Right Livelihoods: Three Novellas by Rick Moody
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Washington Post Book World
"A tribe of dissemblers, these Moodys," the writer Rick Moody observed dryly in his 2002 memoir, The Black Veil. "Loose with facts, rich in stories." This latter gift is amply displayed in the author's marvelous Right Livelihoods. Moody is best known for his early novels Garden State and The Ice Storm, books that featured suburbia -- the wastelands of New Jersey and New Canaan, Conn. -- in bad decline. The affluent setting of The Ice Storm, conflated with Moody's own upper-middle-class background, led his work to be wrongly compared to that of Cheever and Updike, whose books tend to be firmly rooted in the over-fertilized lawns of towns serviced by the Hudson and New Haven lines. Moody's style, at once deadpan and antic, is more of a throwback to his Northern Yankee forebears (even casual visitors to Maine will recognize Rick Moody's surname), and in The Black Veil he takes pride in family lore that claims a melancholic ancestor as the model for one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's characters.
It's a telling anecdote because Moody's recent work edges towards a quirky, neo-transcendentalist trend in contemporary American literature, a broad and quick-moving stream that also includes writers such as George Saunders, Kelly Link and William Vollmann. Moody studied under the great English fabulist Angela Carter at Brown, and Carter's cat's-paws are evident in Right Livelihoods, where stories flicker between the absurd and the outright fantastical.
The first tale, "The Omega Force," is a deliriously loopy, paranoiac fantasy narrated by Dr. Van Deusen, a 73-year-old, formerly high-ranked, Nixon-era government official now completely off his rocker. Pickled in alcohol, possessed of an aristocratic locution that gives his most demented observations the surreal hyper-lucidity of an LSD trip, Van Deusen spends his days indulging his "ongoing desire to do reconnaissance" on the wealthy offshore community where he now lives. His exaltedly demented conspiracy theories are fed by a paperback thriller titled "Omega Force: Code White," which cements the mad doctor's belief that the island is under attack by "dark-complected persons." Van Deusen is not just an eccentric offshoot of the WASP family tree: He's a spectacular, self-fertilizing efflorescence. "The Omega Force," first published in the Paris Review, was written in homage to George Plimpton, but Plimpton is not the patrician figure who comes to mind when reading it. Rather, think Thurston Howell III gone stark raving mad on Fishers Island instead of Gilligan's. The story's satire dovetails neatly with certain real-life WASP dynasties whose patriarchs imagine their beloved homeland under attack, yet Moody is too generous a writer to have Van Deusen be a mere straw man for the country club set. There's something touching in the old man's fall from grace and sanity, especially his embrace of the bizarre compulsion he calls "the Dance of the Stick," whereby he picks up bits of driftwood that he uses to "conduct the entire world" as though it were an orchestra. Except Van Deusen likes to lick the sticks before using them, like Samuel Beckett's Molloy sucking stones.
"I danced to the death, with the stick whose only wish was to be again in the sea, scrubbed by salts and storm tossed, and I would not bend to its will, and so we fought, the stick and I, a pitched battle, and the stick wrested me to its purpose, to be adrift."
The next story, "K&K," is the collection's weakest, a slight tale of an office manager whose too close analysis of the contents of her company's suggestion box leads her into another labyrinth of paranoid delusion, with an unsurprising denouement.
Which leaves us with "The Albertine Notes," a spectacular, near-future science fiction story that blows away recent post-apocalypse fiction such as Cormac McCarthy's fine but overrated The Road, which travels a well-worn narrative highway that began in the middle of the last century. "The Albertine Notes," like the work of David Marusek and Cory Doctorow, is speculative fiction for this century, steeped in the global post-traumatic stress disorder that is one legacy of 9/11. A dirty bomb has destroyed lower Manhattan and vaporized nearly half the city's population. Those who survive, such as the young journalist Kevin Lee, a third-generation Chinese American who narrates the story, have become addicted to a street drug called Albertine. The drug allows users to relive memories, "the actual event itself, completely renewed, playing in front of you as though you were experiencing it for the first time." But users can't control which memories will surface: They're slammed by a sensory tidal wave composed of trivia, desire, insight, trauma. As addicts drown in this drug-induced "riptide of the past," they lose their ability to remember huge blocks of the actual present.
"The Albertine Notes" is framed as a whodunit, with an increasingly paranoid Kevin attempting to find the User Zero at the center of the Albertine epidemic. But it's really a Proustian meditation on loss, a "light show of lost time" that describes not just personal but cultural grief, for a world and a past that are irretrievable, even in memory. "Our city was outside of history now," Kevin Lee says, and theorizes that, when the drugs cause users to recall the nuclear blast, the memory kills them.
With its Möbius loop of time travel, its replication and reiteration of remembered moments and lost love, "The Albertine Notes" evokes Chris Marker's great 1962 film "La Jetée," a work that has more (and more sinister) resonance with each passing year. When Kevin Lee says, "If you want to assume anything, assume that all silences from now on have some grief in them," he might be describing all of us. "The Albertine Notes" is one of the best stories to appear in the new millennium; it underscores that Rick Moody is one of our best writers.
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