BY MAVIS LINNEMANN BOOK CRITIC Rick Moody tackles the hallucinatory pathologies of American paranoia in Right Livelihoods, a collection of three thematically-connected novellas. Each story centers on a paranoid protagonist who serves as unreliable narrator and as a result, the reader spends an awful lot of time wondering just what the hell is going on — which only adds to the ultra-vivid realism and disconcerting familiarity of it all. Add to the mix varying degrees of alcoholism and a drug that helps you recover memories, thwarted obsession and intra -office subterfuge, and a bomb that flattens Manhattan from The Hudson to the East River. In the “Omega Force” former government official/current alcoholic Dr. James VanDeusen investigates what he believes to be a conspiracy of “dark-complected” individuals trying to infect his island home with disease — after reading a similarly-plotted sci-fi thriller. In “K&K,” office manager Ellie Knight-Cameron finds strange, unsigned notes in the office suggestion box and endeavors to determine the identity of their anonymous author.The most compelling of the three is post-apocalyptic, science fictional “The Albertine Notes,” in which journalist Kevin Lee goes on a search for information about Albertine, a drug that allows users to relive memories and has taken the bomb-leveled streets of Manhattan by storm. In the process, Lee himself becomes addicted to the drug, and the lines between reality, memory and hallucination become all but invisible. Moody talks to Phawker about post-9/11 paranoia, his struggle with alcoholism, Sufjan and the new Wilco album.
Phawker: Dale Peck opened his review of The Black Veil by saying that “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” How did you respond to that?
MOODY: I haven’t and I’m not going to now.
Phawker: William Burroughs once said, ‘A paranoid is a man who knows a little of what’s going on.’ Do you agree with that?
MOODY: Definitely. I’m a big Burroughs fan.
Phawker: People keep commenting that Right Livelihoods exemplifies America’s post 9/11 paranoia. Do you think Americans as a whole are more paranoid since 9/11?
MOODY: I don’t know how I would reply to that if we were just talking about rank-and-file sort of people. But I think there’s a sort of cultural, political paranoia that you saw, especially during the sort of election cycle in ’04. Where the rhetoric gets sort of ratcheted up and the color-coded security alerts change daily, and there’s always all this emphasis on the fact that the next attack is right around the corner and the enemy is among us and all this sort of jingoist pseudo-patriotic rhetoric seems to me to have an element of paranoia, I do sort of feel post-9/11 that there’s a different kind of gradient of conspiracy theory than what we experienced before.
Phawker: Are these novellas kind of capitalizing on this paranoia?
MOODY: I wouldn’t say capitalizing so much as reflecting it. I feel like there was a rush to write about 9/11 after 9/11, and I didn’t really want to be a part of that because I felt, and have felt since, that it’s gonna take a period of reflection before people can adequately describe that period or that sequence of events. I did feel that with these stories I was kind of refracting it in a way, so it doesn’t directly deal with 9/11, this work, but it does sort of funnel the emotional psychosocial substrata into the story somehow.
Phawker: Was it your plan originally to put all three of these novellas together, or did they just come together?
MOODY: No, the only one that sort of was written thinking about the book was “K&K.” the other two were written separately, and it was only after the fact that I realized they had some kind of joint agenda in terms of trying to excavate some of this paranoid post-9/11 stuff. So, I wrote the third one to try to have a female protagonist and to have the third-person point of view in there so it wouldn’t be a uniformly first-person book.
Phawker: Was one of your intentions with these stories to keep the reader guessing what’s going on?
MOODY: Yeah, I mean, I like untrustworthy first-person narratives. So in the case of “Omega Force” and “The Albertine Notes,” I wanted the sort of impaired condition of these narrators to be constantly undermining one’s ability to make easy passage through the stories. I mean, those are the stories I like to read, so I fashioned them along similar lines.
Phawker: Is it difficult to write that way? Do you always know exactly what’s going on?
MOODY: Well, with “Albertine” I had to make a timeline, which I had never done before. [laughs] But no, they’re not difficult to write; it’s pretty organic. They’re organic styles for me.
Phawker: It’s my understanding you went into rehab after finishing your thesis, just before writing The Ice Storm.
MOODY: Yeah, before my first novel, Garden State. I mean, Ice Storm was a couple years later.
Phawker: Can you tell me a little about how you cope with that and how did you replace the role that alcohol once played in your writing and your creative processes?
MOODY: I was a really bad writer before then. I was mostly very self-involved. As any addict would tell you, sort of more interested in kind of servicing the addiction than doing anything, or much else, competently. Even though I managed to get through graduate school, I spent a lot of graduate school drinking. My feeling now is that alcoholism and writing don’t go well together, despite the romance of drinking and writing that’s so ingrained in American literature. I for one couldn’t think cogently about psychology and emotional lives of people and so forth. Nor could I even really be intra-psychic to the degree that I would think about anybody else’s problems if I was spending most of the time drinking or getting over a hangover. So, and furthermore I often wrote while drinking. So my creative process improved dramatically when I wasn’t see double while I was writing, which I legitimately was doing. I would type — in those days, I was working on a typewriter — I would type until I couldn’t see straight. And I guarantee you I wasn’t making very good decisions about character or plot or anything if I was writing under those conditions. So things improved dramatically because I was sober enough to sort of think about what I was doing. The sort of rehab/psych-ward experience made me also start feeling a lot more sympathy for other people and their troubles.
Phawker: Sufjan Stevens released Songs for Christmas, a box set that included a Rick Moody essay. What’s your association with Sufjan?
MOODY: He just approached me, you know, right out of the blue. I mean, I’m a fan of his work and I also have some friends in common with him, so it wasn’t completely like Leonard Cohen asking me to write liner notes or someone, although I think Sufjan is quite a genius in his way. You know, I go to church; he goes to church. I think maybe it was along those lines. I mean, I’m not sure he had any idea about me particularly theologically so much as he had ideas about liking my work or something. But we met somewhere in the middle about what Christmas means; and he didn’t make any editorial corrections of what I was writing, he was perfectly willing to accept my slightly dour, curmudgeonly view of Christmas. So it was an honor to be in there.
Phawker: I know you’re a fan, what are your thoughts on the new Wilco album?
MOODY: It’s a real interesting, kind of a hard turn on what I expected. I mean since the last two records have had much more experimental impulses. What I will say is that Nels Cline, the new lead guitar player guy, is just an astonishing guitar player. That what makes the record particularly splendid for me is that the songs are simpler and the approach is simpler, but the guitar playing is so magnificent. It’s like any Wilco record: It’s got something new to think about and it gives up its treasures only over time, it’s not immediately apparent what the new thing is, but the more you listen, the more rewarding it gets. It seems like now that Nels is in the band, there’s no limit to what they can do.
[illustration by ALEX FINE]