Para­noid fan­tasies from the Amer­i­can heart­land

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

EVER since 1966, when the young Thomas Pyn­chon pub­lished a con­spir­acy- rid­dled novel about an al­ter­na­tive postal ser­vice called The Cry­ing of Lot 49 , para­noia has been the de­fault set­ting for a cer­tain kind of US fiction.

The po­lit­i­cal sys­tem th­ese writ­ers de­scribe may be more sub­tle and ap­par­ently be­nign than its to­tal­i­tar­ian coun­ter­parts, but it is no less de­ter­mined to colonise the minds of cit­i­zens for its own ends. From William Bur­roughs to Don DeLillo, au­thors have grap­pled with the dis­qui­et­ing sense that the world as we know it is a scam.

Rick Moody’s trip­tych of novel­las re­vis­its the para­noid mode in the light of the new cen­tury. It is a rich seam to mine and Moody hits gold in two of the three tales. At his best, he dis­plays a wit and elo­quence long ab­sent from his prose: few post- 9/ 11 nar­ra­tives have shown such brio imag­in­ing or­di­nary US cit­i­zens ad­dled by the im­pli­ca­tions of wag­ing war on an ab­strac­tion.

Only in a world where 24 s Jack Bauer is cited as an in­spi­ra­tion by CIA op­er­a­tives com­mit­ting tor­ture could Moody’s first novella carry such heft. The Omega Force re­lates the ad­ven­tures of Dr Jamie Van Deusen, a well- heeled for­mer gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial who un­cov­ers a plot by

dark com­plected’’ per­sons to at­tack his East Coast is­land home.

Van Deusen al­most im­me­di­ately flags his nar­ra­to­rial un­re­li­a­bil­ity. He is in fact a re­cov­er­ing al­co­holic, prone to psy­chotic episodes, who dis­cov­ers the plot in the pages of a pulp thriller, Omega Force: Code White, writ­ten by one Stu­art Hawkes- Mitchell.

As he makes his di­shev­elled progress across the is­land — in flight from his wife’s ef­forts to keep him off the booze and in ac­cor­dance with the mis­sion ap­par­ently en­trusted to him by a lo­cal fish­er­man — the facts on the ground ( a nearby an­i­mal dis­ease re­search fa­cil­ity, pre­vail­ing winds and a mys­te­ri­ous plane) dove­tail with the events of the bat­tered pa­per­back.

Lo­qua­cious and batty, Van Deusen is a pitch­per­fect up­date of Vladimir Nabokov’s mid- 20th­cen­tury an­ti­heroes: su­per­sized selves pa­raded with a vigour and po­etry ab­surdly at odds with the moral ug­li­ness the reader knows them to pos­sess. Van Deusen is no mon­ster, though; he’s more pa­thetic and, in his lim­ited way, de­cent. But the com­edy and the pathos emerge from the same chasm in aware­ness.

In­deed, when Van Deusen’s fan­tasies of im­mi­nent threat and pa­tri­otic rage re­sult in a fi­nal, drunken Canute- like as­sault on the ocean, he re­calls a third Naboko­vian mad­man, from the short story Signs and Sym­bols , who be­lieves

clouds in the star­ing sky trans­mit to one an­other, by means of slow signs, in­cred­i­bly de­tailed in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing him ( and that)

ev­ery­thing is a ci­pher and of ev­ery­thing he is the theme’’.

In the sec­ond novella, K & K, the set- up is even more pro­saic. El­lie Knight- Cameron is a 30- some­thing singleton whose en­er­gies are di­rected to­wards the small, Con­necti­cut- based in­sur­ance bro­ker­age firm Kolodny & Kolodny, where she is of­fice man­ager. El­lie’s work­place dark­ens with the ar­rival of an un­signed note in the sug­ges­tion box. Its pro­fane lan­guage and use of a split in­fini­tive im­me­di­ately dis­turbs her. And it is only the first of many.

As the notes in­crease in num­ber, ve­he­mence and im­plied threat, El­lie turns de­tec­tive to find the per­son re­spon­si­ble. Her equa­nim­ity is shaken, how­ever, as one by one her col­leagues rule them­selves out. It is with some des­per­a­tion that she set­tles on Mau­reen Jones, mail­room worker. Their cringe­wor­thy con­fronta­tion leaves only one pos­si­bil­ity: that El­lie was both au­thor and re­cip­i­ent of the notes.

If the first two novel­las rely on in­flat­ing the mun­dane un­til it takes on a swelled por­ten­tous­ness — a comic turn anal­o­gous to the se­cu­rity theatre of colour- coded ter­ror alerts and the mil­lions spent on home­land defence in rural Illi­nois — the fi­nal story in­verts the for­mula only to col­lapse un­der the weight of its grandios­ity.

The Al­ber­tine Notes is a dystopian fan­tasy set in a fu­ture New York, where a suit­case bomb has lev­elled most of lower Man­hat­tan, killing mil­lions and turn­ing the trau­ma­tised sur­vivors to a drug, Al­ber­tine, meant to pro­vide the false so­lace of happy rec­ol­lec­tions.

Un­for­tu­nately, this in­trigu­ing premise is played out us­ing the sort of self- re­gard­ing prose that has marred much of Moody’s re­cent fiction. Leave it aside, though, and you are left with two mur­der­ously funny riffs on con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can para­noia. In El­lie and Van Deusen we have char­ac­ters who, in their in­flamed pride and ti­tanic sense of per­se­cu­tion, per­son­ify the wild il­logic of the Bush era.

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is a Syd­ney lit­er­ary critic.

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