‘The Serpent of Venice’: a Shakespeare-Poe mash-up
Christopher Moore’s novel “The Serpent of Venice” is a concoction of two Shakespeare classics with a bit of Edgar Allan Poe thrown in. He appears April 27 at Elliott Bay Book Co. and April 28 at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “The Serpent of Venice” will read at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 27, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
He will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, April 28, at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).
OK, so Christopher Moore’s new novel, “The Serpent of Venice” (Morrow, 336 pp., $26.99), is about a Jewish moneylender, a Moorish soldier, a jester, a randy monkey named Jeff, a creature that might be a mermaid or might be a sexy but deadly sea monster, and ... well, a lot of other stuff.
More specifically, it’s a gleeful and wonderfully strange mash-up. Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and “Othello” are its chief ingredients, with Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado” thrown in. The result? An imaginative, wildly inspired satire.
Moore, who splits his time between San Francisco and Hawaii, is no stranger to wildly inspired satire. In previous novels he’s gone after vampires, the Grim Reaper, Christianity and more, in search of targets. Case in point: Moore’s last book, “Sacré Bleu,” a tour de force in which Toulouse-Lautrec and a posse of other French painters delve into the mystery of Vincent van Gogh’s alleged suicide.
The new book is similarly set in an imaginary literary landscape. We’re in Venice in the 13th century (although, as Moore helpfully points out, for some reason everyone speaks with a British accent).
Pocket, the jester from King Lear, is being entombed brick by brick in a dungeon as canal water slowly rises around him. The culprit is Montresor, a Venetian politician (the name comes from the Poe story). He’s in cahoots with Antonio (the merchant) and Iago (Othello’s evil, scheming nemesis). The three have a serious grudge against Pocket, who thwarted their plans to make a fortune by starting a new Crusade.
Luckily, the sea monster appears before Pocket drowns and somehow has her way with him. (It’s apparently a her.) She then helps Pocket escape, enabling him to devise a complex revenge scheme.
Meanwhile, the story lines and characters from “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice” somehow intertwine. And that sea monster periodically pops up, protecting Pocket and demanding strange interspecies sex.
The book is chock-full of terrific jokes, my favorites being the stream of Shakespeare-ish insults everyone hurls at each other. They’re inventive but thoroughly unquotable in a family newspaper. (As is potty-mouthed Pocket’s narration, for that matter.)
But there’s an obvious problem, one that Moore never quite resolves. Unless you know the Poe story and the two plays, the whole thing will be pretty baffling.
Your reviewer knows his Shakespeare and Poe just well enough to appreciate some of Moore’s virtuosic melding of the source material and their very serious themes (which include jealousy, greed and prejudice).
But it’s doubtful that anyone unfamiliar with the plays and story will be satisfied. “Sacré Bleu” was a delight even for a visual-arts dummy such as your reviewer, but this new book might be just confusing. Still, those insults alone might be worth the price of admission.
Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.