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.
Ethan Gilsdorf knows all about geek pursuits invading the mainstream — he wrote the book on it. The 43-year-old New Hampshire native, who works as a journalist and teacher in the Boston area, is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, which just came out in paperback.
Gilsdorf’s book is part memoir and part reportage. In its opening chapters, he relates how Dungeons & Dragons helped him escape from a painful adolescence into realms of fantasy. Like many people, he grew out of role-playing games — or thought he did.
But when a midlife crisis reared its head, Gilsdorf found himself fishing out his old D&D paraphernalia. In an effort to understand what makes fantasy so powerful — and to figure out whether it’s “fundamentally good or evil” — he took a tour of geek subcultures: Tolkien aficionados; Harry Potter tribute bands; live-action role players; the Society for Creative Anachronism; people who spend all night playing World of Warcraft. He wore costumes, threw dice and made up funny names for himself (“Ethorain”).
Gilsdorf will share some of his experiences on Sunday, when he returns to Vermont — he lived in Brattleboro for several years — to read as part of a Book Fest event called “The Funny Pages.” We talked with him about how geeks conquered the world. (Find a longer version of this interview on the Seven Days staff blog, Blurt.)
Seven Days: How have readers reacted to the book?
ETHAN GILSDORF: I’ve gotten probably hundreds of emails from people who read the book and found kind of a kindred spirit, and it helped them articulate their own troubles, embrace their inner geek.
I’ve gotten people who’ve said, “There’s someone in my life who does this, and I read your book, and now I understand a little bit more.”
For some people, they just need to hear that one other person out there has shared their experience and their struggle. There’s some people who reacted — I don’t want to say angrily, but basically saying, “Get over it.” ... There are people who ... have no problem prancing down Main Street in their wizard cap and robe. In a way, those are the best people; they’re totally comfortable in their skin.
SD: According to your press kit, you get interviewed as a “fantasy and escapism expert.” What kinds of questions do you answer?
ED: I think people forget these subcultures are invisible to many people. It’s becoming increasingly less so, because many young people are playing some kind of video game, but for people my age and older, it’s sort of frightening. My instinct is to deflate some of the common myths about video games and fantasy ... The culture has all kinds of crazy and, in some ways, contradictory messages it sends to young people. It’s OK to be a rabid fan of sports, but it’s not OK to be a rabid fan of medieval reenactments. It’s an arbitrary distinction.
SD: You tried out all these geeky pursuits. Which ones stuck with you, if any?
EG: I haven’t done any of the sort of dress-up costuming or LARPing [live-action role playing since researching the book]. I have done some gaming since then...
SD: Did your definition of “geek” change during the project?
EG: It’s even changed a bit since I’ve written the book ... Ultimately, the best way to look at a geek — it’s really someone who has passion for something, for getting the details right, and they will defend that in an argument: No, no, Picard is better than Kirk. And they will be interested and passionate about this thing before it is fashionable to do so. A true geek keeps the torch burning and isn’t concerned about whether it’s cool.
SD: Is online culture turning everyone into a geek?
EG: Facebook is a good example of role playing. There’s a certain element of role playing in one’s online presence. People can have arguments over the Internet that they can never have face to face.
SD: You devote two chapters to the trend of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), such as World of Warcraft. How are they affecting society?
EG: My suspicion is, [this kind of gaming] is going to be more widespread, but the scenarios won’t be limited to the ones we associate with these kinds of games.
The first time I spent a lot of time in [the virtual world] Second Life was about a month ago. You have all kinds of interesting exchanges with people. For instance, there’s Islam Online, organized by a group looking to promote positive images of Islam. I’m not necessarily going to feel comfortable going into a mosque in Boston and chatting with the Imam. But in Second Life, you can do it.
That sort of role playing, it comes from Dungeons & Dragons, really. You play another character, and through that character you get to exercise parts of your personality you wouldn’t normally exercise. In the best possible outcome, you become more courageous; you take risks you wouldn’t necessarily take in the real world.
It’s a different way of connecting, but people are still connecting.