"The Four Fingers of Death" (Little, Brown and Co., $25.99), by Rick Moody: I'm afraid that when I do that book reviewer thing and give you the obligatory summary of the plot of "The Four Fingers of Death" by Rick Moody, it will scare off all but the most hardcore of sci-fi geeks, but there's really no way around it.
Just try to withhold judgment when I tell you the novel is split into two books: the first about a manned space mission to Mars that goes horribly wrong, and the second about an astronaut's severed arm that returns from Mars and crawls around the desert Southwest strangling people. And if you need more, both books are nestled in a framing device and apparently written by a former chess prodigy who now deals in the baseball cards of robotically enhanced players.
Oh, and there's a chimpanzee named Morton who develops the ability to speak as the result of a mad scientist's attempt to reanimate the corpse of his dead wife.
Still with me?
I hope so, because as pulpy and trashy as "The Four Fingers of Death" might sound, it's oddly something sweeter and more profound. It's a book about love and longing, husbands grieving over dying wives, disconnected parents and lost children, sadness and confusion.
Consider just this one gorgeous line: "Love was the hole as well as the thing that repaired the hole." It's sad, pitch-perfect and lovely, and it came from the talking chimp who has fallen in love with a human laboratory assistant.
It might help to back up a bit.
"The Four Fingers" is set about 15 years in the future, and America has fallen apart, depleted by Central Asian wars, saddled with ballooning debt, swamped by rising tides of crime and homelessness. Fuel is scarce, and the countryside is scorched by global warming.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because there's been a small boom in this sort of dystopian fiction lately. The latest novels from Gary Shteyngart ("Super Sad True Love Story") and Jonathan Lethem ("Chronic City") both imagine a dissolving New York City. Jim Crace and Cormac McCarthy got even more post-apocalyptic in "The Pesthouse" and "The Road," respectively.
There are different levels of dystopian collapse, but the genre conventions are consistent: Take a worrisome current issue (nobody reads, we're distracted by iPhones, our environment is being destroyed, everything is falling apart, etc., etc.), extrapolate into the future, wring hands nervously.
The near future in "The Four Fingers of Death" has plenty gone wrong, but it reads more like the satiric comedy of David Foster Wallace's maximalist novel, "Infinite Jest." Both are long, sometimes long-winded, packed with elaborately inventive plotlines, digressions, explanations and multiple characters. The future's a mess, but there's plenty to say about it.
There are bound to be some missteps in a book this shaggy and pulpy. The first section, the mission to Mars, works well as an adventure story, but the second half falls flat dramatically, maybe since it's mostly about an infected hand just wiggling around, grabbing stuff, strangling. (The inspiration for this section was apparently "The Crawling Hand," an actual B-movie horror flick from 1963.)
But the crawling-hand section also contains some of the book's most heartfelt and lovely writing, like this passage describing the astronaut's final thoughts: "When everything else is gone, when all our possessions are gone, all our accomplishments, all the things we would have become and did not, all our friends ... when they are all gone, there is longing, a daughter we were so lucky once to know and love, dancing. May she remember us."
That sentence ought to make you cry a little. It's lyrical and says something honest about being human: We all face the void with only the memories of those we love.
This is how Moody gets you: He takes the inane and makes it sincere. The premise of "The Four Fingers of Death" is trashy, the setting is classic sci-fi, but he manages to say something simple, meditative and profound. You may struggle with the 700-plus pages of space exploration, severed arms and talking chimpanzees, but I swear there's something valuable there, maybe something permanent.