The negative reviews Rick Moody has garnered over the past decade would not fit into a single volume. He has been judged-fairly and unfairly-for his style, for his subject matter, even for his book covers (scavenge the Public Library’s literature section for his 2005 novel The Diviners; with its image of a Viking warrior howling at a half-moon, which has absolutely nothing to do with the book, you’ll only find it buried away on the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelf). The Four Fingers of Death is his first novel in five years, and, at 736 pages, it is his first good book in much longer than that.
Montese Crandall is an unknown writer living in the Arizona desert in the year 2025. He survives mostly by selling off his collection of rare baseball cards while nursing his gambling-addicted wife, who is slowly dying from an unnamed lung disease. Crandall is obsessed with “omitting needless words.” “The three hundred and fifty pages of a novel are tedious elaboration,” he says. Each of his “novels” has been whittled down to a single sentence. Here are The Collected Works of Montese Crandall: “Go get some eggs, you dwarf.” “We went with the stealth bomber.” “Last one home goes without anesthesia.” “He was just a kid.”
The Four Fingers of Death is Mr. Moody’s best writing in years. It is The Ice Storm in space.
To pay for his wife’s double lung transplant, Crandall takes a job writing the novelization of the remake of the B-movie The Crawling Hand, called The Four Fingers of Death. The Crawling Hand is an actual 1963 film about an astronaut returning to Earth from a mission to the moon having contracted a mysterious virus. NASA blows him up upon his return into the atmosphere with the push of a red button, to avoid a public health hazard. The only remnant of his body is a severed arm that goes on a killing spree in a California coastal town for the rest of the film. The script contains this line, meant to cover up some obvious plot holes: “Wait a minute,” a NASA official says to an expert conveniently present to theorize what went wrong. “What you’re saying is that in space, life might fully evolve in a matter of hours or even minutes?”
A majority of Mr. Moody’s novel is this story within the story. It is divided into two books. The first tells of Earth’s doomed first mission to Mars through blog posts attributed to one of the astronauts. Book Two follows after a retold version of the scene from The Crawling Hand mentioned above. The blogging astronaut, the sole member of the mission to return to Earth, is blown up upon arrival, leaving only a murderous arm-notably missing its middle finger.
What the original Crawling Hand attempts to explain with 30 seconds of dialogue, Mr. Moody-or, really, Crandall-expands to the length of most novels (that “tedious elaboration” of 350 pages). The story of the Mars mission is less a science fiction novel, though, than a family romance, in Freud’s sense of the term. On the three-month trip through space, the nine astronauts cycle through the familiar comic and tragic predicaments that have always animated literature-from falling in love to rape and murder. One by one, the astronauts go mad, first out of sheer loneliness, then from the God complex that the Mars trip allegorizes. The culmination of this madness is the spread of a virus contracted on the surface of Mars that causes those infected with it to “disassemble,” a deus ex machina akin to Medea‘s dragon-chariot that deliberately disassembles the story with twisted, disturbing violence.
Halfway through his book, Crandall-or, really, Mr. Moody-informs us that the last 350 pages were but a superfluous introduction. “I mean, if it is my responsibility to render exactly the film in question, I have failed,” Mr. Moody writes in an overtly metafictional footnote introducing Book Two. “All of this back story about the Mars shot, on which I have just expended a number of pages, does not actually appear in the film. … Readers may ask how I felt so comfortable inventing characters out of whole cloth.” This kind of self-conscious epiphany recurs in Mr. Moody’s oeuvre, from his proclamation that “figurative language fails” in Demonology to his appropriation of Montaigne in The Black Veil: “I am myself the matter of this book.” His self-references come off as a preemptive guard against criticism, a way of saying, “I could fail and you could notice. If I mention it first, your work is unnecessary.” Even so, this passage is the hinge that keeps these 736 pages from disintegrating in the reader’s hands. With a single pen stroke, Mr. Moody defies his readers to take him seriously and-not without a heavy dollop of irony-defies the opinions of his negative critics: He is satirizing his own method of writing himself into his novels as a means of effectively writing himself out of this one. Readers have questioned Mr. Moody’s “inventing characters out of whole cloth,” to the extent that such invention is the essence of novel writing. In composing a book about composing a book about an invented remake of a real film, Mr. Moody shields himself within the opacity of his own story. Any faults of the novel are the faults of Crandall, the fictional Mr. Moody.
If Crandall’s uncharacteristically long-winded novel is an expression of his grief over the inevitable loss of his wife, for Mr. Moody the book is a litany against a decade of naysayers. He has been called everything from a “narcissist” (in this paper) to, most famously by Dale Peck in The New Republic, “the worst writer of his generation,” a label Mr. Moody himself has referred to as “one of the worst,” by which he means pernicious, “reviews ever written.” The guise of Crandall could be interpreted as a mask-the author’s attempt to deflect the creative act to someone else with a defensive nod and a wink. The great irony, though, is that such caution is unnecessary. The first book of The Four Fingers of Death is Mr. Moody’s best writing in years. It is The Ice Storm in space. The prudence becomes the fault here because, even in a book containing a highly pornographic homosexual sex scene that climaxes (pun intended) with the two participants floating around a rocket ship eating globs of gravity-free ejaculate, Mr. Moody’s novel comes off as timid. Taken alone, the 350 “invented” pages are masterful, certainly matching, even at times surpassing, Kurt Vonnegut, to whom The Four Fingers of Death is dedicated, and who is the book’s closest progenitor.
Absurd, dramatic, sententious, the novel’s first half contains all the components that have been criticized in Mr. Moody’s writing, with the addition of one factor that has been largely absent from the author’s fiction for so long: It is fun to read. But with his compulsion to overwrite, Mr. Moody creates for himself the avoidable problems the book faces, namely its meandering second half. Each scene here feels more and more like an attempt to construct a long-winded inside joke based on an esoteric cultural reference, rather than build a cohesive narrative. A shame. Despite the novel’s inconsistencies, buried within is a masterpiece: what Mr. Moody seems to have been searching for in the last 10 years-the middle finger to silence his critics.