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WE ARE FLOATING IN SPACE
THIS PAST summer marked the forty-first anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. I watched the actual event on TV in 1969, but totally forgot the anniversary until I was driving through New Hampshire and caught a musical tribute on some left-of-the-dial radio station broadcasting out of god knows where—the moon, for all I know.
It was a melancholy moment. The Space Race was the backdrop for my entire childhood: "Telstar," Tang, Lost in Space, The Jetsons, endless viewings of Not of This Earth on the Million Dollar Movie. At my parochial school, the nuns would drag a television into the classroom and we'd watch the Gemini splashdowns; when Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died during the preflight test of Apollo 1, Sister Mary William, our principal, led us in special prayers over the loudspeaker. I still have the July 20, 1969, New York Times with its banner headline, MEN WALK ON MOON. Years later, I wrote a story about a dying astronaut on the last lunar mission. How could I ever have forgotten the anniversary of the first one?
That lost world and the prolonged demise of the pop culture it helped spawn are gorgeously evoked in Rick Moody's brilliant, maddeningly deranged new novel, The Four Fingers of Death, a book that reads like something unearthed from a time capsule buried beneath the Redstone Arsenal in 1973 or thereabouts: it could fit snugly on the same shelf alongside Gravity's Rainbow, Dhalgren, Breakfast of Champions (Four Fingers is dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut), Ecotopia, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Another Roadside Attraction, works that helped both create and define the counterculture era. (This wouldn't leave room for much else on the shelf—The Four Fingers of Death clocks in at 736 pages.) More than most contemporary works set during that time (T. C. Boyle's Drop City, Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document, Scott Spencer's Waking the Dead) Moody's feels like a genuine artifact, meaning it's kind of a mess.
But what a fabulous, cranked-up, shamelessly over-the-top mess! Reading The Four Fingers of Death is akin to having an acid flashback while surfing the internet, flicking between MST3K, old NASA footage, the Illuminati Conspiracy Archive, and live feeds from Burning Man, as "Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Parts 1 & 2" blasts from your iPod and Erich Segal's Love Story plays on TV in the next room.
Because Four Fingers is a love story, and a heartbreaking one at that. Still, before you reach for your handkerchief in the final pages, you get to experience the failed Mars Mission, the deadly flesh-dissolving pathogen, the amphetamine-crazed twenty-first century gold miner, the mad scientist, the sex-crazed nubile with the robotic sexual aid, the post-millennial cult celebration in the desert, the cryogenically preserved wife, Space Panic, and Morton the talking chimpanzee.
Oh, and the crawling hand.
The first section of The Four Fingers of Death lulls you into a false sense of security as regards what's to come. There's an introduction (Four Fingers is a book within a book that's a novelization of an imaginary twenty-first-century remake of a very bad, and real, twentieth-century sci-fi movie) by Montese Crandall, the framing novel's narrator, a nebbishy middle-aged guy who lives in the southwestern town of Rio Blanco in the year 2025, a date that evokes Zager and Evans's "In the Year 2525," perhaps Billboard's only Number One Hit about the apocalypse. Montese sells old baseball cards, having had the prescience to stockpile cards featuring Dave "Three in One" McClintock, who lost his pitching arm in a freak accident involving transgendered prostitutes and a military transport vehicle. Surgery and a quick-witted agent result in McClintock becoming the first ballplayer with a titanium arm; a judgment error by Topps, Inc. results in the bionic pitcher's image gracing one of the rarest baseball cards in collecting history.
Montese's dwindling hoard of McClintock cards provides for him and his adored young wife, a gambling addict named Tara who spends her own time and Montese's earnings on the Futures Betting Syndicate, a subsidized futures market where online gamblers bet the farm on the possible outcome of current events such as "the likelihood of Republican control of the House of Representatives, the assassination of the newly elected prime minister of Palestine, the liquidation of the remaining portion of the Greenlandish ice shelf.…"
As the book opens, Tara is dying of cystic fibrosis. The heartbroken Montese spends his days and nights shuttling her between home and hospital ICU, where she awaits a double lung transplant. To salve his desperation, in his free time he writes and publishes stories in a stripped-down prose that Moody deploys hilariously and mercilessly. "The three hundred and fifty pages of a novel, according to the argument I am wont to advance, are tedious elaboration," Montese states, adding,
One thing the late twentieth century was good at, besides its mass-marketing: paring away. Omitting needless words. Alluding. Without overstating. Dust bunny under radiator. Cockroach on window-blind. Scotch bottles. Heartbreak in the food court. Impotence. Subdivisions. Melanoma. Muffler problems. Upon the advent of the digital age, as you know, writers who went on and on and on just didn't last.The first story by "Montese Crandall, innovator in contemporary letters," is published in a webzine called Mud Hut. I will quote from it in its entirety:
"Go get some eggs, you dwarf."His second story appears not long after:
"We went with the stealth bomber."Despite his grief over Tara's imminent demise, Montese arranges to read from his collected works ("a grand total of six or seven sentences") at Arachnids, a local bookstore. There he finds an audience of five, quickly reduced to two, the publisher of Mud Hut and a mysterious and imposing black man, a self-proclaimed conceptual artist who writes novelizations of B-movies and identifies himself as D. Tyrannosaurus. Montese and DT repair themselves to a coffee shop where, as the nightly electrical blackout descends, they play a game of chess. Over the next few weeks, Tara is released from the hospital and seems to rally. Her husband and Tyrannosaurus continue to meet for chess games, where Montese, a childhood prodigy, invariably whomps his opponent.
One night, envious of what he perceives as D's commercial success, Montese challenges him to a chess game with real stakes. If D wins, Montese will give him a Dave McClintock rookie card; if Montese wins, he gets to take on D's current project, the novelization of Herbert L. Strock's 1963 camp classic, The Crawling Hand.
D. Tyrannosaurus accepts the challenge. He makes his first move, and the introduction ends. We're on page 69.
What follows is the 300 pages that comprise Book One of The Four Fingers of Death, Montese Crandall's novel based upon The Crawling Hand. It's a straightforward, occasionally ironicized, sf tale about NASA's manned Mars mission, also set in 2025. Gone are the uxorious Montese Crandall and the bronchially challenged Tara; gone is DT. We're now in the head of Colonel Jed Richards as he sits on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, counting down to blastoff. The mission is a last-chance attempt for America to free itself from the morass of "post-imperial stagflation" and innumerable fiscal, environmental, political, and military losses that, in the wake of the Sino-Indian Economic Compact, have reduced the nation to a "multiethnic post-industrial third-rate economy." Richards is crew of the Excelsior, one of three manned craft headed toward the Red Planet; the others are the Pequod and the Geronimo. Their goal is to establish a self-sustaining colony, claim Mars's vast resources for the U.S., and after eighteen months return to Earth.
Almost immediately things begin to go wrong. Members of the crew develop Planetary Exile Syndrome, a sort of space panic which causes what Richards terms "disinhibiting disorder." It turns out that humans behave differently the farther they get from Terra Firma. And they don't behave well. There are accusations of rape by one of the female crew, and hints that there might be an underlying stealth mission about which Richards and his cronies know nothing, a project that involves harvesting a deadly microbe from the planet's frozen wastes. No one reacts to the disinhibiting disorder in the same fashion: people become furtive, sexually provocative, distrustful, possibly murderous. The heterosexual Richards develops a homoerotic obsession with the Excelsior's captain and fellow straight arrow, Jim Rose, "the linebacker, the most-likely-to-succeed astronaut, the pilot, the future political candidate, the hero to the economically deprived young men of the Wild West. There's no way of knowing if this all is a result of mass psychosis, or the intended result of a political conspiracy whose adherents are willing to sacrifice most of the Mars crew for its own objectives.
The reek of paranoia almost overwhelms the human funk that pervades the claustrophobically tiny space capsule. Moody does a fabulous job of invoking a near-future world that seems not just believable but inevitable, with its ubiquitous subcutaneous PDAs, cybernetic life forms, vehicles powered by algae-based fuel, and government-run websites like Celebrity Surveillance Weekly. He's ventured into this territory before, in novellas like "The Omega Force" and the Philip K. Dick homage "The Albertine Notes," and has spoken of his love for the kind of haut schlock that ran on Chiller Theater and Creature Feature and The Million Dollar Movie, staples of a NYC metro area childhood.
In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Moody copped to how The Crawling Hand sustained him and his siblings during their parents' divorce. I don't know if Rick Moody saw the movie twenty-two times, as Montese Crandall claims he did, but I don't doubt it—Million Dollar Movie used to run the same film every night for a week and two or three times on weekends, which is why I can still quote Gorgo by heart. You can now view the original Crawling Hand in its entirety on YouTube (I did), where you can also watch it dissected by the cast of MST3K (I did that, too). The latter method is probably pretty close to how the Moody clan first experienced its charms, but The Four Fingers of Death remains a mostly unaffected sf adventure that doesn't seem to have much in common with its progenitor, until Jed Richards and Jim Rose have sex in zero-G.
Oops, wait! That wasn't The Crawling Hand—that was "A Fragment Out of Time," earliest example of the K/S dyad! I don't know whether Moody has read Kirk/Spock slash fiction, either, but I bet he's heard of it—why else feature gay sex between two astronauts, one of them named Jim? There are also riffs on Stranger in a Strange Land, Repo Man, Lost, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, Ted Mooney's Easy Travel to Other Planets, and, as Moody's novel makes splashdown into Book Two, just about every cheesy sci-fi movie you can think of.
Only one of the Mars landers returns to Earth, and I will leave it to you to guess what's onboard; also to guess how this delirious headtrip of a book ultimately plays out. I wasn't kidding about those flashbacks: as with hallucinogens, to have the optimal experience you need to let go of any presumptions as to where you're headed, relax, and trust in your guide and in the value of the journey itself. It doesn't hurt if you can occasionally zone out during the boring parts—especially in its last third, Fingers of Death could have easily jettisoned a hundred or more pages. In this book, anyway, Rick Moody is one of those writers who goes on and on and on.
Still, when I finally finished this novel, I was surprised by how utterly consumed I'd been by the experience of reading it, and also by how moved I was. Just as there are books within books here, there are love stories within love stories, intra- and inter-species; yet more than anything, there is grief and inescapable loss. Death's fingers are everywhere, and none of us will escape them.
"Silence is what happens when we do nothing to intervene," Montese Crandall says in his introduction, and by the book's end one realizes that the hundreds of pages that preceded it are in fact an elaborate literary intervention.
"It was all because of you," he tells his wife as, in the final scene, he drives her to the outskirts of Rio Blanco to look upon the city lights before they dim.
"…your excitement made me excited about this place, the taco stands, the old movie palaces, the used media stores, all empty, like the shopping centers were all empty. I loved it because you loved it, and the dream of being able to understand a place by driving through it, I said, this is what you gave me in this place, and it was a place of ruins, and somehow the ruins made me feel alive; it was all about death, I said.…"The ruins Moody loves are those of our own lost world—the ashes of the American Empire, the heat death of the Space Program, the flickering electronic impulses in a cathode ray tube that, miraculously, continue to throw out sparks and shadows, and stories, decades after the plug has been pulled.
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