10 July 2009

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The title of the novel is no accident, for it is as gothic a tale as any that was ever set in a crumbling castle on the banks of the Rhine. Its treatment of human evil, isolation and madness could easily qualify it as the pinnacle of 20th Century American Gothic.

A shadow has fallen across the house of Blackwood. Though once a prominent family, a possibly accidental poisoning has reduced their numbers to three (two sisters, an uncle) and made the townspeople suspicious of the survivors. The uncle, Julian, has been left physically crippled and one of the sisters, Constance, has developed a phobia about the world outside the house which does not prevent her from accepting visitors. It is left to the younger sister, Merikat (short for Mary Katherine), to venture into town on necessary errands.

Gothic literature often features singular characters, individuals who seem eerily plausible yet who are warped in a way that makes them unlike anyone else we've ever encountered. Merikat, who is the narrator and thus our guide through this story, is just such a character. It is clear that she views the townspeople with hostility, going so far as to craft charms--ordinary household items such as books or mirrors placed in odd locations or strange configurations--to keep the world at bay.

But soon it does intrude, in the figure of Charles, a cousin from an estranged branch of the family. His healthiness and level headedness seem to promise an opening up of the Blackwood home, a return to normality. But Merikat sees in him a representative of the crudity and selfishness of the outside world and seeks to drive him out through more and more powerful charms. The last of these results in a terrible reaction from the townspeople which sends the Blackwoods into greater isolation, leading to a hauntingly melancholy end to the story.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an incomparable achievement, a story that will equally charm and disturb in ways that sometimes can be almost intolerable. And you will probably never forget Merikat Blackwood.

09 July 2009

Review: Lamb; the Gospel According to Biff, Jesus' Childhood Pal

In The Last Temptation of Christ, Judas finds himself in a terrible situation. Jesus has told him that it will be necessary for Judas to betray him in order for mankind to be saved. As Christ acknowledges, God gave Judas the really hard task, that of betraying someone who he holds very dear. By comparison, all Christ has to do is die.

Though it's never acknowledged, the narrator of this book finds himself in a similar bind. As the lifelong friend of Joshua (aka Yeshua aka Jesus) and under the dictum that "dying is easy; comedy is hard," he has been left the harder path. All Joshua has to do is die. Biff has to make it funny.

Biff has been brought back to life by God so that he can write the definitive gospel since he was there from nearly the beginning. In order to ensure his cooperation, God has an angel chaperon Biff. Though it makes up very little of the story, the scenes of Biff and the angel in the hotel room are some of the funniest of the novel, especially in the angel's befuddlement at modern life.

Biff first met Joshua when they were both kids, and Joshua was bringing lizards back to life for the benefit of his younger, lizard-killing brother. From there they strike a lifelong friendship not impeded by the fact that Joshua knows he will one day be the Messiah. Biff is your quintessential underachiever, and his philosophical outlook, which has been derived from the teachings of Cynic, makes for a nice foil for Joshua's earnest desire to fulfill the task that has been set before him. When Joshua decides he will never learn how to be the Messiah if he does not seek out his origins, it is Biff who accompanies him on his travels.

They go in search of the Three Wise Men in order to learn the truth of Joshua's birthright. In their travels, this Hebraic Hope and Crosby encounter bandits, Taoist magicians, herbalist concubines, a hungry demon, a Buddhist monastery, the Tibetan Man of the Mountains, martial artists, a Kali ceremony, Tantra, untouchables and the Kama Sutra. After their travels, Joshua comes to learn what he has to do to become the Messiah, so they return to Palestine for the more familiar part of the story.

Christopher Moore here has a fine line to tread in attempting to make the story of Christ funny and believable yet keeping Joshua as the earnest Messiah figure we can all look up to. (No Last Temptation-style dream sequences of Christ experiencing the temptation of giving it all up here.) Having the story told by the underachieving and very sardonic Biff is a great way to thread that needle.

Moore makes the most of the sections where the gospels are silent, which give him a lot to work with. It yields great comic touches, like the time Joshua, Biff and Maggie decide to "circumcise" a well-endowed Greek statue, or the origins of the Jewish custom of Chinese food on Christmas. Though not every joke works, the passages overall maintain a high level of humor without robbing Joshua's quest of meaning.

The humor does begin to lost its impact near the end. Once Joshua and Biff return to Nazareth and Christ begins his ministry, Moore has less leeway with which to play. Once the ministry and the inevitable path to Golgotha have begun, the humor becomes more forced. As Joshua himself once said (though not in this book), a man cannot serve to masters, for he will honor one and neglect the other. The book has to choose between the earnestness of Joshua and the cynicism of Biff. It opts for the latter, for which one cannot entirely blame Moore. To have gone with the latter would have been to write a different, much edgier book. That Moore manages to make both elements work for as long as he does is testament to his talent and his great sense of humor.