Each of the three novellas in Rick Moody’s Right Livelihoods ends with a breath of mid-air. In “The Omega Force” (the first) and “The Albertine Notes” (the third), the ending is a winding down, an exhaustion, an impressive feat of rhythms coming to an end and characters giving up on reiteration, though they don’t know quite what’s next for them. In “K&K” (the second), the ending is an opening up, an epiphany wherein the protagonist realizes what everybody else already knows. All three tales have conclusions, but not neatly tied ones, nor do they drop off into nothingness; rather they hang there, preserved and precious, ready to fall, with nothing solid anywhere around them. Thus even if you have found, as I did, the first two stories to be monotonous and the third to be often fascinating and occasionally clotted, you will reach the end and discover a certain satisfaction, a whiff of fulfillment, because even if the stories that lead up to them are not particularly substantial, the endings are the endings of great fiction: beautifully balanced in conception and execution, even dazzling.
If only the first two stories were worthy of their grace notes! If only the whole of the final story were as carefully controlled as that last paragraph! If we lived in a world where these yearnings were facts, then Right Livelihoods would be more than a blip along the Moody bibliography, more than a collection of oddball occasionals. We could speak of the problems of the stories not as faults, but as we speak of philosophical problems, mathematical problems—the heights of human intellectual accomplishment, the arts of thought and implication, sublime pleasures.
Alas, no. With the first two stories, the problems are of the type that go ker-plunk. These are very different from the problems of the third story, and of a different order. “The Omega Force” and “K&K” primarily suffer from a lack of space for empathy—we, the readers, are given no way to care about the fates of these characters. We can’t even pity them; they’re too broadly drawn, too flagrantly stupid for us ever to imagine such creatures could exist in the world. This would not be a problem if Moody’s satire, which is what the stories seem to want to be, were more insightful, more complex, more nuanced and ambiguous. Then the stories might be invitations to thought; instead, they incite us to scorn. Scorn is sometimes a justified reaction to the nightmares of the world, but it is too limited a reaction to fuel a long narrative. Scorn is boring.
“The Omega Force” tells the tale of Dr. Van Deusen, a wealthy alcoholic who’s been, it seems, exiled to a resort island by his wife, who appears to think he’ll get in less trouble there. As he rambles across the island in search of companionship and cocktails, he begins to link stray comments, random events, and utter delusions together in a conspiracy theory:
How did dark-complected hostiles discover that our island was an effective launching pad for their plot to overcome our nation through terror? How was it that they first realized the value of this place, this sleepy outcropping in the middle of the Sound of which no one knew a thing, except perhaps the three thousand people who have been coming here for generations, interbreeding, trying to keep out the uncivilized hordes beyond? How did this become the high-value target?
The whole story is like that, its words aching for attention, ready to raid an italics factory. Van Deusen latches on to another character’s use of the term dark-complected, but he is himself drunk on not just spirits, but the jargon of spooks. His entire vocabulary grows besotted with an idiolect of neo-liberal ideology. We can spot his vulnerabilities from the beginning, when we see that he’s an aspiring curmudgeon: “Like most men of taste and discernment, especially those who were born before the ascendance of the idiocy known as popular music, I love the classics, and what I especially like is the orchestra.” Previously, he was fascinated by a book that will provide much of the fodder for his folderol, Omega Force: Code White, of which he said: “It should go without saying that I prefer antique stories where remarkable people solve crimes and restore law and order using old-fashioned know-how and deductive reasoning.” The import of his uninformed elitism is not entirely surprising, then, in its silliness—a few lines after his praise of orchestras and Beethoven, he tells us that the best music causes him to do the Dance of the Stick and, he says, “Occasionally, I like to lick the stick before I begin to use it.” (Is this Alex after he’s shat out his clockwork orange and skipped into senescence, no longer capable of orgasm or ultraviolence, reduced to drooling on driftwood for his ode to joy?)
It’s fun for a little while to watch Van Deusen stagger about, and the pleasures of the voice come mostly from the obvious disconnection between the world as he perceives it and the world as it probably is. We are given just enough hints to be able to see how this man is viewed by the other dwellers on the island, and to know how his interpretations of his actions and encounters are humorously unreliable. The problem is that this is a story a more restrained writer would give ten pages to; Moody lets it linger for seventy-five. It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s going on, and yet it keeps going on, with little variety or development. Finally, instead of burning up under a volcano Van Deusen washes up on the beach, waiting for any apocalypse that wants to call him its own, confident in nothing except his patriotism, the last delusion he’s got.
At least “The Omega Force” is occasionally funny. “K&K” is all strain, no smiles. In it, Ellie, an office manager at an insurance company, fixates on strange, vulgar messages being left in the company’s suggestion box, and meanwhile a new broker is hired who comes in and shakes things up at the company. In the end, Ellie learns that sometimes people’s lives are more complex than she knows, and that her life is immensely shallow. (Any sentient reader knows this by the second page.)
Though these two stories prove Moody has certain skills—skills of voice, of rhythm, of diction—they do not prove he has any skill for satire. They are topical stories, both. Van Deusen’s paranoia is the paranoia parodied by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11. (Van Deusen would like to be a guardian of culture and ends up an evangelist for the culture of fear.) Ellie becomes a witness to regime change and power grabs, she sees threats no-one else notices, she misconstrues the desires and motivations of her dark-complected co-worker, she tries to fix the past and only makes the present worse. The word security appears in both stories, snickering at itself.
Again and again while reading these two tales, I thought of George Saunders, who, in his best work, does this better. Saunders gets away with silliness and caricature, with broad strokes and potshots, because he portrays people who, though they might be losers, are not despicable. There’s still some room to care for them, and still—perhaps most importantly—hope. Saunders risks sentimentality, and sometimes falls into it, but it’s an important risk to take when making funny about foibles. It saves you from coming off like a smart-ass kid with a way with words, too cool to care that words can wound.
“The Albertine Notes” is something else entirely. Moody wrote it for a McSweeney’s anthology edited by Michael Chabon, where writers of all stripes tried to write stories that offered something other than affecting epiphanies for middle-class academics. The contributors were encouraged to utilize some of the techniques of popular fiction, and Moody chose to write a science fiction story about apocalypse, drugs, and metaphysical doubt. It was later reprinted in one of David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s fine Year’s Best SF anthologies and included on Locus magazine’s annual list of recommended science fiction and fantasy stories.
It works, mostly. Theres a real tension to the narrative of “The Albertine Notes,” because Moody doesn’t let us distance ourselves from the characters or the events. He writes a science fiction story, not a “science fiction” story (a story too uncomfortable with itself to ever stop reminding us it’s better than we think it is). Instead of an idiot, our narrator is a relatively intelligent, ordinarily fallible guy. There is room for thought and exploration as we experience a future Manhattan that has been the victim of a suitcase bomb, a Manhattan where a drug called Albertine makes memory more addictive than life.
Moody, it turns out, is a pretty good storyteller, with a real sense of how to set up events suspensefully. Good writer that he is, he doesn’t stop with entertainment—stories can do much more, and this one does. The same ideas of security, fear, paranoia, delusion, and apocalypse that mutter and fart between the lines of “The Omega Force” and “K&K” are here presented through thought experiments. At its worst, “The Albertine Notes” is fairly obvious allegory (which I’ll take over stultifyingly obvious satire any day), while at its best it’s entertainingly philosophical fiction.
The problem of “The Albertine Notes” is not a problem of empathy—it’s a problem of originality. The story is compelling, but familiar. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a familiar story, and to a certain extent all stories are familiar, but a story with real heights of accomplishment, as this one has, always makes me wonder what the writer might have been able to achieve with a little extra oomph. Since 9/11 apocalypse has become a favorite subject of writers in English, and even Oprah finally got in on the game with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Drugs have been a staple of the science fiction diet from the earliest mad scientists with unwieldy syringes to the various New Waves of the ’60s to the man who now comes most easily to mind when we think of narcotic nightmares and the ends of worlds, Philip K. Dick. It’s a little bit of a disappointment that Moody seems so clearly to want to question things about The Way We Live Now, but isn’t able to push his story further, to give it other edges. (The reader who tastes greatness grows greedy for more.)
There were moments of “The Albertine Notes” that seemed to cry out for tighter composition or more precise pacing, but the story is so much more entertaining and provocative than the others in Right Livelihoods that it seems intemperate to do anything but sing its praises. Science fiction is something Rick Moody has a talent for, and I hope he continues to explore it—I hope, too, that he gives up on satire, because when he plays it straight, as he does in “The Albertine Notes,” he is able to meld the strengths inherent in the SF mode (speculation, non-didactic social and cultural critique) with his own strengths as a writer (precision of language, control of voice and diction) to create compelling fiction. I have no doubt that, in time, some of that fiction would be not only compelling but stunningly original in both its iteration and its ideas.
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