Despite cherished progenitors like Ernest Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA and Philip Roth’s GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, the novella is not a literary form that has attracted the interest of many American writers. Among contemporary authors, Jim Harrison (LEGENDS OF THE FALL) is perhaps the only one working consistently in the form. The principal danger is that, poorly handled, the work can feel either like a padded short story or an underdeveloped novel. In RIGHT LIVELIHOODS, Rick Moody has avoided that pitfall, providing a trio of unsettling tales united by the theme of paranoia that runs like an electric current through them.
“The Omega Force” leads off the collection, and it’s the most mordantly humorous of the three stories. Its protagonist is Dr. James (“Jamie”) Van Deusen, an alcoholic retired federal bureaucrat and heir to a mattress fortune, who awakens on a neighbor’s porch with a pulp thriller entitled OMEGA FORCE: CODE WHITE beside him on the chaise lounge where he has spent the night. When a fisherman tells him about a small plane carrying some “dark-complected” persons that has landed on the airstrip of the island in Long Island Sound (where the story takes place), Van Deusen begins to ascribe sinister meanings to even the most routine events. Soon he is conflating those events with scenes from the novel, imagining that a terrorist force is about to wreak havoc on the island and its mostly upscale inhabitants. Although Moody gives the story his own unique twist, the atmosphere and characters are reminiscent of the work of John Cheever, territory Moody has visited in his novel THE ICE STORM.
Of the three tales, “K&K” is the one most firmly grounded in a recognizable reality --- and perhaps for that reason the slightest --- the offices of a small insurance brokerage in Stamford, Connecticut. Ellie Knight-Cameron, the office manager, is a 34-year-old single woman who is “orderly in her habits and in her thinking.” One of her duties is the maintenance of the office suggestion box, a former tissue box she has wrapped in bright pink paper and that up to now has contained nothing more substantial than a complaint about the office's flavored coffee.
But one day, Ellie opens the box to find a profane suggestion about maintenance on the nearby Merritt Parkway, followed by increasingly bizarre anonymous notes culminating with the most ominous one of all: “All of you should be lined up and shot.” With each new note, Ellie becomes suspicious of another of her co-workers, invoking various means to find the culprit. When those same co-workers gradually begin to leave the agency one by one, Ellie has to consider whether there is an even darker explanation for the disturbing communications.
In the Acknowledgements to RIGHT LIVELIHOODS, Moody credits Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon, whose assignment to write a genre story yielded the final piece, “The Albertine Notes.” The longest of the three works, it’s a mind-bending dystopian fantasy that takes place in New York City after half the city has been eradicated by a uranium bomb. Kevin Lee is a writer who has been assigned by a pornographic literary magazine to investigate a new drug called “Albertine.” As Lee describes it, “Take just a little into your bloodstream and any memory you’ve ever had is available to you all over again. That and more. Not a memory like you’ve experienced it before…No, the actual event itself, completely renewed, playing in front of you like you were experiencing it for the first time.”
Lee’s investigation leads him into the underworld of a crime syndicate that’s controlling the supply of the drug, and he encounters the leaders of the Resistance plotting to undermine what turn out to be its devastating effects. The plot is complex and convoluted, looping and swirling like the phenomenon of memory itself. What the author has done in an original way is to cause us to ask ourselves what price we’d be willing to pay to fully relive our memories.
In RIGHT LIVELIHOODS, Rick Moody demonstrates forcefully why he is among the more intriguing figures in contemporary American fiction. He has taken a relatively obscure form and reinvigorated it in these three stories, perhaps throwing down a challenge to other writers to join him in exploring its possibilities.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 23, 2011
Right Livelihoods: Three Novellas