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Fools, fairies and fantastic f—kery – ‘Shakespeare for Squirrels’

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Making someone laugh is hard. Making them laugh with nothing but words on a page is REALLY hard.

That’s why the contenders for great comedic literature are so limited; while most writers worth their salt can elicit a few chuckles over the course of a novel, only a scant handful can use comedy as a literary foundation. It’s the difference between books with some comic aspects and legitimate comic novels. There are plenty of the former and surprisingly few of the latter.

Of course, then you have someone like Christopher Moore who totally throws off the curve. See, Moore’s entire bibliography is packed with capital-C Comic novels, including a couple that warrant inclusion among the very best ever (though even lesser Moore is funnier than 99.9% of the self-styled comedic literature out there).

His latest is “Shakespeare for Squirrels” (William Morrow, $28.99), the third in his ongoing series of parodic pastiche featuring the erstwhile fool Pocket of Dog Snogging. Like its predecessors “Fool” and “The Serpent of Venice,” this latest offering drops its nimble, quick-witted and foul-mouthed protagonist into a setting spun off from the brilliance of the Bard.

Moore brings his usual satiric edge and keen sense of the absurd to the table, mingling it exquisitely with a thoughtful depth of knowledge with regards to the works of Shakespeare. The resulting combination is bitingly funny and awash in coarse charm, a familiar narrative turned on its head. This book is fast-moving, smart … and utterly, unwaveringly hilarious.

Pocket of Dog Snogging – along with his dim-witted hulking apprentice Drool and his hat-horny monkey Jeff – has been cast out by his former pirate cohort. As luck would have it, they wind up cast onto the shores of Greece (though it isn’t anything like any Athens Pocket has ever heard tell of before).

Pocket and Drool make their way through the forest (Jeff has absconded into the treetops – probably to hump something), only to stumble into the midst of a VERY complicated story. They meet a quartet of Athenian youths that Pocket finds extremely irritating; the four are involved in some sort of weird love quadrangle that doesn’t make much sense and makes even less sense the longer it goes on.

Pocket’s incessant, inherent drive to speak truth to power winds up getting him into some trouble with the Athenian nobility – specifically, Theseus, the duke of Athens. Then there’s Egeus, minister to Theseus, whose daughter is one of the idiotic foursome of young lovers. Hippolyta, Amazonian queen and reluctant consort to the duke, has her own agenda.

Somewhere in there, Pocket winds up inadvertently becoming the creative inspiration for a group of rough tradesmen – rude mechanicals, led by the charmingly goofy weaver Nick Bottom – who are in the forest trying (and largely failing) to put together a play to celebrate the impending nuptials of the duke.

Oh, and there are fairies in the woods. Pocket winds up canoodling with one named Cobweb, but it’s when he crosses paths with fairy queen Titania that things get … complicated. These complications lead to interactions with all manner of fae folk, including the dark king Oberon, his goblin army and the mightily magical Robin Goodfellow – Puck himself.

But when Puck is murdered, it falls to Pocket to determine who – or what – was responsible for the death of the magical prankster. At every turn, the mystery deepens, for it seems that Athens is simply jammed with people who have reason to wish the Puck dead. Pocket is left with no choice but to hurl himself headlong into the midst of all of it with nothing more than his wits, his trusty throwing knives, his puppet stick and a few fellow travelers, undertaking to double- and triple-cross anyone and everyone until he can root out the culprit … whoever he, she or it might be.

“Shakespeare for Squirrels” follows a similar pattern to the two Pocket-led works that came before, using a primary Shakespeare work – in this case, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – as the narrative foundation while happily playing fast and loose with the details, up to and including the incorporation of elements from other Shakespeare plays. Moore’s love for and knowledge of the Bard’s works leads to stories that serve as heartfelt homages even as he’s very clearly taking the piss.

And he’s DEFINITELY taking the piss with this one, packing the pages with joke after parodic joke; it’s rife with legit laughs (one of my personal favorite bits is a running gag in which Pocket perpetually expresses confusion at the fact that the Athens of this world bears zero resemblance to, you know, the actual Athens). There are dick jokes and f-bombs, and all that stuff works, but maybe the most impressive laughs Moore gets is through his slapstick set pieces – making physical comedy funny on the page is incredibly difficult, though you’d never know it from this book.

Let’s talk about Pocket, who with this appearance firmly ensconces himself as Moore’s second-funniest creation, behind only Biff from “Lamb.” He’s sharp and smart and sly, displaying the self-awareness that marks Moore’s best characters. He’s also a jerk, but a charming one; he can’t help but try and help those who need it, even when he knows it’s against his own best interests. He’s a tiny bundle of humor, hubris and horniness – with bells on.

He’s not alone, though. The dramatis personae for this one might be the weirdest of the Fool books so far. The relentlessly good-natured Bottom. The entitled and enchanted lovers (whose fates are quite different than in the play). The mad Titania and the kind-of-thick Oberon. Capable fairy and Pocket love interest Cobweb. Blacktooth is a fun riff on Dogberry from “Much Ado About Nothing.” Oh, and then there’s Rumour, the self-styled narrator whose tremendous strangeness shouldn’t be spoiled – enjoy it when you get there.

“Shakespeare for Squirrels” delights in squeezing and twisting a beloved story in ways both broad and subtle, all in service to wringing more laughs from the proceedings. Moore continues to cement his spot as popular fiction’s funniest writer, giving us a sharp and sardonic adventure. No one strikes the balance between highbrow and lowbrow like he does – this book is just the latest example of the tremendous comedic gifts he brings to bear. Fans of comic fiction, mystery stories and/or the Bard will have a hell of a good time.

So go ahead and get fooled again – you’ll be glad you did.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 May 2020 18:33


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