Right Livelihoods

By Rick Moody. Little, Brown; 223 pp; $29.99; hardcover

There's a war on, in case you hadn't noticed, and this one, like all, has altered almost everything, even if only subtly. It has made itself felt in the lives of soldiers and politicians, yes, but in teachers' lives too, and in those of customs officers and writers as well. Perhaps especially in the lives of writers, though, for whom wartime is always a time to choose: caution or passion, second thoughts or redoubled thoughtlessness.

For satirists like Rick Moody ( The Ice Storm , Demonology ), there's the allure of exclamation marks and italics, of self-reflective metaphor and rampant paranoia. Moody's collection of three novellas, Right Livelihoods , speaks to war obliquely and directly all at once. The dipso doctor (of public planning) in "The Omega Force" says straight out: "Suddenly, I recognized what I had dim-wittedly forgotten. That we were in a time of national emergency! In a time of war! And the first casualty of this war was superficial meanings . Things no longer meant what they seemed to mean. Words had begun to mean more than what they appeared to mean ."

In "K&K", the unravelling Ellie Knight-Cameron is obsessed with discovering which of her coworkers is stuffing the office suggestion box with notes of mounting menace. Everything seems like a clue. Everything seems related. She trails a colleague home: "In no single case could Ellie see who was opening the door and admitting these strangers. Yet she could see that people were in fact entering the Jones residence. They would sidle up to the front door, knock once, perform the jazz hands secret gesture, the door would swing back, and the stranger would then slip into the house." Inside, no terrorists but a birthday party.

The creepy concluding story, "The Albertine Notes" (first published in McSweeney's No. 10), pursues these Thomas Pynchon–esque ravings to absurdity. The narrator becomes addicted to Albertine, a drug that encourages both memory and forgetting. Sharing engineered memories, he pursues Addict Zero, Philip K. Dick–style, through time and space, in hopes of averting the nuclear destruction of Manhattan.

The dodgy reliability of language and memories, the easy misconnection of unrelated facts, the craven need to please and accommodate–these are Moody's themes, and if they all point to loneliness, to the inability of any single character to triangulate his own emotional, moral, or sexual position, well, the enemy may change, the theatre of operations may change, the tech may change, but one thing remains eternal: war is hell.