by Christopher Moore
384 pages, Sphere
Review by Paul Fenton
A reliable measure of reading pleasure, for me, is commute-awareness. There is usually an inverse relationship between my enjoyment of a book and my cognizance of journeying to work and back. If I make it all the way to my destination without looking up to check the station names, that’s equivalent to a solid two-thumbs-up (or an indication of my overriding fatigue and/or lack of concentration). If, however, I’m tracking my progress station-by-station as I clear each page or chapter, that book might find its way to the “rainy day” pile which lives in a dark corner of my bedroom.
Reading Fool, I missed my stop more than once. I’ve yet to miss all my stops and arrive at the end of the line, which would be both impressive and frightening: impressive because it would mean either complete absorption in a book or spectacular intoxication; and frightening because the end of my line sounds like a scary, inhospitable place. What’s the name of the dark land in Lord of the Rings? Mordor? Morden? That’s the one, the dark soulless land of Morden.
Fool is a kind-of reworking of King Lear, told from the Fool’s point of view. To ward off any derision thrown my way, I will now admit: I have not read the original King Lear. Why? Because I was never forced to. In high school English we were assigned Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello in the tragedy bucket. I’ve read Shakespeare more than once since then, by choice, but my choice tends to lean towards the comedies. King Lear always seemed so grim. My wife took me to see Timon of Athens at the Globe last summer, and as accomplished as it was, the storyline made me want to jump headfirst from our balcony seats (which I might have tried, had the arena not been strung up with elastic netting – ostensibly for the aerial nature of the production, but probably intended to stop recession depressives like myself from braining themselves upon realising the play is about financial frippery leading to crippling personal debt). Lear just never held any appeal – for Christopher Moore though, I will always make an exception.
The fool in this story is Pocket, Lear’s personal Jester. An orphan, Pocket was raised by nuns at Dog Snogging Abbey. The fool in Shakespeare’s original is a minor character, only appearing in a couple of scenes … which makes Pocket the perfect protagonist, as it’s easier for him to move through the background of the original story. He is prompted to entwine himself in the fallout of Lear’s mental frailty by the rhymed prodding of a female ghost (“There’s always a bloody ghost”, an observation made more than once). His primary concern is the wellbeing of Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, and this provides his motivation throughout the story.
The language in Fool isn’t authentically Shakespearean, nor could you even call it period. Moore seems to call on Shakespearean language only when it best suits him, otherwise relying on more of a Monty Python and the Holy Grail style, with the odd Austin Powers flavouring (“Shaggacity” immediately comes to mind) and a sprinkling of Benny Hill. He could have subtitled it: Carry On, Lear. Nor is he afraid to mix up the Shakespearean soup: despite not having read Lear, I’m pretty sure the three witches came from another story … as did a couple of hundred other cross-references. Call it Mockspearean, then.
Moore makes no apology for these repeated infringements on accuracy and authenticity, nor should he. The result is absolutely hilarious. In the beginning, even I found myself flinching at some of the vulgarity (this is Shakespeare – should they be doing/saying that? Oh right, it’s not Shakespeare …), but then I remembered, it’s a Christopher Moore story (not implying that Moore is intrinsically vulgar, but in this novel he has created some of the more elaborate and inventive obscenities I’ve had the pleasure of reading). It might not be set in Pine Cove, but it’s not exactly England either.
My top three highlights:
1. Repeated references to the f**king French (done with such consistency as to negate any potential offence; for instance, when Pocket says “Moi?” it is spoken “in perfect f**king French”).
2. The almost universal title given to Edmund of Gloucester of “the Bastard”
3. The description of Kent’s attempts to speak Welsh: “… his consonants chained like anal beads strung out of hell’s own bunghole.”
Number three is actually my favourite.
If you’re a fan of Moore’s books but are put off by the subject matter, don’t be. You’ll soon find yourself in familiar territory as you realise you’re smiling more broadly than is generally acceptable on public transport. But it’s not another Pine Cove story, and for that Moore should be commended. He demonstrated his willingness to take on the big stories with the excellent Lamb, and while King Lear doesn’t hold quite the same fictional profile as Jesus Christ, Fool is a more ambitious novel in that the comedy-value isn’t so apparent from the concept. Moore makes it work brilliantly enough for me to hope for a follow-up in this Mockspearean genre. I already miss Pocket.
I can’t help thinking that if the remaining members of Monty Python were to read this book, they’d feel at least a tinge of jealousy.