Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $26.99.
Could it be that Christopher Moore is, you know, maturing? That the creator of a San Francisco vampire trilogy, of Island of the Sequined Love Nun, of a book in which Death is an adorable little girl, of “The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal,” of the world’s funniest sex scene including a prehistoric monster and an oil tanker, is becoming a careful stylist, a master of building events slowly, of revealing deep secrets only a bit at a time, of exchanging slapstick for a sense of the sinister, some genuine eeriness, and maybe even a little profundity?
But Sacré Bleu nevertheless shows a very different side of Moore from the one that has been on exhibit ever since his first novel, Practical Demonkeeping, came out 20 years ago. In fact, the new book bears comparison with Practical Demonkeeping, for in some ways it deals with the same issue: supernatural evil in the everyday world, how to manage it (if it is in fact manageable) and how to survive it (if it is in fact survivable). But where Practical Demonkeeping was lewd, rude and crude (and hilarious), Sacré Bleu is – and please, Moore fans, do not regard this as a turnoff – subtle. After the story ends, Moore imagines readers telling him, “Well, thanks loads, Chris, now you’ve ruined art for everyone.” (He adds, “You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.”) But Moore has ruined exactly nothing, any more than he ruined Shakespeare with the delightfully raunchy Fool, which shows zero understanding of King Lear and is a far better book for its utter irreverence toward one of the masterpieces of Western literature.
In the same way, Sacré Bleu shows little comprehension of art – although a considerable amount of understanding of artists – and as a result is a wonderful interweaving of the true, the almost-true, the ought-to-be-true, and the cannot-possibly-be-true-unless-it-is. The book is filled with art – literally: it includes reproductions of quite a few great paintings, mostly from the 19th century, their titles given accurately but their captions being drawn from dialogue in the book. For instance, Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (“Luncheon on the Grass”), the famous 1863 painting of a nude woman in the foreground and a woman bathing in a stream in the background, while two fully clothed men talk and gesture amid scattered food items, gets the caption, “Looks to me like she’s deciding which of these two she’s going to bonk in the bushes.” That is pure Moore.
Or impure Moore, which is pretty much the same thing. For as accurate as his portrayals of the various artists are – and they are accurate; Moore has done his research – Moore’s skewed sensibilities are everywhere in this story of the color blue (a specific color blue), its meaning through art history, the various ways it has been created for artists’ pigments, and the supernatural means through which the color and the muse of artists who use it have passed through the ages. Oh…and why Vincent Van Gogh, who everyone knows committed suicide, was actually murdered.
Moore mixes up reality and near-reality so deftly and often so seamlessly (as when he displaces certain real-world events to have them coincide with other real-world events that in fact took place at different times) that he pulls readers of Sacré Bleu into a whole series of impossibilities long before they have realized that such things simply couldn’t be. Unless they are. How, after all, can anyone really believe in a learned professor trying to reproduce the chariot races in Ben-Hur by using rats and mice as horses and charioteers, respectively? But…uhh…that part happens to be true. Well, how can anyone believe that a baker once raffled off a painting by Camille Pissarro and that the girl who won it asked for a sticky bun instead? Well....uhh…that really happened, too. So what in this wildly inventive book didn’t happen? That is for readers to discover as they meander through its pages, likely wondering for the first 100 or so what the heck is going on, then gradually figuring out that there is something sinister, even frightening, but very enticing happening; and then slowly, slowly learning just what that something is. Sacré Bleu is a journey of discovery for many of its characters (who include most of the famous painters of mid-to-late-19th-century France), and also for readers – and therein lies its subtlety, which Moore possesses here to a greater degree than in any of his other books. This is a book about art and artists – and artists’ muses. It is also a book about men and women, about love and lust (and where they intersect), and about everyday life and the artistic life (and where they intersect). The subtlety here extends even to details of the writing – a first in Moore’s books. For example, when a woman describes a man with a curious phrase that proclaims him “my only and my ever,” this is a small clue to what is going on, or will be going on, or did go on; Moore brings the phrase back later, in fact, to tickle readers’ minds into realizing that something distinctly unusual is happening here. And something distinctly unusual is happening: Moore, an excellent writer, is becoming a better one. Like everything by Moore, Sacré Bleu is funny and sexy (sometimes simultaneously); but unlike most of his books, it is also thought-provoking and wry. As impossible as its central premise certainly is (well, maybe is), Sacré Bleu raises just enough questions so that readers will be left, at the end, thinking as well as chuckling. Sacré Bleu – c'est merveilleux !