Somewhere in the 725-page sprawl of Rick Moody’s latest novel is a good quirky science fiction story screaming to get out; unfortunately for everyone, he smothers it in a meta-fiction construct of a novel within a novel within a bunch of crap.
Moody sets out telling the story of Montese Crandall, a writer whose forte has been the extreme Gordon Lishization of his own work, hewing a verbose and rambling style down to one-sentence distillations, i.e. Last one home goes without anesthesia. While his on-line gambling addicted wife suffers through a double-lung transplant, Crandall beats a man named D. Tyrannosaurus at chess and wins the opportunity to write the novelization of a 2025 remake of the 1963 B-movie The Crawling Hand.
The book then changes focus, and we find ourselves in the backstory of the NASA Mars mission that possibly inadvertently, probably purposely, brings back a dangerous bacteria that causes the human body to “disassemble.” This part of the triptych could have, and should have, stood on its own. Crandall né Moody handles the excitement and horror of long-voyage space travel like a future Tom Wolfe whose white suit would have ended up sullied by any number of human secretions and ejecta. An extreme sense of paranoia begins to permeate the mission as one-by-one the astronauts succumb to interplanetary disinhibitory disorder until pretty soon, the last, best hope for the United States and its NAFTA signatories goes, well … south.
Which is where the actual novelization picks up in “Book Two.” The last returning astronaut, infected with the mutated space bacteria, blows himself up over the Sonoran Desert. A big chunk of the capsule lands near some degenerate’s mining claim and the astronaut’s infected, severed, and four-fingered arm begins its second life. That’s all well and good, the book is called The Four Fingers of Death, and we knew early on that at least part of this story was going to be based on the aforementioned B-movie.
The problem with the second act, or really, the second-and-two-thirds act, is that along with the straightforward, although implausible, trajectory of a murderous ambulatory appendage, Crandall/Moody throws in a Korean stem cell scientist with a dead wife in his garage freezer, a talking chimpanzee and his lab assistant love interest, a strange pan-religious cult that throws violent Burning Man-type happenings—not to mention all of the arm’s victims, who, for some reason we need to know about their propensity for Catholic school girl strippers or whatever and the problems inherent with their procurement—and on, and on, until somewhere between page 400 and 500, the reader really wishes Crandall had stuck to his original style, i.e. We went with the stealth bomber.
I finally plowed through to the inevitable B-movie ending with a lingering feeling that I’m missing the joke. By creating the character of Crandall, Moody is absolving himself from having to write well. It’s an odd dodge, and I don’t quite get where he’s going with it, or rather, he goes everywhere with it, and I don’t get why. One clue that pops up throughout all facets of the triptych, is a future eighth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-VIII). Perhaps by 2026, they will have diagnosed and defined the disorder that leads people to finish overlong novels even though the books have become completely ridiculous.