Friday, March 13, 2009

When we are born, we cry, that we are come to this great stage of fools

Fool: A Novel
by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore is at his best when he stretches himself. He can keep cranking out amusing books set in Pine Cove and San Francisco, and I will joyfully continue reading them. But it is the rarer and more challenging works (such as his prior novel LAMB) that I really look forward to with relish.

Fool is Moore's take on Shakespeare in general and King Lear in particular. Once again, Moore has set himself the challenge of finding the comedy in an epic tragedy. In Fool, now that I think of it, he uses a device similar to the one he used in LAMB--a charming and ridiculous narrator. This is Lear told from the point of view of the court jester, Pocket, a character as endearing as any that Moore has written. Through Pocket's eyes we learn more about the goings on in Castle Lear than we have been privy to in the past. And, we learn the fool's own fascinating life story. It is possible that devotees of the Shakespearean original did not realize that the Lear household actually revolved around the fool?

I don't know that there's much point in giving you a Cliff's Notes version of the plot. Lear was the elderly king of all Britain. As the play/novel opens, he has decided to divide his kingdom among his three adult daughters. The division will be determined by who loves him the most. (That's fair, right?) The two eldest, Goneril and Regan flatter him mightily. Only the youngest, Cordelia, speaks truthfully and modestly of her love for her father. But her sincerity is lost on Lear. He flies into a rage. He disinherits Cordelia and divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan and their respective husbands. Lear's best friend Kent says, "Hey, this is crazy. What are you doing?" and gets banished for his trouble. And so it begins, eventually leading to murder, war, madness, and so forth. This ringing any bells?

You may be asking, "Where's the fool?" That's just it. Pocket is everywhere. He's telling the story. He is the witness to it all. He knows the entire back story, has all the family secrets, knows how those three girls lost their virginity, etc. And you know that's going to come up, because this is a Christopher Moore novel, after all. Shakespeare may be hallowed ground to some, but Chris Moore isn't above throwing in a little bathroom humor, some gratuitous sex, and a joke or two that'll make you groan. Actually, I don't think Will Shakespeare was above any of those devices himself. Some of the humor is terribly erudite and sophisticated and some is well, idiotic. (Literally, as it happens.) Say what you will, this novel is laugh-out-loud funny!

I'll be honest, there were times when the mixture of comedy and tragedy clashed a little uncomfortably for me. It's a freakin' depressing story, y'all! But Moore's twisted take on Shakespeare and his obvious love and respect for the Bard are all but brilliant. Bravo, Chris! Do keep stretching those literary and creative muscles. This is your best work in years.

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