Christopher Moore, the author of Shakespeare for Squirrels, can be really funny. His earlier books, especially Lamb and The Stupidest Angel, are the kinds of books that just keep you giggling throughout. He can also be a little weird, as in Noir, which combines your classic noir detective storyline with aliens, but that’s part of his charm. Sometimes his ideas don’t completely work; in Fool, he tried to do a funny take on King Lear, and frankly, that’s a really hard sell. Even if your main character, Pocket, is a wise guy fool who’s always on the lookout for trouble and who finds himself in the most ridiculous situations, putting him in a major tragedy like Lear really reduces your chances for laughs.
In this outing, however, the Shakespeare play Moore takes on is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that works a lot better. Starting out with a comedy gives Pocket more room for ridiculous behavior and doesn’t require quite so much messing around with the plot, although Moore manages a twist that turns the original around a bit: for complicated reasons, Pocket has to find out who killed Puck, the fairy who’s responsible for most of the plot of Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the original, of course, Puck is very much alive and well, but in this version he’s been killed and many of the different characters have an interest in finding out who was responsible, or keeping Pocket from finding out.
Along the way, he encounters the lovers who are hiding out in the forest, Hermia and Helena, Demetrius and Lysander, a number of very charming fairies, the Rude Mechanicals (including Bottom who’s got a donkey’s head instead of his own) practicing their own play (which Pocket manipulates for his own purposes). The Shakespearean characters are all recognizable if you’re familiar with the original, but they’re all a little twisted and altered here. The story comes to a riotous conclusion (in more ways than one) as Pocket, running out of time, manages to reveal exactly what happened to Puck and why, along the way illuminating the relationships of many of the other characters as well.
The book is fast paced and funny. Pocket is an entertaining narrator, with a 21st century cynicism and attitude that stands him in good stead with all the ridiculous characters around him. The relationships among the various characters in their subplots are a little confusing (there are several storylines going on at the same time), but eventually they all come together and make sense (trust me, they will all make sense by the end). Moore does his best job with characters who aren’t really developed in Shakespeare: the individual fairies, for instance, who are basically just walk-ons in the original, come to life as real characters here, and Moore actually makes it easy to tell the difference between Helena and Hermia (which in my experience is almost impossible to do when reading Shakespeare’s version). Drool, Pocket’s giant apprentice, and his monkey, Jeff, make their appearances, but for the most part this is Pocket’s show and he does a great job.
Do you need to be familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream to enjoy this book? You could probably follow it even if you’d never read or seen the play, but it would undoubtedly be easier to keep track of what’s going on if you have some familiarity with the original (fortunately it’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, so odds are you’ve seen it somewhere at some time).
If you’re wondering about the title, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it. Suffice it to say it does make sense in the context of the book.
If you’re in the mood for a lighthearted and even slightly raunchy take on a classic, let Christopher Moore take you to Shakespeare for Squirrels.