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Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Worst Best Book Ever

It took me a month to finish Rick Moody's The Four Fingers of Death, a 800ish page tome based in part on a 1960s B horror movie. While I'm admittedly a very slow, methodical reader, a month for 800 pages is a long time.

Never read Moody before. Had heard of him--The Ice Storm, for instance--but the reason I bought The Four Fingers of Death was because of a Vonnegut connection.

"In memory of Kurt Vonnegut," the book begins.

Thing is, ten pages of Moody's prose is the equivalent of a Vonnegutian paragraph.

The Four Fingers of Death is the worst best book I've ever read. Seriously. Usually when I get into a book enough to realize I hate it--around the 15 page mark--I set it aside. Too many books out there, why bother to waste time on a book I'm not getting into?

This book, tho. Ugh.

Here's a brief breakdown of the book:

Part 1: First person narrative. The author Montese Crandall, living in the near-future, discusses how his wife's illness makes him sad. He's a failed writer, and he collects baseball cards. Crandall describes the near-future of America, which is bleak and poor and full of sand and death. He gets an opportunity to write the novelization of a film. The film is a remake of the 1963 B horror movie The Crawling Hand. Except he doesn't just do a direct novelization of the screenplay--he also writes a prequel.

Part 2: The prequel to the remake of The Crawling Hand. This section is narrated by an astronaut, Jed Richards, participating in the first manned expedition to Mars in 2025, and it doesn't end well. Also, my favorite part.

Part 3: The third part of the book is the (fictional) novelization for the (fictional) remake of The Crawling Hand. Characters include a NASA lackey with a bad comb-over, a doctor researching stem-cells by hacking off bits of his deceased wife's body which he keeps in a freezer in his garage, and a love-stricken talking chimpanzee. And, of course, a disembodied (in the literal sense) hand.

Part 4: First person narrative. We return to Montese Crandall, and... if you make it to the end of the novel, you will cry. The problem is getting to the end of the novel.

I made it to the end. Friday, on the train home from work. The train stopped, I got out, and rather than walk home to finish, I leaned against the railing of the station, completed the book. And the ending of the book had a bit of Vonnegut about it.

Really, the entire book as promised has a bit of Vonnegut about it. Humanism, free-thinking, sardonic, cynical, hopeful, bleak Vonnegut. What The Four Fingers of Death lacks is economy. Moody takes too much space to tell his rather paltry story, distances his unique ideas with miles and miles of sentences.

Some time back, I transcribed one of the more moving passages from the book (here's the link). Well, imagine that passage, which is a digression, over and over again, so that what happens is you get plot plot digression plot digression digression digression ACTION plot digression plot etc. That's The Four Fingers of Death.

It's a wonderful book. Also, terrible.

Want to know how it ends?

Here's the last paragraph:

"Of the time after that, I don't have much to say. I won the chess game, and I began writing these pages."

And here's the first sentence:

"People often ask me where I get my ideas."

Between the beginning and end, you have a mission to Mars, the installation of a colony (and of sculptures!) on the red planet, a visit with the president at Camp David, a few experiments on animals, a taser-gun fight between Mexican wrestlers and a chimp, a menacing amputated arm, teenage sex, and NAFTA.

What you don't have between those sentences is something as profound as 'poo-tee-weet?'.

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