Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Fool by Any Other Name

Rather than an excerpt this tuesday I will publish a short article I wrote about Chris Moore. I interviewed him and attempted to sell the article as promotional piece for his excellent novel Fool but was unable to find a home for it.

A Fool by Any Other Name
By Ben Shakey

If comedy is tragedy plus time then best selling novelist Christopher Moore figures 400 years is enough time to make King Lear a laugh riot.

In his newest work, Fool, Moore takes his comedic crowbar to the most beloved writer in the English Language and rewrites Shakespeare’s tragedy as a farce told from the view of Lear’s personal jester.

“I didn’t set out to improve Shakespeare’s play, nor do I think I could, I simply used it for inspiration.” He writes in an e-mail interview. “I just wanted it to be really funny.”

Moore achieved his goals of being really funny since his first novel in 1992. Back then Moore was a waiter in small town Harmony, California when he set out to create what he described as something that would do for horror what Douglas Adams did for science fiction. The result was Practical Demonkeeping, where a befuddled man accidentally conjures a demon servant that he spends over 90 years trying to escape. It created his winning combination of put upon everyman protagonists battling with mystical forces, sort of like Bob Newhart in the X-files, and found an immediate audience.

In 10 following novels his cult readership grew, as Moore forced vampires, Angels, and Grim Reapers to deal with modern annoyances. Books titled The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove or Island of the Sequined Love Nun can be remarkably silly but their success anchored on how seriously he took the subjects.

“I think if a funny novel is going to work, you really have to own the comedy. You have to commit to it. If you pull punches or you’re self-conscious about it, your stuff isn’t going to be funny.” He explains” I think comic timing can be learned, even in prose, but you really have to have a sense of what’s funny, what kind of juxtaposition makes people laugh as opposed what’s just interesting or just stupid. Some people don’t have that sense.”

Moore credits this talent for capturing slapstick on a page as something inherited. “I think my sense of comedy came from my father, who was a highway patrolman, and had developed a sort of dark sense of humour tempered with the absolutely silly, to deal with the carnage of his job. (Troopers see a lot of fatal accidents, and are usually the first on the scene. I don’t think people realize that.)”

An example of his Father’s twisted sense of humour was one Night before Christmas at the Moore house: “I would be up half the night on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa, and my father didn’t get off shift until midnight, so when he came up the walk at one in the morning, and saw me still up, he drew his revolver and fired it into the ground, then came inside and told me I could go to bed now because he’d shot Santa off the roof and there was no sense waiting. (To be honest, I think he came in talking about how a fat guy in a red suit was trying to break into our house and he had to stop him.) I was about four then. I’m still a little traumatized.”
“He also loved books, particularly spy stories, but also books like Mash and Catch 22. Since books and humor were valued in my house growing up, it’s probably not surprising that I developed the ability to write comedy in prose.”

His ability to make readers laugh was so skilled that in 2002 he was even able to write Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal without backlash from usually sensitive Christian groups. According to Moore, the book is even taught in some seminaries.

Now his writing is based on a revered play. What’s it like building off a text already known to millions? “It was extraordinarily challenging, but there was a point where I had to just let the play go and tell my own story. My books tend to be character generated, so, while my characters started with the Shakespeare characters, as they developed, they allowed the story to develop in a unique way.” He says, “I wanted it all to revolve around the most powerless character in the play. Pocket, my Fool, really only has his wit, but he manages to manipulate the rest of the cast by applying it.”

The departure from Shakespeare is typically irreverent. “My fool is a bit of horn beast, who is pretty much preoccupied with trying to shag everyone in the castle, which is not really indicated in King Lear. I also gave my fool an apprentice, who is loosely based on Lenny, from Of Mice and Men.”

Beyond the demands of being really funny, Fool also took a great deal of research. Moore travelled to England and France for historical tours of medieval castles, watched dozens of filmed and live performances, and nearly read the entire Shakespeare cannon.

Also, he spent lots of time watching Black Adder and Dr. Who on the elliptical trainer to learn British idioms. He explains: “I worked with the idiom a lot. I had to make it sound Elizabethan without it actually being Elizabethan. I thought I might try to write it in iambic pentameter for about eight minutes before I gave up. I depended largely on the idiom in British sitcoms, mixed with the odd Elizabethan pronoun (a thee or a thou here and there for flavor). For the most part, I think it’s pretty easy for an American reader once they get into the rhythm of it. I think it will throw my usual readers for a chapter or so until they get the voice.”

With all this research the book is still written with Groundlings in mind. When asked what the Shakespeare scholars that spend years trying to interpret Hamlet’s asides will think of Fool, Moore is honest “I think they may hate it. It really depends on how purist they are.” Or if they relate to horn beast fool.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

My Memoir of My Year of Reading Yearlong Memoirs

The Following excerpt is from My Memoir of My Year of Reading Yearlong Memoirs by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Janus Press in July 2009


After spending six months of reading nothing but yearlong memoirs a certain narrative begins to reveal itself. These books are not meant to be planned a head of time and purported to be a report 365 investigation into a subject at this point I have to say that I am certainly seeing a consistent arc to the way these stories are being told.

In the early months of the experiment the author is a little nervous and makes some funny beginners mistakes but soon they are a convert to this new way of life. Then in the mid to late summer they begin to be bored, they start to question why they are even doing this, what are they trying to prove but they push through anyway. Sometimes this is to save face other time they admit they are still looking for something. Then in Mid October or November they have a giant epiphany they humbly share with us. They close the year with some sober reflection in December and on January first they wake up refreshed with new insight about how they will live their life differently and then they gleefully break some arbitrary self imposed rule.

Well, here I am in July and I am also following the script. I am questioning why I ever started this project of reading nothing but yearlong memoirs. I long to read a magazine, a newspaper, even a fortune cookie but at the beginning of the year I made a very strict list of things that I can read and not read and it leave very little other than traffic sign and bills.

I wanted this year to be as rewarding as all the other years I read about.

Instead, I succeeded in making reading a chore. I used to love them and now books are an inescapable vice that squeezes around my head.

When I need a distracting hobby, I often turn to cooking. All the chopping and measuring and not burning stuff requires too much thought to worry about larger angsty issues. I cannot read cookbooks or surf the web so instead I turn to several yearlong memoirs about food that contain recipes.

I bury myself in The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Eating Local, Julia and Julie: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, Animal Vegetable Miracle: A Year of Food Life, My Year of Meats, and French Leave: a Wonderful Year of Escape and Memory.

At the end of the month I am thankful for cooking. I feel nourished, sated, and satisfied. I ate new things that reminded me of what My Year of Memiors is all about. This is a year to discover, grow and learn. By the end of this year I will be a different person. Even if it only means that I am better fed and my pants are tighter.

I start the month disheartened but I leave ready to read My Year of Living Biblically.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lucky Charms

The follwoing excerpt is from Lucky Charms by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Kevin Reynolds Publishing in July 2009

Peter could have checked the review online as soon as it was posted but it seemed more suiting to wake up early and wait at the 7-11 for the papers to be delivered.

He hounded the clerk to open the bundle and sell a copy, eventually overcoming the minor language barrier and then the major barrier of the clerk’s absolute disinterest in Peter’s concerns.

With a copy of the paper, and therefore Andrew McGuinn’s review, folded under his arm Peter crossed the street to the Aristocrat Dinner. The waitress, who was now far too old to naturally maintain her red hair, was turning on the flashing OPEN sign.

Peter sat in booth and ordered a black coffee and order of eggs Benedict. The meal was partly celebratory and partly hang over cure. The liquor from last night premier was still floating around in his head.

Andrew’s first movie was vehicle for a handsome sit com star that was attempting to prove that he could entertain people without a blaring laugh track to tell them he saying something funny. His leading lady had appeared in a few minor roles and on lots of magazine covers after a very famous actor left his wife for her. Together they helmed a romantic comedy about a man that pretends to be Irish in order to impress a girl he meets in a bar on ST. Patrick’s but then has to carry on the nonsensical Blarney Stone accent because he falls in love.

It wasn’t a great movie, but it was the first one that Peter got to direct. There would be other ones later and maybe those ones would be remembered but right now Peter was happy that they TV actor's name managed to find enough funding to pull it off.

Peter had enough sense to realize that he didn’t make a masterpiece. He didn’t fall victim the trapping of the red carpet and press junkets and desperate young actresses of last night.

Hell, he was just a normal guy sitting in a dinner reading the paper.

The only thing that allowed himself to feel special about was the review waiting in the paper for him. Andrew McGuinn rarely wrote reviews for a debut film like this. He reviewed maybe one film a month, was known to watch 5 successive showings of it , would travel from the inner city to suburbs in various disguises to feel the audience response. Notoriously, he once bought tickets for an entire theatre full of movie goers so they could watch a movie again after he explained to them all why they misunderstood it.

Jerry didn’t care about his trailer or free champagne. This was what made him feel like a director. He hoped that McGuinn caught his Ernst Lubitsch reference.

He began reading:

Lucky Charms is not a bad movie.

It is not very good either.

It achieves everything that it tries to be.

I mean there are a few funny moments in it like when the lead actor Jay Mercer wears very heavy cable knit turtle neck sweater and almost passes out from the heat or when he tries to insult someone with a limerick but in his inability to find a rhyme slowly breaks down in a halting stream of vulgarity that he seems incapable of stopping.

But, overall it is just paint by the numbers romantic comedy. I would like to say that I figured out where the movie was going in the first minute but I had it figured out when I saw the poster.

Director Peter Wilmont might be capable of more, there was sly Ernst Lubitsch reference, but who knows if he really is. He didn’t even try to let us know if he was capable of belly flop or a dive. He just waded into the water.

I try really hard in these reviews but over the past 30 years it has become clear that nobody else out there is trying. My ambition in these reviews has always been to spark discussion and stir debate even about something as simple as a movie. These filmmakers always tell me they just want to make a movie. As if that is something noble in and of itself.

Well, no more. I’m done. I’m not going to sit around watching these things when all they want to do is exist and make money. They can do it without me. I’ve wasted my life putting too much effort into reviewing sorry romantic comedies like this.

I could have been outside, not cramped and pasty trying to write in a note book at a dark matinee.

I could have met real people and not watched thinly drawn fictional dweebs.

I could have been somebody.

I’ve wasted my life.

Peter folded the paper and pushed it aside.

It was less of a review and more of an atomic bomb dropped on him.

His movie just made Andrew McGuinn hate movies. McGuinn might even retire now.

He paid and walked home in a daze.

At home the phone rang and rang. Bad news travels fast. You would think they all got up a dawn to read the review.

He dranks vodka till he passed out, woke up on the sofa and turned on the TV to find out what time it was.

The evening news was on.

“In entertainment news, film critic Andrew McGuinn found dead at age 56. Suicide is believed to be the cause, with the strongest evidence being a disturbing review he submitted to his editor last night and was printed this morning”

Well, thought Peter. It looks like he created a very memorable film
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