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“In general, I think the way to describe the world is to get longer not shorter,” Rick Moody said in an interview last year. He’s been true to his word: The Four Fingers of Death, his new book, runs in excess of 700 pages and takes the form of a novel inside a novel inside a novel. The action occurs on Mars, in a command station on Cape Canaveral, across the American Southwest, and aboard three spacecraft—the Excelsior, the Pequod, and the Geronimo—that collectively allude to Longfellow, Melville, and the felled Apache hero. “And then there would be some sort of shoot-out,” Moody writes in one of the book’s meta-textual asides. “Because what else could there be.”
Good question. When Moody’s shoot-out does come, it’s between a talking chimpanzee, a gang of men dressed as Mexican wrestlers, and the titular disembodied, rotting arm. They use Tasers, because the book is set in 2025. Or “books,” really—Moody’s big, overstuffed novel contains at least three. A dealer of rare sports memorabilia, Montese Crandall—a man with sideburns like “the pelts of rare woodland animals” and a sideline in “very condensed literary pieces”—is working on a not-at-all condensed novelization of a remake of the 1963 camp horror film The Crawling Hand. Most of Moody’s story is actually Crandall’s, as he first writes a Mars-mission prequel, then the main event, about what happens when one of the astronauts’ hands gets detached from its owner and falls back to Earth, where it starts choking people out.
Crandall is also mourning the slow death of his wife, a disabled gambling enthusiast (she bets on futures like “Spain exiles its Jews”), and the rapid dissolution of his native America, which has been “parboiled” by a Sino-Indian economic pact. So Crandall’s astronauts riff on loneliness, explore the benefits of interplanetary socialism, and indulge in no small amount of zero-gravity polymorphous perversity. Until they all murder each other, and the last surviving cosmonaut—who manages to escape, though without a middle finger—brings back to our planet a Martian germ called thanatobacillus, which does what it sounds like it does.
Moody’s fifth novel is dedicated to the memory of Kurt Vonnegut, whose visionary sense of sci-fi-fueled absurdity is here, even if his keen moral sense isn’t. Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and a writer younger than Moody, Ron Currie Jr.—whose 2009 Everything Matters! also featured flesh-eating bacteria, exploding spaceships, and questions about meaning in the face of horror—flit through Death‘s pages as well. The book’s voluminous scope gives the author more room to pursue the themes he’s been elaborating on since The Ice Storm—American ennui and interpersonal longing being things that thrive in space even better than they do in the suburbs. But what’s missing at times is a sense of purpose, or an idea capacious enough to contain the author’s big technique. Moody is a writer clever enough to pull off a multi-page riff on an “anal battering ram” called the Pulverizer and coin a new music genre, dead girlfriend. What he doesn’t seem able to do is convincingly tell you what any of it means.