Review of The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore
The Serpent of Venice
by Christopher Moore
Guys, Pocket is back!
I heard about this book ages ago, then promptly forgot it existed, and rediscovered it at my library. (Libraries are awesome that way.) My first reaction was, “Ooh, a Christopher Moore novel I haven’t read.” My second reaction was, “Bloody hell, it’s a semi-sequel to Fool!” (No English accent though. Two years in England and I still can’t do a decent English accent. sigh)
Fool was the first Christopher Moore book I read and in many ways one I consider the funniest. That’s probably because I love metafiction. If you don’t, then neither Fool nor The Serpent of Venice are for you. Moore once more takes a metafictional approach to the stage; this time he combines Othello and The Merchant of Venice with an Edgar Allan Poe story I haven’t read. With a Chorus as the narrator whom everyone seems to overhear, we plunge into fourteenth-century Venice, where Pocket is killed, rescued by the eponymous serpent, and gets to serve up some sweet, sweet revenge.
Of course, as exciting as a sequel to Fool might be, I was also a little worried. What if it wasn’t as good? What if it ruins Pocket? These might be silly worries, but I think most fans of a novel that gets a sequel much later down the line can understand it. It’s akin to the worries fans of the original Star Wars had about the prequels, though in their case, they unfortunately turned out to be right.
To be honest, The Serpent of Venice isn’t quite as bright a spark as Fool. It’s difficult to bottle lightning once, let alone twice. But Moore takes a fair stab at it, and the result is still a very good book. Not every Shakespeare play is a King Lear, and even Shakespeare’s good plays are still, in some ways, great.
My favourite thing about this book is just the richness of the language. And by language, I mean the profanity. Moore uses words such as “bonkilation” and “fuckstockings”—and of course, don’t forget “holy ripened fuckcheese!”—without any hint of shame or irony. Moore doesn’t pass up the chance—ever—to shoehorn in a joke as an aside. When Pocket is posing as a young Jew seeking employment from Shylock, the merchant asks him if what languages he speaks:
“Latin, Greek, and English, plus a smattering of Italian and fucking French.”
“Fucking French, you say? Well …”
“Oui,” said I, in perfect fucking French.
Or, a little later:
Shylock repointed his twitching, accusatory digit at his daughter.
“You do not say such things in my house. You—you—you—you—”
“Run along, love, it appears that Papa’s been stricken with an apoplexy of the second person.”
This is where Moore truly establishes himself as a skilled writer. Anyone, really, can rip off jokes and rip off plots (Moore points out that Shakespeare did this himself all the time). But it takes cleverness to come up with a turn of phrase like “an apoplexy of the second person”—and even if Moore happened to lift that from somewhere else, it takes skill to then embed that phrase in an appropriate context. It wouldn’t work just anywhere. For a book like this, the author needs a sense of comedic timing down to the paragraph.
This is a book that is unrepentantly trying to be funny to the point of absurdity, and I love that. Iago is still a cunning bastard, but he’s also a raging misogynist who accuses everyone of having slept with his wife. (She is, practically, but that’s beside the point.) Pocket, once again, is a frustrating combination of annoying yet perceptive, somehow managing to win over tough customers like Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, who don’t really like him but seem to grow dependent upon him. I love the evolution of Jessica from a love-struck, fairly small-minded woman into a pirate. I mean, that’s just awesome.
And the plot of The Serpent of Venice?
The setting of The Serpent of Venice is fascinating because…
… no, I’m not avoiding talking about the plot.
The plot is probably the weakest part of this book. I think the best way I can describe it is as a “romp”. It’s supposed to be Pocket’s tale of revenge, but Moore has to juggle subplots like spinning plates. Everything culminates in a drawn-out and very unsatisfactory court scene that should have been far funnier than it was. The resolution is nominally satisfactory, but at the end of the day it feels like Pocket didn’t really “win”. I suppose part of the theme to this book, as well as the first one, is that Pocket doesn’t fit the standard protagonist pattern: as his job and his nickname of Fortunato suggest, he survives on luck and trickery and jest. The essence of Pocket’s success as a hero is that he isn’t heroic, and indeed, I suspect that he finds all this heroism he ends up doing by accident quite exhausting and bad for his health.
Unlike Fool, which had the benefit of being able to ride along the rails of King Lear, even if Moore took … liberties, The Serpent of Venice is a mash-up. Consequently, Moore has to figure out how to resolve the book on his own—and although he tries to allude to the endings of the original stories in some ways, the tricky part is really combining them together to make a satisfying ending to this story. I don’t know if he succeeds fully, but I did like how this ends for Pocket and Jessica, if that makes sense.
As with many of Moore’s books, this one made me laugh out loud. It’s a perfect read if you need something hilarious and very irreverent, especially if you’ve just come off a Shakespearean Lit course and your brains are still crammed full of Shakespearean insults and plot points. You will feel right at home with Moore. You definitely don’t have to read Fool first—but you should read Fool, at some point, because it’s awesome. As much as I would like this book to be it, it’s not—but it’s certainly no Phantom Menace, know what I’m saying?