Rick Moody is ‘the worst writer of his generation’. That’s what one critic said when Moody published his book of memoirs titled The Black Veil. But anyone who’s read Moody’s startling good novel Purple America, or his two books that have been made into feature films – The Ice Storm and Garden State – must beg to differ. I wonder what that critic will make of Rick Moody’s latest offering, The Omega Force?
For my money, this collection of three conjoined novellas is patchy, with two accomplished but unremarkable stories and one that is remarkably good. The critic who slammed Rick Moody so comprehensively caught him on a bad book, but he is a strong and smart writer, albeit inconsistently.
The first two stories are about the characters, so if you enjoy rich and nuanced printed portraits then these stories will sing to you. In the first story, also titled Omega Force, we enter the world of Dr Van Deusen, a pompous and self-righteous man who’s retired from his job as a government official to live in a well-to-do community on an island somewhere off the east coast of the United States. Van Deusen would like to be seen as a man of authority and taste but comes across as overbearing and silly. He’s also a recovering alcoholic, though it seems his recovery has been severely compromised when we first meet him, waking on someone’s porch after a night of drunken revelry.
When Van Deusen leaves the porch, he takes with him a diverting-looking paperback he sees lying on the floor and heads down to the foreshore. During his amblings around the island’s exclusive golf courses, bars and beaches, Van Deusen becomes fixated on the pilfered paperback, a pulp sci-fi novel called Omega Force that fuels his wacky conspiracy theories. He comes to believe the book is not a work of second-rate fiction but a document sent to alert him to dangerous events about to take place. He decides it’s his mission to stop ‘dark-complected’ people who, Omega Force tells him, plan to claim his town. Dr Van Deusen is a larger-than-life embodiment of one version of the fear that swamped the United States after 9/11. He is as colourful and bombastic as a P.G. Wodehouse character with delusions that, predictably, go nowhere.
Fear and loneliness feature in the stories that follow too.
The second story, K&K, revolves around a small mystery in an insurance company, and the office manager Ellie who tries to get to the bottom of it. Ellie is in charge of the tearoom suggestion box, a responsibility she takes seriously. So when unusual and menacing letters appear she decides to track down the author, mistakenly settling on one of her co-workers, another ‘dark-complected’ individual. But she has made a terrible mistake.
Ellie is a sad and lonely person, unnerved by the changes afoot in her office, but Moody writes her with little empathy so it’s hard to like her. Ellie comes across as mean and meddlesome and we are inclined to feel some animosity towards her. And when she has her rather tragic realisation about the author of the letters, it seems a bit meaningless.
But perhaps the first two stories seem weak by comparison because the last story, The Albertine Notes, is so good. It’s not flawless and it has copped some criticism but it is a truly compelling, complex, unnerving piece of science fiction writing.
This story is set in a post-catastrophe New York. A bomb has decimated an enormous chunk of the city and the survivors have turned to a drug called Albertine in order to cope. Albertine allows them to access their deepest memories from before the city was bombed, and relive them. Which might be fine, issues of addiction aside, if one’s memories were uniformly happy. But of course, they’re not. And since memory is a messy business, the drug addicts of Moody’s story find themselves reliving moments of jealousy, fury, embarrassment and humiliation while hoping for their life’s glory moments to come back to them.
The main character in this tale, Kevin Lee, is as deluded and troubling as Van Deusen and Ellie. He’s a journalist with the job of writing a feature article about the history of the drug, but he’s such an unreliable source of information that by the end we don’t know if he was ever really given the assignment he says or whether he is a drug addict who imagined it. Perhaps the drug lords really are using him, or perhaps his deeply disturbing theories about how the drug came into the world are true.
This story has seen Moody compared to William Gibson, Philip K. Dick and other futurists. There have been mutterings that his idea of a post-apocalyptic world filled with drug-addled citizens has been done before. But there’s surely no topic that someone hasn’t covered, and The Albertine is an exceptional piece of writing that more than makes up for whatever weaknesses fill the pages of The Omega Force that lead up to it.