Fool. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $26.99.
In his most audacious and ambitious book yet – yes, even more than Lamb, which merely retold the New Testament – Christopher Moore twists and turns Shakespeare’s King Lear into the bout of bloody, bawdy villainy that is Fool. It takes no small amount of guts to render the Bard’s darkest and arguably greatest tragedy into a comedy, even a black comedy, but no guts, no glory, and Moore has the guts and ends up with the glory. This is as hilariously contorted a book as Moore has ever written, and if it may not be quite his finest novel, it is certainly as inventively perverse as anything he has done before.
Moore’s basic conceit here is that King Lear changes dramatically when written from the point of view of Lear’s Fool. Actually, it changes into something else altogether, as Moore flippantly tosses lines from other Shakespeare plays into his characters’ mundane speeches (along the lines of the film Shakespeare in Love), makes the Three Witches from Macbeth and a thoroughly un-Shakespearean ghost into significant characters in Lear’s tale, gives Lear’s Fool his own apprentice fool (a man-mountain nitwit named Drool), and blithely violates even the pretense of verisimilitude in terms of time and place (the story takes place in a generic Middle Ages that looks back to a time “a thousand years ago, before George II, idiot king of Merica, destroyed the world” – oh, ha ha).
What makes King Lear so black is precisely what makes Fool so bright. The play is Shakespeare’s only tragedy in which the audience gets no assurance of the world continuing after the final act, with order somehow being reasserted. There is no “strong-in-arms” Fortinbras to right things, as there is in Hamlet; indeed, it is while order is being more or less restored that Lear wailingly bemoans the death of “my poor fool” – his daughter, Cordelia. There is only blackness and bleakness as King Lear ends; but Fool builds to a story about what happens after Lear is gone (hint: things get better).
The book is laid out in five acts, as is the play, although as Moore’s acts go on, they diverge more and more from what Shakespeare wrote. We learn bits about the history of the Fool, whose name is Pocket, as his thoughts drift back to earlier times, including his life as a child at the abbey at Dog Snogging – that is, “dog making out,” as Moore points out in one of his occasionally helpful, sometimes hilarious, sometimes rather surprisingly dull footnotes. “So tiny was I that the abbess would carry me with her in her apron pocket, and thus I was given the name of Pocket. Little Pocket of Dog Snogging Abbey. …Later, after I learned to walk, they would stand me on the table at mealtime and have me parade up and down waving my winky at them, a unique appendage in those feminine environs. I was seven before I realized you could eat breakfast with your pants on.” Hmm…maybe Pocket was the only male about, although one wonders when reading of the abbess shaving her blue-black whiskers every morning and pulling aside “the skin of her neck, so as not to nick her Adam’s apple.” In any case, Pocket grows up, is attached to Lear’s court for the purpose of keeping Cordelia happy after Lear unceremoniously disposes of Cordelia’s mother (an action that, like much else, will come back to haunt whoever is hauntable), and eventually rubs elbows (and other parts) with Goneril and Regan, Cordelia’s elder sisters. Other characters from Shakespeare’s tragedy are introduced and aptly skewed by Moore, from the Earl of Gloucester and his sons, legitimate Edgar and bastard Edmund, to the kindly Earl of Kent, exiled by Lear after pointing out his old friend’s irrationality. It is in a speech by Pocket to Kent that Moore shows himself capable of understanding the seriousness of the subject matter of which he otherwise spends so much time making fun. Kent asks whom he serves: “Why am I here?” “You are here,” replies Pocket, “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.” This is indeed the exact role that Kent fills in King Lear, although Fool uses him, shall we say, somewhat differently.
Moore likes to step into the amusement – and the considerable and often very funny sexual activity – occasionally, to show that his characters are not quite as dim as they may seem, as when a laundress named Emma asks Pocket to wreak her revenge on Edmund, who has violated and humiliated her. Pocket protests that he is but a fool, and Emma replies, “There’s more to you than that, you black-hatted rascal. I’ve seen them wicked daggers at your back, and I can see who’s pulling the strings round this castle, and it ain’t the old duke or the old king.” Smart Emma – and she is duly rewarded at the end. Indeed, everyone is duly rewarded or punished by the time Fool is over – and if the ending is in no way like that of King Lear, well, this is a comedy, innit? As for whether it is Moore’s best comic foray, that will of course be a matter of opinion – but it remains arguable that even Fool, as rich a tapestry as it weaves, does not match Bloodsucking Fiends, a genuinely heartfelt and touching vampire novel that strikes emotional chords notably absent in most of Moore’s writing. Readers may just have to get both books and decide for themselves. In fact, treat yourself to all 11 Moore novels – every one has much to recommend it. No fooling.