Fool: Christopher Moore’s Shakespeare mashup diverts…and that alone…

Reading Christopher Moore’s Fool is rather like watching Hercules: the Legendary Journeys or Xena: Warrior Princess; that willing suspension of disbelief Coleridge was on about is absolutely necessary.

A veer away from the 2015 reading list for a book a friend has been after me to take in for some time. Fool is author Christopher Moore‘s mashup of Shakespeare whose primary focus is answering the never asked question: what would King Lear be like if told from the point of view of Lear’s Fool? Moore’s answer to this question would be a story filled with lots of bawdy, occasionally tasteless, joking about power, sex, treason, madness, and love – all Shakespearean topics, granted  – as well as love as a higher end of human endeavor – another Shakespearean theme.

In other words, it’s pretty much as accurate a take on Shakespeare as you’re likely to find. Which is to say it’s got the Shakespeare pretty much wrong and pretty much right at the same time.

That whole “…tale told by an idiot/Signifying nothing” explanation might be apt, one might say.

Fool is told, as I mentioned, from the point of view of Lear’s fool, named Pocket in Moore’s novel. Pocket has an apprentice named Drool, a hulking character with a weak mind, a strong back, and an enormous sexual capacity (both in desire and in capability). The other characters are straight from Shakespeare’s play(s): Lear, his daughters and their husbands, Kent, Gloucester and his sons from Lear. Also appearing are the three witches from Macbeth and an anchoress named Thalia who, both as a woman (a nod to Julian of Norwich?) and as a ghost (certainly a nod to Hamlet) provide guidance to Pocket. Of course the guidance is duplicitous in the case of the witches (as in Macbeth) and difficult to interpret at first in the case of the ghost (as in Hamlet).

For those who know King Lear, the story will be a cleverly amusing recasting of Shakespeare’s tragedy into a dark comedy with an interesting twist for an ending; for those who do not know King Lear, go read it now. Fool is about as good a substitute for reading the real King Lear as watching Clueless is a as a substitute for reading Jane Austen’s Emma.

This is not to say that Fool is a bad book. It is not. It is well written, amusing, bawdy. Probably for some readers it is laugh out loud funny (I only did so once, but your experience may vary). And Moore clearly does a nice job of both incorporating Shakespeare (the most notable quotes from the book are lines from Shakespeare himself; Moore’s Pocket is given mainly to humor of the scatological and sexual sort that is breezy but not particularly memorable) and of offering a plot twist or two (one I’ll give away: Cordelia doesn’t die – it’s a comedy, after all).

But, and here’s where my bias takes over, my considered opinion is that Fool is a slight book. I came to Fool having just read a work by Carson McCullers, and I am now engrossed in a novel by Walker Percy. One would think that in reading a work like Fool, sandwiched between works by two serieux literary heavyweights, I’d find that Moore’s novel would offer a lively, thought provoking comedic turn. Instead, what Fool offered was a lot of “shagging, vulgarity, and split infinitives” as the novelist proudly alerts us in his brief preface. It was diverting – but only that.

Perhaps diverting is enough in our current culture. There certainly are enough examples of what’s embraced as art – and what passes for cultural critique – around us to suggest that a sea change has occurred and that maybe diversion is all that can be expected – and accepted.


2 replies »

  1. You only laughed ONCE? You have to be kidding. I mean, I know funny is subjective and varies widely from person to person, but I know you and I simply cannot process this. FOOL is one of the three or four funniest books I have ever read. I laughed until I cried on every other page.

    Okay, moving on.

    As for “slight” – we have had the discussion before about the need to take art of all sorts on its own terms, but I feel like from the word go you’re evaluating this one as though it were litfic. It fails, in your view, because substantively it doesn’t measure up to McCullers in terms of the depth of its insight into the human condition. Well, no. It’s a comedy, spun for a more popular audience. I honestly feel like “I only laughed once” is the better critique because that’s where you indict Moore on the proper terms. As I say, I don’t agree with that point, but if a comedy doesn’t make you laugh, it’s SNL.

    Think about analogues in music. There are a lot of bands out there who worshipped The Beatles and whose music shows that influence. There’s a whole genre of them, in fact – it’s called Power Pop – and you and I both really like a lot of these bands. Were I to port your reasoning over to that discussion, the criteria you use here would compel you to dismiss all kinds of acts and albums that I know for a fact you respect and enjoy.

    As far as the story goes, it’s hard to evaluate Moore on the merits of the narrative, for obvious reasons. He isn’t constructing his own story, he’s riffing on an established story, so in some respects this is like a cover song. Band A wrote an iconic tune, and now Band B, which loves Band A, is doing its own take – maybe it’s more lively, maybe they make it a minor-key dirge, whatever. However, they get credit for arranging and performing, but not writing, so on that score you’d have to look at something else by Moore to get a sense for how good a storysmith he is.

    In the end, I guess I have a question. This take strikes me as being a dismissal of a genre masquerading as a review of a specific book. If I’m wrong, that means there are works in the genre that you do not regard as slight, that you see as being genuinely insightful, etc. Is there such a book, or is this really about your view that genre work is generally of little literary value?

    • In order, Sam:

      1) This is not a debate about my thinking process. I read “Fool” and wrote a piece reacting to the book. I noted that Moore is a fine writer and that his work (well, “Fool”) is a work of talent. I think Moore and Gaiman are genuine talents. I simply haven’t been taken with the particular works I read by them.

      2) It would seem obvious that THIS genre bugs me. Rewrites/Mashups/productions-in-use of all kinds make me suspicious on the one hand, concerned on the other. Suspicious of the author’s intent – (in Moore’s case, I think his intent benign, even noble – he clearly loves Shakespeare and wants to pull his fans towards the Bard. Others I have mentioned in other pieces? Not so noble – mostly cashing in on trends which I am not a fan of – though many are, and we measure these days by the marketplace, n’est-ce pas?) Concerned because for every fan of the mashup, et. al., who goes deeper and reads Shakespeare or Austen I suspect multiples WILL NOT. Their knowledge of two of the greatest writers in English will be limited to what some talented fan fictioneer (to borrow Teresa Milbrodt’s term) offers. How many “Twilight” fans do you think moved on the Bram Stoker? Or even Anne Rice? I’m modulating on a devolution concern that I know you share. I had high hopes for “Fool.” It didn’t meet them. That doesn’t mean “Fool” is a bad book. I went out of my way to say so. It means what I go for in fiction I didn’t find in “Fool.” That saddened me some, because I do keep looking for it. I’m reminded of that WSJ article in which the author kept on about how literature shouldn’t be hard. I would say that I think literature should be accessible. But accessibility does not mean makes no/few demands on readers. A dangerous trend I see is this misinterpretation of accessibility.

      3) I am not a rabid fan of genre fiction in general, although I do like mysteries/detective fiction – and I’ll read almost anything about music/musicians. I’m not much on sci-fi, as you know, though I’ve read almost all the great masters of the last 75 years. That doesn’t make me a bad person. I read a genre work when one is recommended by friends whose tastes may differ some from mine but whose tastes overall I respect. What puzzles me is that some friends don’t seem to respect my tastes. I freely admit my biases. I think everyone should do the same.

      4) Am I possibly missing things because of my biases? Absolutely. Important things? I’m more dubious of that claim. But overall, I think I’m a pretty reliable reader given my extensive training. I loved Douglas Adams. I found both Gaiman and now Moore disappointing as I mention above, at least the works I read. But I see enough talent there that I’d give their other works a go. Haven’t gotten to Neal Stephenson – we’ll see when I get there.

      5) Finally, worthy genre? Yes, of course. Besides the obvious choices like Vonnegut, I admire William Gibson. I admire John D. McDonald’s detective fiction. Shelby Foote’s historical fiction is great stuff. I’m sure there are others, but these give a sense of my tastes and biases.

      6) Finally, your music analogies. Well taken points. One thinks of Cowboy Junkies “Sweet Jane” or CSN doing “Woodstock” or U2 doing “Helter Skelter.” Towering over all is Jimi doing “Watchtower” – better than Dylan’s original, which is damned great. But I’d suggest that “Fool” isn’t a cover – it’s a riff on “Lear.” I’m seriously thinking of getting Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres,” also a riff on “Lear,” and reading it for comparison. Smiley’s book transfers the story to a farm in Iowa. I’ll let you know in a future essay.

      Ultimately, I read “Fool” because a friend whose taste I respect implicitly loves it and recommended it to me. I enjoyed it, but I found it wanting in the sort of weight I read for. That’s my taste. Chacun a son gout, eh?