Indulgence is an easy accusation to make, but a tricky crime to pin on a novelist. Once a book goes past the 400-page mark, once the cast of characters expands to the thousands, once traditional concerns like plot and pacing are discarded in favor of increasingly esoteric philosophical meandering—once all or any of these things occur, the first response is to dismiss the whole enterprise as coming from one more writer who got lost down the rabbit hole of obsession. But some of the greatest novels ever written were massively self-indulgent, because great writing is personal writing expanded outward. Genius is the art of making personal concerns universal, so it’s best to be careful before dismissing something as a waste of time. Let it be said clearly nonetheless: Rick Moody’s new novel, The Four Fingers Of Death, is a muddled, self-indulgent mess.
The premise is a sort of Nabokovian trickery (Moody even references Pale Fire obliquely at one point), a clever concept that requires a light touch and a deft hand. Montese Crandall is a writer who’s mastered the art of brevity, with a body of work that includes only single-sentence stories. He has an ailing wife, though, and single sentences don’t pay the bills, so he enters into an arrangement to novelize a cheap science-fiction movie called The Four Fingers Of Death. Only Montese is a man with a lot on his mind, so he isn’t satisfied with following the original script and sprinkling in some description and adjectives.
Instead, the bulk of Moody’s Four Fingers is also Montese’s, spanning two sections and far, far too many pages. Moody isn’t a bad writer, as The Ice Storm and much of his other work proved, but he’s clearly in over his head here. Pulp storytelling of the sort he’s working to deconstruct needs a powerful engine to keep it moving, and Moody’s disinterest in providing a strong narrative hook (outside the cuteness of the conceit) means that the book starts out intriguing, grows tepid, and winds down its final half with campy weirdness that’s too buried under circular prose to make an impact. It’s tempting to give Moody points for concept alone, and Fingers occasionally hints at something better. Mostly, though, it’s a waste of trees and time, and should be avoided accordingly.