Rick Moody surprised us this year with The Four Fingers of Death, a sprawling, madcap novel that wanders through deep space into the heart of the Arizona desert, its hero a lost-soul writer named Montese Crandall who spends his days trying to reduce novels to the size of Internet tweets. The four fingers in question refer to an old grade-Z creature feature from 1963—but more, to a very real partial hand that is now creating mayhem back on Earth, having gone awry somewhere on the path home from Mars. What happens next is…well, you’ll need to read the twisty-turny story for yourself to follow all the strange courses it takes.
Moody tells Kirkus that, having steered into comic and sci-fi territory with Four Fingers, he’s now at work on a much different kind of novel. “It’ll be more contemporary, more political, less hyperbolic, more controlled,” he says. “A family story. From the dark days of the Great Recession.”
We’ll start by taking Montese Crandall’s bait at the very beginning of the novel, when he twits readers for wanting to know where his ideas come from. How did the idea for Four Fingers come to you?
One day, after I finished The Diviners, I was rooting around in ones of those bins of videos at Wal-Mart where everything costs $3.99. This is a singular event for a number of reasons. I am not in the habit of visiting Wal-Mart, and I don’t ordinarily find stuff I want to watch in the discount bin. But I stumbled on a Rhino Video edition of The Crawling Hand (1963). And I remembered watching it as a kid, among the many, many, many horror films I watched then. So I decided to give it another try. It was even worse than I remembered! I decided it would be fun to rewrite the story.
Apart from watching old Alan Hale movies, what sort of research went into the book? Given your close descriptions, we can imagine your crawling around in a sun-blasted desert searching for just the right detail.
I did lots and lots of research on rocketry and Martian topography. Some of this was reading other fiction writers on the subject, like Kim Stanley Robinson's monumental Mars trilogy, and lots of it was reading nonfiction on rockets and space travel. That stuff all went into the first half. For the second half, I did indeed spend a lot of time in the Sonoran Desert. I was kind of doing this already, my parents live in Arizona, but upon spending my first day in Tucson, I fell in love with the place and the people. The book became a bit of a love letter to Tucson and to that part of the desert.
Four Fingers seems to take a much lighter and perhaps more forgiving view of the world than does some of your earlier work, such as The Ice Storm. Indeed, it’s a romp by comparison. Did you set out to do something different with your newest novel?
I figure Four Fingers is sort of an extension of certain principles that were sketched out in The Diviners: the principle that a lighter touch is OK, that entertainment is OK, that I don’t have to feel like it’s my job to persuade people that I am smart. Indeed, I must not be that smart if I need to keep persuading people.
Also, I do in fact love comic fiction. It’s some of my favorite work to read. So why was I not allowing myself to be funny? Maybe I was worried that I just wasn’t that funny. Four Fingers certainly represents, at least to me, the idea that it’s OK to be funny in public, and also that funny and deeply sad are next door to one another. I think each of the impulses, tragic and comic, are made stronger if leavened with the other.
On that note, how do you see Four Fingers in terms of its place in your body of work to date?
I never know about this sort of thing, and I tend to change my mind a lot, I dislike The Ice Storm a lot, for instance. But I would say that I believe that Four Fingers is a work that succeeds in dealing with its premise, which has the virtue of being patient with its story, which does not accelerate, like too much overplotted fiction, which is somewhat funny, which has a talking chimpanzee in it, which has a zero-G gay sex scene in it, and which has some pathos at the beginning and the end. Therefore, I kind of like it. At least right now I do.
Do you have a favorite moment in the book, one that you’d be sorry to see go missing from a film adaptation?
I wish there would be a film adaptation, but it would have to be a very intrepid filmmaker! I am very partial to both sex scenes, the zero-G one and the disembodied hand one in the second half. Also, I love the passage wherein the president of the United States describes getting lost in a dust storm. Definitely extraneous if you are only thinking about plot. But kind of great in its way. Those are probably liable to end up on the cutting-room floor, right? Which is too bad.
Did you enjoy writing the book? It reads as if you did, what with an errant middle finger, a “total Mars conspiracy theory,” and the prospect of the resurrection of Zimmerman…
I really enjoyed myself, which sounds immodest, and I don’t mean to be immodest. But I figure if I am a little bit entertained by the prospect of making a book then I am more liable to entertain the audience in turn. Additionally, I think it’s worth saying that I loved science fiction as a kid, read lots and lots of it, and I guess I felt it would be really enjoyable to celebrate that work that I loved so much, and I hoped then and hope still that that celebratory aspect would read as loving and playful to the audience out there. Some people seem to be enjoying it, as far as I can tell from here, and that’s gratifying.
Rick Moody's 10 favorite sci-fi novels (in no particular order):
1. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
2. Dune by Frank Herbert
3. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
4. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter
5. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
6. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
8. The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard
9. Neuromancer by William Gibson
10. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
For a list of 2010's best fiction, click here.
For a list of the year's best sci-fi and fantasy, click here.
The Four Fingers of Death
Little, Brown / July / 9780316118910 / $25.99
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010