Paranoid fantasies from the American heartland
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.