The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody
Narrative’s nothing without hurt, yet nothing without humor. Whether you’re a listener around a cave fire or the end-user of some character-and-conflict software, you’ve got to care, but also grin, engaged but entertained. On the horns of this dilemma, Rick Moody hangs his new The Four Fingers of Death, with all the panache of the neighborhood hottie hanging out her lingerie to flap, come-hither, on the breeze. Moody’s latest fiction may run fully 200 pages longer than The Diviners from 2005, itself a prolix and kaleidoscopic vision, but the new novel’s heft moves with unapologetic swagger, as it flaunts the extremes of storytelling. Those extremes resist easy summary or review, but in this too Four Fingers seems admirable -- “novelicious,” let’s say, to coin a term in keeping with the text’s ludic anarchy, the tickling it gives a form that’s so often been labeled as dying or dead.
Reanimation of the dead, indeed, provides Moody with his title and several major plotlines. Those stories, I repeat, resist summary -- but I can affirm that nary a one fails to cast a spell. Frankenstein often comes to mind, as do the many clumsy appropriations of Mary Shelley’s idea, the many bad movies, and in its closing pages, Four Fingers reveals a debt to one piece of schlock from ’63, The Crawling Hand (the promotional materials also mention the flick). Such materials might seem dubious, but this novel embraces them unrestrainedly, laying out lurid Polaroids of America a generation in the future.
NAFTA has fallen to the second rung internationally, no match for “the Sino-Indian Economic Compact,” and in a desperate move, the US has fulfilled a thoughtless pledge of George W. Bush, sending a manned mission to Mars. The mission occupies the first half of Moody’s work, the aftermath the second, and both are framed by slender reminiscences we might call the love-song of Montese Crandall. Crandall, a recent widower and lifelong crank, undertakes the “novelization” that occupies the rest of the work; Crawling Hand may be crap to most, but to him it offers a last gesture to the departed. As for the journey to Mars, that proves largely doomed, seven ninths doomed, to figure from the number of participants, and its aftermath down in the American Southwest cuts a still wider swath of destruction. The damage begins with an amputated arm that won’t lie still, the infected vestige of a would-be Mars-man.
Lurid stuff, as I say, and in the first of the book’s lists, the novelizer offers a breezy digest of folks not unlike those found in the novel: “overweight athletes, coca abusers, not to mention intravenous testosterone injectors, wife abusers, biblical literalists....” And those who make lists, one might add. I’d use up most of the space Bookslut allots if I quoted the catalogue with which Moody describes kissing in zero gravity: “the desert-island-hunger-and-thirst kissing, the drive-your-cart-over-the-bones-of-the-dead kissing.” These portmanteau adjectives, rousing though they are, constitute the least of that scene’s transgressions.
Crashing into forbidden places, in this text, includes the blurring of stick figures, from the Brave White Astronaut to the Olive-Skinned Teen Model. These take on such dimension they also smudge the line between the serious novel and genre work. Moody’s Fingers gather in about as many genres as they can hold, not just science fiction, not just visions of apocalypse, but also the romance novel, with a fine gushy business set on Mars, and fantasy of course, especially the tragic yet triumphant talking chimp, plus a healthy sampling of pornography, gay and straight. Moody bashes around with no holds barred, putting far-out props in the hands of men and women we care about, them and the chimp too (and I can’t neglect to mention a wayward Mars Rover, in love with moon Phobos).
To put it another way, his wild narrative keeps breaking into emotional dramas of a more traditional sort, the sort he’s written himself. The second half of Fingers features two all-but-feral teenagers, their voices impressively differentiated from those of the adults, and these recall the scrambling mall rats of Moody’s The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven. Likewise, the latest book reaches back to his first, The Ice Storm, in its chronicling of painful marriages. And likewise, the cracked but heartfelt conversations with the dead or comatose recall the narrator and his dying mother in Purple America – the novel that, before this, I’d have selected as Moody’s foremost accomplishment.
The work that most closely anticipates Fingers is “The Albertine Notes,” the most imaginative of the novellas in Right Livelihoods. “Albertine” too takes place in a dysfunctional future, what’s left of New York after a terrorist bombing, and it has the drive of a thriller. Yet it ends in a hymn to all that’s been lost, and the long new novel stretches that into a whole keening opera. Four Fingers of Death raises outcries against environmental destruction (the globe has gone on warming, to the point of frying) and animal abuse (the chimp’s story is far from the only case), and many another example of humanity’s failure. Its core emotion is longing, embodied in everything from the amputated limb to the book itself, in which Crandall’s mourning burst into a Rabelaisian uproar. Reanimation, Moody here reminds us, isn’t just the fondest of the tales we tell ourselves; it’s one that only a great story can make real.
The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody
Little, Brown and Company