The four fingers of death from which The Ice Storm author Rick Moody gets the title of his peculiar, epic new novel are not, in case you were wondering, metaphorical. They are literally four digits attached to the infected severed arm of a dead astronaut who picked up some nasty bacteria on Mars. The arm kills people (hence the description of the fingers) and is the subject of a massive limb-hunt undertaken by NASA with the aid of a talking chimpanzee. So, no, this is not your typical Rick Moody book.
For one thing, it’s kind of fun. Moody has a reputation as a chronicler of dark suburban angst and flawed, fragile relationships. The Four Fingers of Death reads, to its credit, more like a 700-page Kurt Vonnegut book with a metatextual framing device: an avant-garde writer adapts a pulp horror movie into a charming, rambling novel, which turns out to be, of course, this very one.
Like Vonnegut, it slips every so often into likeably pretentious riffs about reality, or society, or… the fragility of interpersonal relationships. Okay, maybe it is a typical Rick Moody book.
Suburban settings aside, Moody has always been most concerned with change and evolution – the way people, families, connections and societies shift, transmogrify and decay. And in that sense, The Four Fingers of Death’s concerns are no different from those of The Ice Storm; they’re just transferred to a molecular level. Astronauts land on Mars, declare themselves post-human and find their bodies literally disintegrating while a primate, injected with stem cells, gains the power of speech and becomes post-ape. Weird? Maybe. But when the book ends, at an apocalyptic carnival in the middle of a crumbling desert society, it’s not Vonnegut you’re reminded of but Moody himself, especially the closing rave from Garden State. Only this one has a talking chimp.