TAKE A DEEP BREATH before trying to explain the plot of Rick Moody's The Four Fingers of Death—there's a lot going on. Moody gleefully rolls around in sci-fi and horror genre conventions, like your dog in a particularly choice bit of roadkill, and a book-within-a-book structure even adds "post-modern literary fiction" to our decomposing pile of metaphorical genre casualties.

The book's introduction is provided by one Montese Crandall, a writer who explains the source of his style as the "strategic reduction" characteristic of the late 20th century, wherein superfluity in prose was pared away to accommodate the "point-and-click interface" of the digital age. But then Montese, who makes his living selling baseball cards of "enhanced" baseball players—that is, athletes with bionic modifications—lands a job writing a novelization of a 2025 remake of the 1963 film The Crawling Hand. He takes it, in part to distract himself from his wife's chronic lung condition, and soon all reductive tendencies fall by the wayside. Montese pours his pretensions, longings, and heartbreak into a 600-plus word account of a doomed NASA voyage to Mars, and about the single arm, fully animate but missing a finger, that returns from the space voyage to crawl its way across the Southwestern United States, bringing with it a deadly virus that causes human bodies to "disassemble."

The reader is occasionally prompted to remember the prose we're reading is ostensibly being written by a man whose wife is dying, but Moody wisely doesn't overemphasize the intrusion of Montese's worry for his wife into his novelization. Considering how Montese is filtering his grief through this bizarre dystopian zombie sci-fi space epic does provide food for thought, however, as does the recurrence of a single, simple theme: How do we define humanity? In the words of one of the Mars astronauts, "What is a man? Is a man a being who lives on the planet Earth? And: If man does not live on planet Earth, what is he and what word shall we use to describe him?" Or: What if the monkey can talk? (Oh yeah: There's a talking monkey.) But that's only one of the questions posed by Moody's ridiculously overstuffed and intermittently entertaining new novel—for example, a reader is also encouraged to ponder, "What's it like to get fingered by a disembodied arm?"