Talking fantasy and futurism with guests of the Burlington Book Festival
Could the “great American novel” be ... a space odyssey? Vampires and doomsday scenarios sell like hotcakes, but on book-review pages, genre fiction still doesn’t get much respect.
The thing is, while literary critics have looked the other way, elements of science fiction and other “geeky” genres have crept into the mainstream. Zombies have invaded Pride and Prejudice. Literary authors reach for imagery of a dystopian future to convey what disturbs them about the present. In preparation for this weekend’s Burlington Book Festival, we talked with two guest authors who have plenty to say about this trend.
Rick Moody’s latest novel is about a creeping hand. Or maybe a crawling hand. Those are two alternate titles of a 1963 bargain-basement horror film that inspired the Brooklyn-based writer’s new book, which bears the appropriately pulpy title The Four Fingers of Death.
But no reader would mistake Moody’s 725-page satirical tome, set in a grim near future, for an actual pulp novel. The 48-year-old author, who has published five novels, three story collections and a memoir, is perhaps best known for chronicling the suburban malaise of the 1970s in The Ice Storm. In Four Fingers, he returns to the world of his adolescence — via the sci-fi books and cheesy horror films that shaped it.
The narrator of Moody’s novel is Montese Crandall, a bombastic writer who’s proud of his extremely short stories: Each runs a single sentence. It’s 2024, and economic decline and climate change are transforming the United States, particularly the Southwest, into one vast desert flea market. That’s where Crandall makes his living, selling collector’s baseball cards featuring bionically “enhanced” players.
A bizarre train of circumstances gives our narrator the opportunity to pen the novelization of an upcoming movie, a remake of The Crawling Hand. The result, a story within a story, forms the bulk of Moody’s novel.
The plot of the original Crawling Hand (which you can watch on Hulu) is simplicity itself: A dead astronaut’s severed hand, infected with something from Out There, falls to Earth and proceeds to strangle a bunch of folks from central casting.
In the hands of Crandall, the supposed minimalist, this tale balloons into a saga that involves astronauts going Brokeback Mountain in zero G; NASA scrambling to claim the red planet for American commerce; a mad scientist reanimating his dead wife; teenagers practicing “proto-hominid sexuality” a talking chimp; a mysterious desert cult; and digressions on everything from jet packs to duct tape. At the center of it all is the creeping hand — motivated solely by muscle memory and a deadly bacterium, yet possessed of homicidal tendencies and a “total lack of doubt.”
Moody’s next book should be more sedate: a collection of essays on music, due out next year. (He plays in a folk band and has collaborated with indie rockers One Ring Zero.) Reached by phone on his book tour, he talked with Seven Days about futuristic fiction, Twitter and minimalism.
While Four Fingers is a big book indeed, Moody imagines Montese Crandall whittling it down, as is his wont, to just one sentence — the talking chimpanzee’s declaration to his love interest: “You know, I’m so fond of you.” “[Crandall] has yet to whack it down,” says the real author, “but he’ll get around to it.”
Seven Days: You’ve talked in interviews about the autobiographical component of the book and why horror movies like The Crawling Hand mattered to you as a kid. Can you tell me more about why the novel took the form it did? How are you “honoring” the role of these trashy movies in a person’s life?
Rick Moody: They’re so trashy on their own that they need some kind of ornamentation, or so it seems to me. I started out thinking I would just tell The Crawling Hand over again. But the story started extruding these other limbs. Because I come from this sort of postmodern background, I allowed the story to do that. I allowed a [character’s] name to be auctioned off by a First Amendment charity in California. The prizewinner was someone named Montese Crandall. I found the name so overpowering and compelling and bizarre that I instantly made up the idea of having Montese Crandall write an introduction and afterword to the book...
SD: Crandall boasts of his minimalism but writes a hugely overblown movie novelization. What are you saying about fiction here?
RM: I do feel that minimalism is the convenient form of choice in this digitally afflicted present. Short-short stories are incredibly popular among MFA students these days, because they’re easy to place in electronic journals. So, if I’m setting the story 20 or 15 years in advance, it’s reasonable to suppose the ever-foreshortening contemporary literature will shorten even further.
SD: How clear are the boundaries between literary and genre fiction these days? How close is this to a science-fiction novel?
RM: I have no resistance to the sort of science-fiction/fantasy/speculative wing of genre fiction. It was an important chapter in the story of my own readership as a teenager. I always feel that the high-low distinction is not in nature; it’s just sort of a book-selling convenience, or an elitist gambit of some kind. Literature is a continuum. So, if it’s the case that this [book] sort of sat in the middle and appealed to portions of both communities, I would be gratified.
SD: Space exploration seems to be popping up in recent literary fiction. Why do you think that is?
RM: There’s a lot of literary fiction right now that has one foot in the speculative camp, of which the dystopian is one element. My generation of writers, or the further-out wing of literary fiction written by people in their forties, has as part of its point of origin the Robert Heinlein novels, the Stanislaw Lem novels, the Italo Calvino novels, the Kurt Vonnegut novels that weren’t that set against a kind of jokey space-fiction thing. I was really just trying to celebrate those books I read as a kid.
SD: You’ve said the novel is about “what it means to be in a body.” Is that something people are especially concerned about these days?
RM: There’s so much body-technology interface now. [Cites a recent article in the New York Times about designer prosthetic limbs.] To me it seems like this kind of galloping into cybernetics, that’s very possibly part of what the future of the human body is. You start sculpting it in your teens, with cosmetic surgery; later you replace pieces with titanium implants. I think the body is in this process of growing and changing before our eyes, such that it’s easier to answer questions of consciousness than questions about our physiques.
SD: Do you see the near-future world of the novel as plausible?
RM: I’m not interested in its plausibility, because I think the futurism in science fiction is always allegorical, always meant to be a description of where we are now. This book was begun four years ago, in the bitterest part of the George W. Bush presidency. It’s an allegorical story about what I thought was going on already. I was exaggerating phenomena that seemed to be around me in the desert [in Tucson] when I was writing.
SD: Is the printed word dying?
RM: I have my anxieties, and it depends on what day it is how I answer the question. Last night I read at Bryn Mawr [College in Pennsylvania], and I put the question to them. There wasn’t a kid in that room — and plenty of them had Kindles and so on — who didn’t feel the physical book was more important. There are practical issues that make e-book readers attractive in certain circumstances. But that’s apart from how people feel about the reading experience. There will continue to be markets, and the physical book will continue to have readers who demand that option.
SD: Would you call this novel “maximalist” fiction? And would you write another?
RM: Yes. Not at this length, I don’t think. I wanted to do it once to assure myself I could do it. The length is not the challenge; the challenge is wanting to stay with the characters for three and a half years.
SD: On the minimalist side: You recently wrote a whole story on Twitter [for the journal Electric Literature]. How was that?
RM: It was mixed. I actually loved doing it. It was a fun experiment. The story came out well and suggested what I hoped it would suggest, which is the weird brutality of trying to carve our life into 140-character chunks. But I think Twitter is finally not the best platform for literary fiction.