a little bit further into believing that maybe, just maybe, Reginald Edward Morse is real. And that’s a fun thing to believe.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Moody satirizes online reviewing culture (hey everybody!) with pitch-perfect aplomb here while also creating a masterful work of layered metafiction. If it could’ve been novella length instead of its 199 pages, apparently making it more “novel” than “novella”, it might’ve been perfect. But perhaps the imperfections are what make the book palatable, real, understandable and conceivable as opposed to obviously fictional. These are not just reviews of a hotel but scenes from a life, shared at arm’s length (e.g. via the internet) but also inviting a reader in more closely than even a family or close friend might get to be. I salute all of the Reginald Morses out there – for we are all part of that human community, sharing our thoughts with those who’d hear us. And for you, readers, I speak for all of us when I say: we are thankful.