Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody

Reading Rick Moody's The Four Fingers of Death is somewhat like getting a ticket to DisneyWorld, then being told you must go on every ride, eat every kind of food, and see every show. On a Saturday. In August.

On such a visit, you will spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting while hot, tired, and subject to screaming children, and frazzled parents. You will remark on how crowded it is, how it is both an amazing and revolting place, how it can be strange, terrible, and sublime. How you're not sure if you'd go back, but you're oddly glad that you experienced it.

For The Four Fingers of Death, like DisneyWorld, is over-stuffed, indulgent, boring, dizzying, entertaining, and exaperating by turn. If only it just wasn't so long. Or maybe if the last 250 pages were different. Or if you had any sort of reasonable belief that it all adds up to anything. Or maybe if there was slightly less mechanized sex or perhaps fewer sentient chimpanzees with Napoleon complexes. Like maybe zero sentient chimpanzees with Napoleon complexes.

But then there are moments where you forget the stench and noise and simply marvel at what's possible.

Also like at Disneyworld, the artificiality is part of the fun here. Most of The Four Fingers of Death is the 2025 novelization of a fictional 1960s B-movie, The Crawling Hand. The author of this novelization, Montrese Crandall, took the ob after winning a bet over a chess match with a mysterious baseball card fanatic; trust me, this was the most coherent part of the story.

This frame, of Crandall's artistic frustration, romantic loneliness, and unfulfilled ambition, provides Moody with the opportunity, in the main part of the work, to experiment, to indulge, and to create some of the more amazing set pieces you are likely to read, along with passages that are repetitive, inscrutable, and virtually unreadable.

The "plot" of the novel-within-the-novel is at once irrelevant and crucial. The actual story of a disastrous Mars mission that culminates in the introduction of a rampaging, diseased appendage (the titular "four fingers" are the remaining digits on the hand of one of the Mars astronauts) is not terribly engaging, but it gives Moody such a range of locations, cirumstances, characters, and ideas that it's hard to imagine any other story containing his perambulations.

The central experience of reading The Four Fingers of Death is to be amazed and aggravated in extreme proximity. For example, Moody gives entertaining, psychedelic passages like this:
Silence is a thing onto which meanings can be projected. In silence you might believe, with the proper balance of chemical reagents, that a radical depopulating of the desert landscape is called for, in which the white man and all of his ways, his preposterous medical clinics with their radiological devices, and his steroid-enhanced, lacrosse-playing ubermen, should be deforested, by whatever means there was for deforesting the whiteman.
Elsewhere, his inventions fail, and they fail in extended, spectacular fashion:
He couldn't feel one fucking thing in his leg, not one fucking thing; his leg felt like it wasn't even his own fucking leg, and when he looked down at the leg, or at the other leg, at the pair of legs, it was like they were not legs at all, like they were fucking lengths of PVC pipes or something. (This continues for another six pages.)
There are substantial chunks of gold here, but it requires a sturdy back to sift through all the slag. It is likely that only the intrepid will find the odyssey worthwhile, as The Four Fingers of Death brings Longfellow's "girl with the curl" to mind:
There was a little girl, who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead,
And when she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.


  1. I don't know if I would like this book, but I love, love, love your review. I snorted at least five times while reading this (and my co-workers can't figure out what is so amusing about my job....) The Disneyworld analogy is priceless.

  2. So is this book filled with the angriest, meanest people on earth pretending to enjoy the happiest place on earth?

  3. Haha, I really liked your review; Super analogy right at the beginning to grab my attention!