Christopher Moore, one of my favorite authors, is a comic master at putting a twist on old tales and themes. He has a trilogy of vampire novels. His novel, Lamb, is the story of Christ’s youth told from the point of view of Biff, his childhood pal. A Dirty Job makes the Grim Reaper a mild-mannered secondhand shop owner. His novel, Fool, tells the story of King Lear from the point of view of the king’s fool, a short-statured, sharp-tongued, well-endowed jester named Pocket. Pocket’s apprentice is a dimwitted giant named Drool, who doesn’t understand basic human interaction or any nuance of language, but has a good heart and can perfectly mimic voices.
Moore’s most recent novel, The Serpent of Venice, follows Pocket and Drool again. This time, Moore doesn’t just tackle a Shakespeare play. He tackles two, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, and mixes in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” It is an ambitious novel, which makes its success all the more thrilling.
Beware: Moore doesn’t hesitate to alter the original storylines. Most notably, several characters are killed off that do not die in the original plays. Whereas Fool kept the plot of Lear but told it from a new point of view, Serpent is more original.
Another element that carries over well from Fool is the written voice. Moore employs a mixture of excerpts of text from the source material, a sort of faux-Shakespearean that uses Elizabethan language but is entirely original Moore writing (he does this with the whiz-banger insults, especially), and plain-old modern anachronism. It seems like these three elements: authentic old, fake old, and contemporary– would make a horrifying, clanging mess for the voice, but actually it works well. Thus it comes across perfectly believably when Shylock asks “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and one of the Sals (Salanio or Salerino) whines “I didn’t know there was going to be a bloody quiz!”
One of Moore’s greatest strengths as a comic writer is that he also dips into heartfelt territory, too. The funny parts are funny, but even more so when set against the truly moving parts. As funny as Pocket is, he starts out as a grieving widower being tortured by a maniac. To me, this elevates Moore above the label of “comic writer,” a term I associate with writers who make me giggle but little else.
Moore also does “character management” well, knowing just how much of each character to use. I felt that in the vampire trilogy, the character Abby Normal made a great side character, but became tiresome as a protagonist. I worried about this when I read Serpent, that the highly entertaining Drool would take on such a prominence that his voice would overpower the story. But Drool is kept in reserve until the second half of the novel, and when he appears, it’s great. One can almost hear the resounding cheers of fans around the world.
In fact, Serpent might be one of Moore’s greatest achievements. Between the technical mastery of juggling multiple storylines and characters, the brilliantly blended styles of old and new, and the harmony of shenanigans and earnest emotion, The Serpent of Venice is a smart, fun, funny novel.