King Lear is one of literature’s most famous tragedies. Author Christopher Moore doesn’t do tragedies. His work tends to be more, well ... silly. Goofball. Zany. The antithesis of all that is heavy and deep. He’s written 11 books, and although they’ve covered a wide spectrum of subjects – vampires, angels, whales, death, demons, Jesus, and even a sequined nun – there is a common thread running through all of them: They’re funny.
So funny that if you’re reading one on the bus and let out a great noisy honk of laughter, you don’t even care that all the other passengers stare at you.. (Not that this has ever happened to me, of course.)
So Shakespeare purists may be leery of Fool, Moore’s latest novel, which is a retelling of the King Lear story. And to them, I say: You should be. You may well dislike this book. But then you will be out of step with almost everyone else.
After all, it’s hard to resist so gleeful a tale of murder, witchcraft, treason, maiming, and spanking. Oh, and there’s a ghost, too.
The fool in question is Pocket, a bite-sized jester in the court of Lear, the aged king of a mythical 13th-century Britain. Pocket is a favorite of Lear, and also of Lear’s three beautiful and cunning daughters, the princesses Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia.
Treachery is afoot in Lear’s castle when the old man decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters and their husbands. When Cordelia refuses to flatter her father with false praise, as do her sisters, Lear becomes outraged and disowns her. In the ensuing melee, he also banishes his oldest and truest friend, the Earl of Kent.
Pocket and his apprentice fool, Drool, get swept up in the chaos as the king descends into impotent madness and the kingdom into war. With Pocket’s help, Kent hides in Lear’s train in disguise; while Edmund, bastard son of the Duke of Gloucester, plots to usurp the position of his elder brother Edgar, the Duke’s legitimate son. At the same time, Goneril and Regan scheme to get rid of their father – and each other – once and for all.
Cordelia marries the Prince of France and begins amassing an army to challenge her sisters. A trio of witches named Parsley, Rosemary, and Thyme (naturally) begin to magically meddle in everyone’s plans.
And the ghost? She pops up all over the place, delivering cryptic messages in iambic pentameter (“Can’t a bloke find a straightforward prose apparition?” asks a frustrated Pocket.) In the end, the kingdom is overthrown and many people are either dead or mutilated.
It’s a lot funnier than it sounds.
That’s mostly because Moore didn’t set out to write a tribute to Shakespeare so much as a tribute to British comedy. In an author’s note at the end of the book, Moore explains that he’s a fan of British humorists like Douglas Adams, Tom Stoppard, Nick Hornby, and Mil Millington. He credits them with inspiring his “plunge into the deep end of their art.”
His success in doing so seems to stem from his ability to keep the goal firmly in sight while at the same time recognizing his limitations.
For example, the historical record of the real Lear is so knotty that it confounded even Shakespeare. And the geography for the events associated with Lear is even more confusing.
Moore gets around this by setting his story in a pseudo-Britain sometime in a make-believe Middle Ages. The characters’ language is a mix of modern British slang (Moore’s footnote definitions for which are snort-inducing), Elizabethan prose, and standard Americanisms.
Everything is unyieldingly anachronistic, which is precisely why it all works.
But if all the screwball aspects seem potentially tiresome, they’re balanced by the humanity of the characters.
Pocket is a rascal, to be sure, but his charm is so great that you can’t help rooting for him. Lear is both deeply sympathetic and maddening; at times, like Pocket, you’ll wish he’d just shut up and stop whining.
Even the more ruthless characters (which include most of the cast) are always relatable. And Moore’s deft ear for dialogue keeps the pages turning even at times when the action begins to slow.
For those who enjoy a bit of knave in their tragedy, “Fool” is a wickedly good time.
Kathryn Perry is a Monitor intern.