By John McNally
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; C02
THE FOUR FINGERS OF DEATH
By Rick Moody
Little, Brown. 725 pp. $25.99
In a recent interview Rick Moody described "The Four Fingers of Death" as "a 900-page comic novel about a disembodied arm set in the desert in 2026." And maybe that's all you need to know about it because, let's face it, the idea for such a novel will appeal to you or it won't. In fact, I bet this very minute you're either reaching for your credit card or moving on to the next article.
Moody himself is just such a divisive writer. Most avid readers I know are either loyal fans or, like Dale Peck, who famously called Moody "the worst writer of his generation," staunch detractors. However you feel about him, though, Moody is a major attraction on the literary landscape, and his new novel, beginning with its dedication to the memory of Kurt Vonnegut, is Moody's attempt to plant himself alongside such literary luminaries as Thomas Pynchon and Vonnegut himself.
To be fair, "The Four Fingers of Death" is a mere 725 pages long, and it's about more than what Moody says it's about. It opens in the year 2024 with Montese Crandall, a woebegone writer of one-sentence short stories, married to Tara Schott Crandall, an obsessive gambler and recipient of a double-lung transplant. In need of money because of his wife's addiction and illness, Montese plays a game of chess with the mysterious D. Tyrannosaurus in order to win the chance to write a novelization of the campy 1963 sci-fi movie "The Crawling Hand." ("The Crawling Hand" is a real movie, by the way, available on Hulu.)
Montese's novelization of "The Crawling Hand" composes the bulk of Moody's behemoth novel, and it's the story of astronauts on an ill-fated trip to Mars, culminating in the return of our chatty narrator's severed arm to Arizona, where, missing a finger, it wreaks havoc. Along the way, we encounter, among other things, flesh-eating bacteria, Mexican wrestlers and a United States that is losing population.
There are two kinds of novelists: those who are like method actors, inhabiting the consciousness of a narrator so as to put us in that narrator's shoes, and those who are puppeteers, standing above and manipulating their narrator. Moody is the latter. Unfortunately, the result is that I couldn't respond to his novel on a visceral level. In fact, I rarely felt any emotions at all as I was reading it.
At times, the entire story seems to be a platform for Moody to show off his talent for digression, whether it's about bookstore readings, irritable bowel syndrome in outer space or acronyms like CBFs (chipped beef flakes). But there is an unnerving iciness to the way Moody spends several pages detailing Montese's wife's double-lung transplant. The details become increasingly fetishistic, as when Montese observes "both [lungs] were full of pus and fluid and dead carbon-based gunk, stuff that Tara could no longer eliminate from her bronchi, stuff the color of turned mayonnaise." Or, Tara "didn't want to corrode her new lungs with the same mucoid rice pudding that had gummed up the last pair." How much of this does the reader need?
Any similarities between Vonnegut's work and Moody's novel are superficial. The best of Vonnegut's novels were lean and focused; he didn't need 700 pages to write "Cat's Cradle" or "Slaughterhouse-Five." A more notable difference is that in those classics, you feel Vonnegut's presence on every page, but you also invest yourself in the plights of the main characters. He makes you care. Vonnegut's best work never feels self-indulgent.
No, Vonnegut's torch wasn't passed on to Moody, but Moody may well be our new Richard Brautigan, another writer whose work inspired both love and hate, and I suspect that Brautigan, author of the international bestseller "Trout Fishing in America," would have supported Moody's claim in Bookforum that "the realistic novel still needs a kick in the ass. The genre, with its epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement, its conventional humanisms, can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it's politically and philosophically dubious and often dull."
If, like me, you still find pleasure in those tired, old conventions that bore Moody, you may have serious problems with his latest, which never really transcends its own cleverness. But if you crave a novel that achieves the opposite of what he finds dubious and dull in the realistic novel, "The Four Fingers of Death" may just be the book you're looking for. Moody has certainly achieved his goals, even if they are often predictable and conventional and dated in their own postmodern ways.
McNally's most recent novel is "After the Workshop." His next book, "The Creative Writer's Survival Guide: Advice From an Unrepentant Novelist," will be released in September.