The Rick Moody who, in 2002, released the excellent story collection Demonology might not actually exist anymore. It hardly seems possible that the Rick Moody who has now released a new trio of novellas, Right Livelihoods, could be the same person. The Moody who wrote Demonology took a fine chisel to the vocabulary and syntactical muscle that weighed down his novels and gave us stories that were as varied and exciting in style as they were compelling and human. Since then, the wheels seem to have come off for Moody. 2005 saw him release the unwieldy and ultimately self-indulgent The Diviners, and now he returns with Right Livelihoods, a book so full of self-imposed restrictions it keeps itself from a success that is very much in reach.
The opening novella, “The Omega Force”, gives us a main character that is almost wholly unlikable. He is also cartoonish in his self-delusion. But Moody seems to make these elements work. The narrator, Dr. Van Deusen, is a xenophobic alcoholic in denial who is running recon on a plot that in all likelihood deosn’t exist to destroy his isolated, upper-crust island. He speaks in elevated language (unsurprisingly well-crafted by the wordsmith Moody) and that tone creates a comic distance that supplies the novella with enough tension to push it forward.
“K & K”, the second novella, has perhaps the strongest lead-in to a story, when Ellie Knight-Cameron begins to find increasingly threatening notes in her office’s suggestion box. Like Van Deusen in the first novella, who is set-off by a pulp spy novel, Knight-Cameron spirals into an ever-increasing paranoia as the notes become more violent and politics in the office get stickier by the day. In fact, the very movement of the first two novellas are almost identical, where both characters get so lost in their delusions that they end up embarrassing themselves at public gatherings.
The third, and longest, novella, “The Albertine Notes” breaks away from this formula in nearly every way. The most ambitious of the three, this story is told in a New York that has lost 50 square blocks in Manhattan to a dirty bomb, and the remaining population is hooked on a drug (Albertine) that allows them to relive memories. However, takers have no control over what memories they see, and some are (according to our narrator, Kevin Lee) dying from memories of the bomb blast. Lee is a reporter trying to get to the bottom of some nefarious plot (again, real or imagined) by the makers of the Albertine drug. All of these novellas deal with delusion, and in each case that delusion is tied to loss and regret. Van Deusen would rather concoct terrorist activity than face his own alcoholism. Knight-Cameron takes refuge from her intense loneliness at work, and seeks to protect one delusion with another. In a clever movement for the book, “The Albertine Notes” expands the delusion and loss onto a whole population. That in the end none of these novellas find their characters breaking completely free from their paranoia may be the books greatest strength, as it shows a society that fosters individual delusions so as to control the population.
That is a big idea, and in the end the problems that idea creates for a society are the same problems it creates for this book. Moody sets aside the notion that ideas (especially ones dealing with something as big as post-9/11 paranoia) should serve the story, and instead gives the ideas center stage. As a result, the delusions don’t humanize these characters. Instead, their paranoia acts as a machination that separates us from them more than anything. That Dr. Van Deusen is an embarrassing drunk and a suspicious racist is hardly what makes his character fail. The problem is that, while some of the narrative distance in the story is intentional and effective, the distance is never broken. The same is true in “K & K” when a novella that was so carefully plotted abruptly ends once Knight-Cameron’s paranoia is proved groundless. That the story stops short once her delusion is gone gives the impression that there is not much to her character. And while “The Albertine Notes” comes the closest to success, with Moody capably crafting a labyrinthine succession of memories, it is still hampered by its own constructs. That the confusion of memories is well-wrought serves only to show Moody’s typical literary high-wire act, but in the end it makes for a plot that is more confusing than the ideas it is, in Moody’s hands, serving.
What makes it so hard for idea-driven fiction to be successful is that too often the writer gets caught up in ideologies and forgets that the reader needs a compelling and undeniably human character with a story to follow that can act as a conduit for the big ideas. In the end, the characters in Right Livelihoods just aren’t strong enough to carry the load. So, while the book touches on some interesting notions about post-9/11 America, they’ll more likely than not be lost on readers looking for a story.