Just, seconds ago, finished The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody. The book is thick and hardcover and has a satisfying little thud as you close the back cover on the last page. It was a frustrating, too long, but intensely moving book, even if a reader is not interested in science fiction, and even if a reader does not chuckle at a single one of its all-too-numerous literary in-jokes. The story, stripped of all it’s meta- and side- plots as well as the sheer sleet of its verbosity, is one of coming to terms with death. There are going to be spoilers ahead. Please read the book and read on afterwards. Or maybe it doesn’t matter; the book jacket stupidly gives away too much of the plot, so you’d get the same spoilers from reading that.
The novel is framed by a fake-forward and afterward in which a fake author, Montrose Crandal, purports to be writing a novelization of a 1960’s horror film, The Crawling Hand, in which an animated hand of an astronaut, all that remains of a failed mission to mars,returns to earth and begins, in equal doses, killing, playing with, and giving handjobs to the people it encounters. Crandal’s reason for writing the book is that his wife is currently in a coma in a on the verge of death. Crandal’s (perhaps, but also maybe not, Moody’s) overwhelming fear of death is projected in his novelization, which comprises the bulk of the The Four Fingers of Death. People die before saying what they’ve been holding in all those years, they die unexpectedly, they die too young. In the odd chance that characters are not actively dying or being chased by a dismembered hand that is working towards their demise, they brim forth with silly-string thought patterns about life, its fragility, its unfairness, its randomness, its beauty, its ending. It’s probably the thoughts we as readers have passingly once a day or so, and because his book is 700+ pages long, Moody finds space for those everyday existential moments.
Moody/(Crandal?) wrote the bulk of the book on a very isolated writers retreat in the southwest US, a section of desert where the landscape suggests a place where things put forth momentous strength to not die. I would hypothesize the literal and figurative scorched earth of Four Fingers might have come about due to the landscape coming into contact with Moody/(Crandal?)/(Astronaut Jed Edwards?)’s depression, documented in his excellent memoir The Black Veil.
All I can do as a reader is hypothesize about such things in what might very well be a totally off-base manner. The book’s layers- its chutes, ladders, pop-ups, ribbons etc, mask Moody’s true intentions. Moody dedicated the novel to Kurt Vonnegut, who used a similar tactic whenever he dragged his alter-ego, Kilgor Trout, into his books. Were Trout’s thoughts actually Vonnegut’s true feelings? Were they meant as a satire of the public perception of Vonnegut as a grouch? Were they just the words of a fictional failed sci-fi writer, destined to shamble along in a hat that looks like its been run over by a train carrying anvils?
Let’s not get too meta, shall we not?
“Looking at a bunch of strangers/looking at them looking at me looking at them”
I’ve talked about storytelling-through-songwriting before on the blog, but this level of meta-“fiction,” stories with a narrator so unreliable they might just be telling truth, is harder to find in songs than it is in books. Not all that surprisingly, it takes someone like Travis Morrison to pull it off. Morrison, songwriter of the long gone(/recently temporarily reunited) Washington DC group Tthe Dismemberment Plan could have fallen into the traps of a thousand other songwriters. He writes songs that are mostly whining and mostly all about the songwriter. Morrison stands as one of our most genuinely bizarre and enjoyable songwriters because he works with topics as overwrought at 20-something angst, love, and loneliness, but presents them in wonderfully idiosyncratic ways. He wrote a song about power dynamics in a relationship called “I Love a Magician,” which, as its title would suggest finds our narrator in love with a magician who embarrasses him by playing tricks on him at parties. “You Are Invited” is a song about being alone and dateless until a magic invitation is given to you which allows you to do anything and go anywhere you would like. “8 1/2 Minutes” wonders whether, if (when the moon is hurtling towards the earth after being hit by nuclear missiles fired towards our enemies on the onslaught of our next war), you would finally come out and tell the person you loved how you felt about them. And that’s just on one album!
The song that The Four Fingers of Death stirred up most for me, though, was the last track off The Dismemberment Plan’s last album, Change. The song is called “Ellen and Ben.” On a basic level, it is about a relationship of two people, Ellen and Ben. In the first verse, they meet at a party. In the second, they begin dating. In the third verse, they become an entity, losing contact with many of their friends. In the fourth verse, they break up at a wedding. That’s the story. That’s also just scratching the surface of the song. The song’s beauty and sadness comes from its narrator, a character who is fleshed out in an economical fashion, a few adjectives here, a bridge there.
The narrator initially confers the story to the reader with the same measured, subjective tone as the music, a steady drumbeat, sinusoidal synthesizers. The whole thing seems legit. “Ellen and Ben/They met at someone’s housewarming party/They didn’t like each other at first,” the song begins. By the time we’ve gotten to the second verse where the couple have gotten together and our narrator goes over to pay them a visit, he starts to appear as a character.
He stops by their apartment, seemingly quite early on a weekend morning, and finds them in bed. “Everytime I tried to ask them something/They started making out again/I thought it was rude/I couldn’t tell you why.” Jealousy, if understandable jealousy, rises up through this verse and into the next, where the newly in-love couple drop off the face of the earth, getting a new place and not putting their number in the phone book (this was the pre-cellphone-generation, believe it or not), and the narrator says of their dissapearence from the scene, “I thought it was cheap/I couldn’t tell you why.”
After this, the song swerves into a seemingly tangential bridge, where Ellen and Ben are nowhere to be found. Our narrator tells us about his childhood, the toys he played with, and the future he looked forward to. That future was one modeled after 1950s R and B romance songs, where, “the Ocean City girls out on the boardwalk sing [sic] oh oh oh yeah yeah yeah.” The narrator’s pain at seeing two friends splinter off into a passionate romance as he stays single, growing more and more bitter and alone, becomes apparent.
In the song’s last verse, the narrator finds a morose consolation in the couple’s breakup at a wedding, noting, “It seems kind of weird/They made each other feel like they could die but/They couldn’t stay the slightest of friends,” but Morrison won’t let the narrator off the hook, leaving him “Hanging with his nephew/And trying to keep my eye on the prize,” a pretty pathetic scenario ruled by self-help mantras. The song ends with the narrator hoping to stay in touch better, which can either be seen as a sincere desire, or the kind of halfhearted talk that occurs at high school reunions.
One of my favorite Swedish bands, Le Fever, just released a free 3 track EP. This one is EPIC. As EPIC as a three track EP from a Sweedish indie-pop band can be. Which, in case you’re curious is actually quite EPIC. Wonderful for the not yet arriving spring.
I’ve also been spending a lot of time with the solo release from Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier. It’s a slow, release that blankets you over, about as human and intimate as Sadier has ever gotten.
Lastly, Marnie Stern and Teras Malos at Santos on Friday. See you there, friend!