Right Livelihoods: Three Novellas
By Rick Moody
Little, Brown, 223 pages, $23.99
Rick Moody’s fiction has always had a strong topical streak: He’s as concerned with particular aspects of contemporary American society—the barrenness of mass consumerism, say, or the tragically limited economic and aesthetic scope of the lower middle-class, or the dangers of nuclear power—as he is with the inner lives of his characters.
The relationship between this bankrupt and dehumanizing social backdrop and the personal dramas that Mr. Moody renders with empathy and precision has never been quite clear. That is to say, is the Hood family, in The Ice Storm (1994), doomed because it’s trapped in a tacky 1970’s upper-middle-class void? Or is the dysfunction innate—specific to these particular personalities—and simply set in a suburban Connecticut milieu as empty as it is affluent because, after all, everyone has to live somewhere? Or is the truth somewhere in between?
Mr. Moody has so far avoided giving answers to these questions. His method has been to produce deeply felt delineations of both social conditions and internal forces and then simply place them side by side. The reader can decide how the two are connected. In some circles, this is considered sophisticated: Mr. Moody doesn’t spell everything out.
I suspect that he hasn’t tackled the issue for himself—and it shows in his recent collection of novellas, Three Livelihoods. While engaging enough, the stories give short shrift to the character-driven elements that account for the power of his novels, relying instead on an easy topicality to create the illusion of greater literary weight. Along the way, even Mr. Moody’s prose suffers.
In the first novella, The Omega Force, Dr. Van Deusen is a wealthy, senile and alcoholic retiree who becomes convinced that the resort island on which he lives is a base for terrorists. As a narrator, Van Deusen is appealing only in his buffoonery; in real life, you’d cross to the other side of the street if you saw this guy coming. “My wife is my ally and my best friend,” he says, circling around the subject of his addiction to drink, “except when she misplaces items that properly belong to me, or purposefully removes items from the house under the misapprehension that this will in some way keep me from practicing bad habits or pursuing lifestyle choices that she considers unhealthful.” A pompous and self-deceived narrator can be an excellent conceit, both funny and revealing. The problem in The Omega Force is that Mr. Moody doesn’t seem to try very hard. The voice is only mildly funny, and it falters. Mr. Moody is inattentive, as if he’d decided that topicality is enough: Because the novella takes on an Important Subject—paranoia after 9/11, especially among Republicans—it doesn’t have to do much else.
The second novella, K&K, centers around a lonely office manager who becomes obsessed with angry notes left in the employee suggestion box that she superintends. The moral of the story is sophomoric: To be well adjusted to suburban, corporate life is to be not only lonely and sexually frustrated, but pathological. Mr. Moody is capable of much greater sophistication, but this cheap and easy “point” gives him a reason not to bother much with character. Depth is sacrificed on the altar of the Foucauldian cliché that sanity is actually insanity.
The final novella imagines a future in which most of Manhattan has been destroyed by a dirty bomb. Much of the remaining population has become addicted to a new drug, Albertine, which brings back memories in Proustian detail. The Albertine Notes is an entertaining sci-fi piece, but again, the writing is lazy. Kevin Lee, a denizen of this dystopia, is a journalist researching an article about Albertine. The novella is supposed to consist of the notes he’s made for his article, yet Lee seems to be speaking not as a journalist would, to his contemporaries, but to us, Mr. Moody’s contemporaries—a failure of craftsmanship for which sub-plots involving time travel and memory loss don’t sufficiently account. Upon reading some old police files, Lee writes: “Good thing those records were stored on a server in Queens. Since One Police Plaza is dust.” It’s not just that the point has already been made 50 times—Manhattan is destroyed, everything’s gone, no subways, no nothing—but the sentence fragment, used this way, is a juvenile attempt at portent.
Rick Moody is talented, but in this collection, he’s clearly resting on his laurels.
Adelle Waldman is a writer living in Manhattan.