The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody. Little, Brown. 736 pp., $25.99.
ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE HAND CRAWLS
With his latest novel, The Four Fingers of Death, Rick Moody has accomplished something that shouldn’t be possible: he has written a literary novel that is also a highly readable page-turner and an amusing sci-fi adventure yarn. If there are other examples of literary novels that are all those things, I can’t name one. But even if you suggest a number of novels I should read to get up to speed on the literary achievements of the sci-fi genre, I would still ask: are there any sci-fi novels that knowingly and engagingly evoke a grade B sci-fi movie, while at the same time commenting on our dystopian present by giving us a vision of the future—the year is 2026—predicated on the assumption that every problem we now face will only get worse?
The novel’s gimmick is that we are reading a novelization of a film called The Four Fingers of Death, which is itself a remake of an actual 1963 film, The Crawling Hand, a schlocky, unprofessional Creature Feature that shows up regularly on “worst film” lists and was savaged by the joking robots on Mystery Science Theater 3000. And that antecedent means that Moody’s foray into sci-fi sits well with me because I frankly can’t think “science fiction” without thinking of the hammy, silly, and occasionally gripping Hollywood films of that genre dating from the late ’50s and the early ’60s. But Moody doesn’t just label his novel a novelization, he provides a 50+ page introduction by the novelization’s author, Montese Crandall, a writer in the 2020s who earns a living by selling rare baseball cards at flea markets. Crandall’s wife, Tara, is a compulsive online gambler now stricken with a wasting disease and failing organs, adding a bit of background drama to Crandall’s life—he wants to write something that will impress her before she dies.
The intro, in Crandall’s first person voice, wore out its welcome for me well before we get to Crandall’s wager on a chess game he plays with a hustler called D. Tyrannosaurus, a wager that wins him the desired task of writing the novelization. Moody’s choice to introduce the novel this way has a certain perverse logic, I suppose: it lets him distance himself from the novel proper the way gamesters of fiction such as Nabokov and John Barth like to do, and it lets him comment sardonically, via Crandall, on the “less is more” strategy of all that terse, bare-boned prose our MFA programs typically spawn: Crandall writes stories that consist of a single sentence, such as “Get some eggs, you dwarf” or, from his middle period, “Last one home goes without anesthesia.”
Amusing as some of this is, I mention perverse logic because of passages like the following, written by Crandall: “I much prefer a narration from the third-person point of view. The first-person is tiresome and confining. It is the voice of narcissists and borderline personalities.” Moody, via Crandall, demonstrates what his alter-ego argues: Crandall’s voice, compared to the rest of the novel, is rather “tiresome and confining,” and though Crandall works in all kinds of unpleasant details about his wife’s illness (Moody seems to have a thing for medical procedures), the intro distracts us too much via Crandall’s glib nature to register fully the pathos of Tara’s situation. But if you skip the intro, you won’t get the full effect of the novel, which requires the frame, including Crandall’s Afterword and a note, at the transition from Book One to Book Two, where Crandall breaks in to suggest that a reader could skip Book One, the story of a mission to Mars, which is an invented prologue to the film’s subject, the crawling hand loose on Earth. (Proving himself narcissist enough, Crandall also suggests that some readers might prefer simply reading the sections he wrote in his own person.)
In the Afterword, Crandall becomes somewhat more entertaining as he recounts the book’s decisive chess match interspersed with memorable lines from the script of The Crawling Hand, together with some tendentious attempts at interpreting the film: “Maybe . . . the arm represented the alienated labor that was the trade union movement being crushed . . .” The problem with Crandall is that he’s not particularly clever and lacks the distinctive voice of a truly borderline personality. In the end, he achieves a moment of pathos that chimes with the ending of his novelization with enough resonance to make the case that the novel proper is a fictive consolation for Crandall, if we care.
Book One of Four Fingers recalls the likes of Ray Bradbury’s stories of the colonization of Mars, set in a period from 1999 to 2025, and collected as The Martian Chronicles in 1950, an antecedent that seems to me deliberately revisited, together with that milestone of serious sci-fi films, Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Aficionados of the genre will no doubt find other references as well, but the point is not playing the game of deconstruct the pastiche but rather enjoying what Moody has wrought: an inspiredly dysfunctional space exploration adventure that includes murderous rampages and life-threatening situations due in part to: interplanetary disinhibitory disorder; a human jettisoned into space; a renegade mutant bacteria (M. thanatobacillus); male to male sex in zero gravity; bitchy human situations; a messianic impulse; betrayal; conspiracy paranoia regarding secret missions assigned by NASA; a maiming; the first child born on Mars; and occasional thinky bits about whether or not leaving Earth for another planet alters humans so that they are no longer, technically, the same species.
The story of the mission is delivered in part via Crandall’s invention of a space blog kept by Col. Jed Richards, so that the latter provides most of the narrative. Richards has a fondness for light science-speak and for a style of thought one could describe as instrumental. The consistency of this voice gives the Mars section a strong action-oriented forward movement, with the humor coming from the disunity of the astronauts and from Moody’s penchant for making currents of hysteria course below the declarative tone. Thus the first-person of Richards, unlike the first-person of Crandall, works much better because of the tension between the sort of man a colonel and astronaut should be—methodical, curious, deliberative—and the kind of man Richards presents in his prose. Richards’ decision to enter the Mars mission is presented in a long passage about the extinction of the whooping crane (currently an endangered species numbering in the hundreds in the wild), in which Richards describes his past as a pilot assigned to aid the cranes’ migration:
. . . he feels he owes a reasonable explanation to the whooping crane, even more of an explanation than he owes his wife or his parents, and the crane can’t see how bad the pilot feels, how broken up he is, when the man thinks that he won’t be able to visit the crane again. When the crane is a thing of the past, when the crane is nothing more than fertilizer for creatures to come, the pilot will only learn of it online, because he will be off pursuing his ambition, flying his test missions, sleeping in the barracks, all so that he might get the hell off the planet that slew the whooping cranes.
This passage, about 115 pages in, suddenly gives a bit more gravitas to the proceedings, a feeling that stays in play to provide the attempt to colonize another planet a certain desperate appeal. We might say the need for an alternative to Earth, and to what humans have become on our home planet’s surface, has never been more imperative. But all goes awry and Richards becomes the only member of the mostly doomed party to escape from Mars and head back to Earth, but not before he is infected with the deadly bacterial strain that causes, it is rumored, bodies to disassemble and even to remain animate after death!
Book Two, the story of what Richards’ hand, missing its middle finger and with three of its remaining fingers reattached after an injury sustained in an attack on Mars, gets up to on earth furnishes the bulk of this bulky novel. And here Moody gets to have a field day with characters who have the purely functional requirements we associate with bad movies, but who also color for us, in their obsessions and self-absorbed interactions, the depleted prospects of the U.S., now known as NAFTA, in a world dominated by the Sino-Indian pact. Besides the NASA types who are trying to decide, first, whether they can let Col. Richards land if he’s infected, and, later, how to contain whatever threat his remains might pose, the story centers on Dr. Woo Lee Koo, a Korean stem cell researcher working in the U.S. who, among other things, would like to resuscitate his cryogenically frozen deceased wife; their teen-aged son Jean-Paul, a would-be power player in the business world, and his “fucking ridiculously hot” girlfriend Vienna Roberts whose libidinal urges involving a sex toy called The Pulverizer may be the couple’s undoing. For the most part Moody’s satiric pleasure in depicting the lengths to which sex impulses will go to find an object—as in “proto-hominid sex”—provides plenty of lubrication to the tale, and the spirit of the book is perhaps best suggested by the fact that romance, as a physical affect, is provided by crass and not too bright teens, and, in the novel’s most sustained flight, romantic love is represented by a chimpanzee named Morton’s crush on the lab assistant Noelle. Morton, thanks to an injection taken from the brain of Dr. Koo’s frozen wife, develops the capacity for speech and, besides declaring his affection for Noelle at every opportunity, tends to be the most reflective character in the book about the absurd species called homo sapiens sapiens who “lives in a warehouse of solitude from which, if he’s lucky, he watches the other people trudging past, and all the while he’s wondering why not me, why not me, why am I untouched by the tender fingers of civilization?”
Much of the novel’s enjoyment comes from the inventiveness with which Moody manages to show the failings of civilization—a scene with the President is particularly funny—while also unleashing the fingers of Richards’ hand—homicidal, erotic, contagious—to wreak its damage, leaving none untouched, giving, as it were, our 21st-century civilization of “desperation, petroleum by-products, fat substitutes, sweeteners, sewage storage issues, stolen and stripped automobiles, vapor trails, good intentions, bad follow-through, selfishness, red itchy eyes, sentimentality, mold, poor logical reasoning, halfhearted orgasms, advertising, household pests, regrets, mendacities, thorns, haberdasheries, computer programming, lower-back pain, xenophobia, legally binding arbitration, cheesy buildup, racial profiling, press-on nails, the seventh-inning stretch, roundtable discussions, antibiotic-resistent bacteria, perineal pain, individually wrapped slices, road rage, and unfounded speculation” the finger.
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate.
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