Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Report: "Fool," a Comic Novel by Christopher Moore

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The only chance you or I will have to see Bill Irwin play the fool in King Lear (see previous post, below) would be a visit to the NY Public Library for the Performing arts, whose Theatre on Film & Tape Archive offers a second chance to see most of the major shows mounted in New York, as well as a few regional offerings. (Not guaranteeing they'll have it, though.) Meanwhile you can have a lot of LOL fun by diving into the wacky antics of Christopher Moore’s 2009 novel, Fool, a loose and raunchy retelling of King Lear from the fool’s point of view.

Moore is a top-selling comic novelist who very much enjoys being outrageous. His novel Lamb, for example, recounts the missing early years of the life of Jesus (aka Joshua), as told by "Biff, the Messiah's best bud." Not surprising, then, that his bold imagination does not cower before the monumental status of what many consider to be Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. It’s not that he doesn’t respect Shakespeare, because he does:

If you work with the English language... you are going to run  across Will’s work at nearly every turn. 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. You can’t really do what Will did, but you can recognize the genius that he had to do it. But I didn’t begin Fool as a tribute to Shakespeare; I wrote it because of my great admiration for British comedy.

Christopher Moore
British comedy cited in his afterword includes Monty Python, the Goons, Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Douglas Adams, Nick Hornby, and Eddie Izzard.

Moore does not buy into the traditional view of history, where great men, usually with noble motives, lead us poor commoners forward for the greater good and, if they err, the flaw is tragic, not endemic. Au contraire. This is the underbelly of history, where the mighty are totally corrupt, totally in it for wealth and sex, and anyone who can manage it beds everyone they fancy, with varying degrees of mutual consent.

Into this mess of greed and carnality steps one Pocket, Moore’s version of Lear’s fool: "The castle’s awash in intrigue, subterfuge, and villainy — they’ll be wanting comic relief between the flattery and the murders.”

“The fool’s number is zero, but that is because he represents the infinite possibilities of all things. He may become anything. See, he carries all of his possessions in a bundle on his back. He is ready for anything, to go anywhere, to become whatever he needs to be."

You don't need to have seen or read King Lear to follow and enjoy Fool. Like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, the story contains the major events and some of the language from the source, but with plot twists more radical than anything in Stoppard's more faithful take on Hamlet. Not only does Fool borrow elements from other Shakespeare plays, such as the three witches, but the fool's clandestine machinations are what drives the altered plot forward, starting with him conceiving and writing Edmund's treacherous letter. And (spoiler alert) it is eventually revealed that the fool and his apprentice Drool turn out to share an ancient bond to Lear’s own family saga.

Moore's writing is continually witty, and he delights in juxtaposing famous passages from the original with his own more down-to-earth language. Lear famously rages against the storm — "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!" — and then turns to Pocket to say "It’s really fucking cold out here.” Or when in the opening scene Lear tells Cordelia "you’ll get nothing for nothing; speak again," the fool is quick to interject "Well, you can’t really blame her, can you? I mean you’ve given all the good bits to Goneril and Regan, haven’t you? What’s left, a bit of Scotland rocky enough to starve a sheep and this pox river near Newcastle?"

I'm not so sure Moore sustains the momentum for all of his 357 pages — some of the riffs do get repetitive, sometimes he tries too hard to show how clever he can be. The end result is not necessarily great literature, but it is a funny and breezy read, a thought-provoking, weird-sister concoction that is equal parts Shakespeare, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Kurt Vonnegut, and Lenny Bruce.

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