August 17, 2007

Book review: "Right Livelihoods," by Rick Moody

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Right Livelihoods: 3 Novellas
By Rick Moody
Little, Brown and Company / ISBN: 978-0-316-16634-8

As long as there's been artists, there's been fans of artists; and as long as there's been fans of artists, there's been the question of artists' oeuvres, a fancy French term for "body of work." You see, we nerdy fans of the arts love not only ingesting the latest book or movie or CD by our favorite artists, and judging its worth on its own terms, but also comparing it to the rest of the projects they've released over the years, even combining it with what we know about their personal lives if we're nerdy enough, noting the ways it not only reflects that artist's mindset at that point in their lives but also the mindset of society at that point in history.

Right Livelihoods, by Rick Moody

And thus do we arrive at the latest commercial book by geek hero and nerd sex symbol Rick Moody, an absurdly thin volume entitled Right Livelihoods: 3 Novellas. And you have to ask after reading this, of course, and before doing online research (like I haven't done yet), the following question -- er, the point? I loved one of these stories, to tell you the truth, one that would last roughly 75 pages if published in a normal font size and margin width; but it seems that this book was then saddled with two other semi-crappy stories as well, little abortions with all the long-term appeal of a truncated Saturday Night Live sketch that could never find a satisfying ending, done simply so that this could be sold as a standalone book, the requisite 224 pages that gives Borders an excuse to charge you US$23.99 (12 pounds, 18 euros) for the f--king thing.

And for anyone with a college education, anyone who's spent time around intellectuals, it of course leads one to a fast conclusion coming out of one's mouth -- "Well, okay, this is one of Moody's minor works. Ah hah, I see now." Ah, the minor works! Because this too is part of examining an artist's oeuvre, of course, and part of the culture of the over-intelligent over-educated people who examine the entire career of artists in the first place -- that just like any other human and their personal/professional lives, we see peaks and valleys among the artists we admire the most as well. And as intelligent, well-read "completists" of certain artists, we like to think that we can glean certain things from these artists based not only on the stories they're writing, but how those stories interact with each other, how they compare to the nonfictional timeline of that author, etc etc etc.

Because let's face it -- we can't exactly go around slamming Rick Moody, can we? CAN WE??!! Moody, in fact, is currently at this moment (late summer 2007) the exact g-dd--n posterchild for the future of literature, with the kind of cross-appeal respect that most artists spend their lives dreaming of -- an embrace by the Schaumberg Oprah bookclub crowd, a chummy relationship with the Dave Eggers and Michael Chabons of the world, a lucrative career in Hollywood (he was the author, for example, of the original Ice Storm novel that was made into creepy, fantastic 1997 movie by Ang Lee [aka Brokeback Mountain dude], starring perennial underground favorites Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire and more). And psst, this is important to understand about Moody as well -- that he has won awards too for insanely personal journalistic-style essays, and that the line between his written work and his personal life is a thin and blurry one at best.

It leads one to an early question in Right Livelihoods, one that you might spend a lot of time obsessing over in your own life or might not; what the hell exactly is going on these days with those stupid crazy Americans, anyway? In fact, Right Livelihoods might just answer the question famously asked by Chicago Tribune cultural columnist Julia Keller in the early 2000s; of why no serious artists have responded to the events of September 11th, of why no Guernica of our age has been created yet. And the answer that this novel gives us, as does so many novels and movies and CDs that are coming out these days, is that there are moments in human history where things become SO grim and overwhelming, there literally is no way for those artists to react to it, but simply to react to whatever comes afterward.

Because really, seriously, if you want to get all cynical and marketing and sh-t, that's where the artists are really responding these days, and really profoundly and in a really easily identifiable way -- they are reacting to the extremely reactionary, extremely backwards way that a whole lot of people have dealt with September 11th since it happened, which for awhile could be constrained to American reaction but at this point realistically has to include long-term European reaction, Australian reaction and more. And that point, not to put too fine a point on it, is to mistrust; to MISTRUST EVERYONE, to see every situation as suspect, to get used to a world of fear because that's what awaits us all, an era of Perpetual Warfare that will last God only knows how long. People we never thought could embrace fascism are suddenly embracing fascism, and the thing that's letting it happen is that people are embracing it under a free-market capitalist system; it's producing this really, seriously, REALLY screwed-up way of looking at the world, a way that historians a century from now will look back upon, and do PBS specials about, that will shame this future society the way that Nazis shame us now.

In fact, this is the entire message of the first two novellas of Right Livelihoods, which like I said should not really be considered two novellas at all but rather two longish short stories, awkwardly bundled with the only one legitimately interesting so as to appease the middle management at Borders looking for their next Hot Point Of Purchase Opportunity. BLEH! ARGH! Are other fans of smart literature as sick as I am about this recent development? Of not letting artistic projects get released in a format that's naturally advantageous to the length and theme of that project, but rather awkwardly forced into a format that makes more sense to all the Borders and Amazons of the world? Because the fact of the matter is this: that the more I read of this book, the more I realized that it was the last story of the three that was the entire reason to publish this, with the other two stories thrown in so as to pad out the book to exactly 224 pages, so that Borders could officially charge an arm and a leg for this book without their customers officially throwing their hands in the air in disgust and saying, "Oh, Good God, what kind of scam are you pulling on us THIS time?"

No offense, Moody, but that's what the first two parts of this book feel like -- like half-thought-out, comedy-sketch-worthy unfinished crap about 9/11, padded out to the exact length (50 pages for one story, 65 pages for the other) that they could be combined with the main story in question for selling retail as a full-length book. Man, do I hate that; when authors and editors collude to sell hastily-formulated short stories as retail-worthy paper books. Both "The Omega Force" and "K&K," the first two stories of Right Livelihoods, basically concern the same thing, which frankly I just didn't find that interesting to begin with -- the idea that the constant horrors of a post-9/11 America have driven certain normal, everyday suburban citizens to insanity, and that they don't realize they're insane until an omniscient narrator takes the time to point it out to all of us. Er, I mean, yes, that has some sort of limited interest to us Americans, but it's not really a conclusion that we couldn't all come up with for ourselves; I don't need Rick Freaking Moody telling me that retired military-complex veterans of the Nixon administration might have their Alzheimer-riddled old-age fantasies in a post-9/11 world manifest themselves as a series of dirty dark godless Middle Easterners. I don't need you to tell me that, Moody. I get that already.

Now, that said, as mentioned earlier, the third story of this book really shines; it's called "The Albertine Notes," a creepy postmodern science-fiction tale, which as any regular reader of this website can attest is something I simply love, love, love. It is in fact a story that repeats many of the "big ideas" behind a lot of other books I've reviewed here this year -- Chuck Pahalniuk's Rant, for example, or Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown -- it is the story of a post-apocalyptic America, a story that combines both 9/11 and the New Orleans Tragedy, a world where a "dirty bomb" goes off in Manhattan and blows up a third of the entire island, but a combination of government ineptitude and public apathy guarantees that no one ever cleans it up. It is a world where survivors stumble around in a mad daze; a world where all outside communication has been knocked out, so that no one around knows whether this is the way the rest of the world is working these days too, or if the rest of the world has literally given up on them like what happened with New Orleans. It's heavy stuff; it's heavy stuff.

In what's bound to be a huge surprise to many, Moody weaves an infinitely complex tale within this apocalyptic environment in Albertine, a multilayered, tech-savvy nightmare that recalls all the best of the last 20 years of science-fiction -- a world where a five-sense-inducing drug has been invented, where the entire society has become addicted to it in order to elude thinking about the downfall of America. Where certain people end up taking so much of this drug, they realize that they can see into the future as well, and have decided to try to delve "back" into this future, as a way of perhaps changing the events that lead to the living hell they're all dealing with these days. It is a twisted story; a complex story; a densely literary story for all you MFA holders out there. The ending will blow your mind, and all the parts leading up to it will blow your mind too.

So why couldn't this story just be published on its own? Perhaps as a free promotional electronic novella? This is the issue I take with this particular book; not that it's necessarily bad, because it's not, but because it feels f--king pointless. A fantastically tight 75-page PDF here, that could've been downloaded from Moody's website or whatever, would've been infinitely more satisfying in this situation than this semi-crappy padded paper book that eventually was released for 24 dollars; it'd be the difference between everyone saying, "Dude, Moody's the BEST!" and "Dude, Moody's selling out!" Rick, man, seriously, you've got so many friends who are in such respected high positions in the open-source world; aren't any of them warning you about releasing padded-out crap like this? Stop it! Give us another Garden State if we're going to blow the wages of four hours at Starbucks; otherwise, just make it a sweet bonus to visiting a website, something to reward bad-weather fans.

Out of 10:
Story: 4.5
Characters: 8.6
Style: 9.1
Overall: 5.1

Read even more about Right Livelihoods: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:22 PM, August 17, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |