September 2007

Andrea Chmielewski

fiction

Right Livelihoods by Rick Moody

There is something alluring, almost exotic, about a newly published novella to me. Perhaps it is because so few modern fiction writers work extensively within this lonely lovechild of novels and short stories that any novella with a contemporary voice seems like a novelty. It is easy to understand why so many shy away from the form -- novellas require that characters be fleshed-out in a way that shorter fiction does not, and as soon as the reader gets to know the characters, it seems as though they must rush through the story at lightening speed, covering ground in leaps that a novelist might spend pages combing through. Most novellas seem to fall somewhere on the continuum between a too-long short story or a too-short novel. Rick Moody’s new collection of three novellas, entitled Right Livelihoods, is no exception.

Right Livelihoods is a jumble; dip into the beginning and you will find yourself reading a story (“The Omega Force”) that very much resembles Don Quixote de la Mancha, if the titular character of the latter spent his days gallivanting around an exclusive East Coast resort island looking for “dark-complected” persons whom he believes to be terrorists and gaining much of his information from a paperback spy thriller. Open to a different page and you are reading a quaint tale (“K & K”) about an office manager who becomes unnaturally interested in which of her coworkers is leaving politically charged messages in the suggestion box by the coffee maker. Turn towards the end of the book and you are in the realm of “The Albertine Notes,” a confounding, Philip K. Dick-inspired romp through an alternate version of New York City where much of Manhattan was destroyed by a bomb and most of the population is addicted to Albertine, a drug that allows you to vividly relive memories.

While there are certain threads that tie these three novellas together -- most notably the overwhelming sense of paranoia displayed by each of the main characters and Moody’s use of charts, lists, and graphics to break up text -- they are more dissimilar than alike. “The Omega Force,” for example, is successful mostly in its use of the unreliable narrator to create humor for the reader (the protagonist, among other things, divides his story into sections with headings such as “Modernism and Its Link to Contemporary Terrorism” and “Online Ordering as Part of The Resistance”). This device wears thin far before the novella is over, though. “K & K” seems to be the exact opposite of “The Omega Force”: whereas the latter takes a serious topic (terrorism and America’s culture of fear) and pokes fun at it, “K & K” is a simple tale in which the banal (office politics) becomes deeply personal and important, a catalyst for bizarre personal revelation. The characters in both “The Omega Force” and “K & K” are beautifully rendered. Dr. Van Deusen, the retiree-turned-spy, has so many character quirks that you can’t help but like him. I could have read an entire novel about Ellie, the character Moody crafts to take us through “K & K”, and I was sad to see this novella fold up and leave town so quickly.

And then there is “The Albertine Notes,” which deviates greatly from the first two novellas in voice and tone. Basically a spec fic tale, this story was so layered, and time so incidental to its drug-addicted narrator, that I had a difficult time following the plot. While parts of this story made beautiful use of surreal language, the reader is also put through a page long rumination on the narrator’s memory, dug up with the help of Albertine, of the intricacies of one particular Ricky Martin song. This is not something the character enjoys. Neither does the reader.

While I appreciated picking up a book of novellas (it is refreshing to know that there are still writers willing to risk publishing a book containing one underused form rather than a collection of short stories with novellas stuck in here and there for filler), especially one that included three such varied (and promising) works, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in each of the stories -- in the end, I’m not sure that the novella was the best format in which to tell any of them.

Right Livelihoods by Rick Moody
Little, Brown
ISBN: 0316166340
240 pages