Saturday, April 4, 2009

Fool by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore's latest book begins with the following warning:
This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as non-traditional grammar, spit infinitives, and the odd wank. If that sort of thing bothers you, then gentle reader pass by, for we only endeavor to entertain, not to offend. That said, if that’s the sort of thing you think you might enjoy, then you have happened onto the perfect story!
He's not kidding. So be forewarned. This is a retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, but it's much more than that. It's a clear homage to Shakespeare's genius, which takes characters and settings, not just from King Lear, but from other plays as well (there are the witches from Macbeth, for example, and we have the dubious pleasure of getting to know them a lot better this time around).

Our hero and narrator is Pocket, the king's fool. And he is a riot - he is witty, acerbic, intelligent, sarcastic, and hilarious. He recounts the events we are familiar with from the play, but weaves in a backstory that explains quite a few things I've always wondered about (like Cordelia's mother). Now, I was an English major in college, and I adore Shakespeare. But King Lear has never been my favorite play. I mean, I can appreciate it, but I have always found it very upsetting and infuriating. What is the man thinking? How could he begin to make such ridiculous, foolish decisions? And them, all the moaning and groaning and railing at the gods out in the wind and the rain. I feel like shaking the man every time. I had to laugh to see how irritating Lear was to Pocket - and smile at how Pocket always managed to retain some sympathy for the king, in spite of himself, especially as the story unfolds and we begin to learn why he feels the way he does.

There were so many passages that had me laughing and appreciating Moore's skill with words. The humor is always there, but there is often a serious undercurrent flowing beneath it. Here's one, in which Pocket is talking with Kent, the one friend Lear seems to have left. Pocket says to Kent:
"Lear says that killing takes the place of bonking in the ancient. You're killed a multitude of chaps, Kent. Do you find that to be the case?"

"No, that's a disgusting thought."

"And yet, with Lear lies your loyalty."

"I'm beginning to wonder,' said Kent, sitting down now on an overturned wooden tub. "Who do I serve? Why am I here?"

"You are here, because, in the expanding ethical ambiguity of our situation, you are steadfast in your righteousness. It is to you, my banished friend, that we all turn - a light amid the dark dealings of family and politics. You are the moral backbone on which the rest of us hang our bloody bits. Without you we are merely wiggly masses of desire writhing in our own devious bile."

"Really?" asked the old knight.

"Aye," said I.

"I'm not sure I want to keep company with you lot, then."
The story of Lear is the springboard for this story, its characters and plot - but the narrative takes a leap and moves in some new directions, so there are surprises in store for the reader. I loved the way characters that seem two-dimensional, just there for comedic convenience, suddenly say something or do something surprising, and with that they become real people that I find myself caring about. Pocket is a thorough rascal, but he wiggled his way fairly effortlessly into my heart. And Cordelia? Well, she rocks.

The text is liberally footnoted, and the footnotes are every bit as delightful and irreverent as the rest of the book. Take, for example, the footnote for "Saturnalia":
Saturnalia - the celebration of the winter solstice in the Roman pantheon, paying tribute to Saturn, the "sower of seeds." Celebration of Saturnalia involved much drunkenness and indiscriminate shagging. Observed in modern times of the ritual of the "office Christmas party."
It is delightful to watch the events unfold, particularly with the ghost that periodically appears with rhymed foretellings that are just convoluted enough to have Pocket railing at her for being so abstruse (and the ghost looking a bit smug about it all). I loved when the characters said things that were just exactly what I always think upon reading or watching the play. In this scene, Lear in his madness is bonding with Tom O'Bedlam, and both are clearly out of their minds:
Kent turned to Gloucester and shrugged. "He's not in his right mind."

"Who can blame him?" said Gloucester. "After what his daughters have done - his very flesh rising up against him. I had a beloved son who conspired to murder me, and just the thought of that nearly drove me mad."

"Do you nobles have any reaction to hardship besides going bloody barking and running off to eat dirt?" said I.
This book was a pleasure to read from beginning to end - and the author's note at the end was wonderful, too. He writes about his admiration for Shakespeare, and the fact that "No matter what you have to say, it turns out that Will said it more elegantly, more succinctly, and more lyrically - and he probably did it in iambic pentameter - four hundred years ago." He shares what he learned a about the history of the play, which is fascinating, and I was delighted to discover that after watching a dozen different versions of Lear ranting and raving, Moore found him as annoying as I do:
"Amid all the attractions at Stratford-upon-Avon, I think they should add one where participants are allowed to push King Lears off a high precipice. You know, like bungee jumping, only no bungee. Just, "Rage, wind, blow, crack your cheeks! Ahhhhhhhhhh! Splat! Sweet, sweet silence."
I will inflict on you one last passage from the book, again from the author's note at the end, because it is simply priceless:
Fool quotes or paraphrases lines from no fewer than a dozen of the plays, and I'm not even sure what came from which at this point. I've done this largely to throw off reviewers, who will be reluctant to cite and criticize passages of my writing, lest they were penned by the Bard hisownself. (I once had a reviewer take me to task for writing awkward prose, and the passage he cited was one of my characters quoting Thoreau's "On Civil Disobedience." You don't get many moments in life; pointing that out to the reviewer was one of mine.)
The only downside to reading this one is realizing that I'm stuck once again, waiting for Moore to write the next one. Luckily there are always rereading opportunities.

Fool by Christopher Moore (William Morrow, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
The Book Chick: "I would even venture to say that this is my favourite Christopher Moore book to date. This book is truly intelligent, subtly borrowing characters from many of Shakespeare's plays and bringing them all together to result in a laugh-out-loud novel."
Leap in the Dark: "What Moore has done with Fool is taken one of the great works of literature, King Lear, turned it on its head, and in the process reminded us of Shakespeare's genius."
The Shakespeare Geek Blog: "I highly recommend this book to anybody who, like me, has a sense of humor regarding their Shakespeare. Yes, he adds characters and changes the story. Yes, it’s twelve kinds of filthy and offensive. It’s also very, very funny. And, better, it still remains a tribute to its source material."
Worducopia: "Moore's irreverent sense of humor is in the same camp, to my mind, as Monty Python, so I think an appreciation for Python is a pretty good guage of whether you'll find this book the least bit funny."

B&OT reviews of other Christopher Moore books:
Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story
A Dirty Job
You Suck: A Love Story

14 comments:

  1. I don't think this one is for me but I'd still like to try this author one day.

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  2. My favorite of his is still A Dirty Job but I think you might enjoy Bloodsucking Fiends. It helps to have an utterly twisted sense of humor to fully appreciate his books. :-D

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  3. This book just came across the library desk yesterday, and I looked at it an put it away. Now I regret that.

    But I have a confession: I've never read King Lear, nor have I seen it. I've seen and read lots of other Shakespeare (we're close enough to Stratford, Ontario, where there are stagings of several Shakespearean plays every year) but that's one that has never really enticed me. I suppose I should put it on the list before I read this book...

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  4. Fabulous review! I love Christopher Moore, my favourites being Fluke and Lamb. Combining him with Shakespeare sounds like comedic genius to me!

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  5. This is a book that I am dying to read, but I have yet to get my hands on an audiobook. I wonder if the library will have one soon.

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  6. Oooh, you had me at footnotes! I love a good humorous footnote! (Actually, you had me at Christopher Moore, but the footnotes make it that much better.)

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  7. I just reviewed this book here. Loved it, and loved your review of it also. Despite the fact that he changed the story, I thought Moore showed a pretty sophisticated understanding of Shakespeare as he wrote it. (Then again, my understanding of Shakespeare is hardly sophisticated itself, so what do I know?)

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  8. Kiirstin - I don't know that you really do need to read King Lear first - it's still a great story. Maybe you could watch one of the film versions just so you'll be sure to get all the inside jokes. I'd love to hear what you think of this if you do try it.

    Mariel - I think it's safe to say you're going to love this one.

    Serena - Oh, I think this would be a fabulous one to listen to! I have yet to figure out a reliable way to find out what books will be produced in audio. Maybe audible.com would have some information.

    Fyrefly - I hope you enjoy it! Opinions are fairly divided out there, but if you are a Christopher Moore fan, I think you'll have fun with it.

    Ali - I'm glad you loved it, too. I enjoyed your review, and I've added your link to mine. :-)

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  9. OK you got me, I must get this. I have seen a few reviews but yours has pushed me over the edge. I love his warning at the start! I am really looking forward to my first Moore book this year which will be Lamb.

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  10. Rhinoa, I predict that you will laugh yourself silly. I have decided to reread his Coyote Blue for the Once Upon a Time challenge. I think that was the first one of his I ever read, and it'll be fun to revisit it!

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  11. This is such an awesome review! I've only just started reading fool (about 40 pages in) and I love it. The humour is downright rude, but I can't help from giggling. And the footnotes!! I nearly died when I saw the one for *the dog's bollocks* :P

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  12. Thanks, Joanne - I'm so pleased to hear you are enjoying it. I'll be looking forward to reading your review!

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  13. *sniff* I never did get my review copy from LibraryThing in December. I'll be reading this in paperback in a year. I always feel taunted by these review posts though. heeheee!

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  14. Cat - Oh, that's too bad. You mean you won the drawing for the review book but never got it? How disappointing! I guess I shouldn't feel too bad about never winning those drawings. :-p I hope you find a copy soon!

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