New York, Spike, 1999, $23
in New York Review of Science Fiction 137, January 2000
Humour is always the same, and always different.
All humour works the same way, triggered by upsetting expectations, relieving anxieties, bursting bubbles. Yet no two people will find the same thing funny, our reaction to comedy is fearsomely individual.
Many years ago, having completed an examination on twentieth century Chinese history at university, I was relaxing in the library reading The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten, when I came across the misnaming of Chiang Kai-Shek as Shanghai Jack. I had to hold my laughter in, getting up and carefully walking the length of the library before it burst out just as I got into the corridor. I still don’t know if it was really funny or whether it was just the circumstance, the coincidence of when I read it. I had much the same reaction reading this book on a crowded commuter train, when a teacher in inner city Los Angeles tried to interest her pupils in art by bringing in paint guns, and so was responsible for a spate of ‘drive-by abstract expressionism’. I have no idea why I found that line hilarious, but I did. Would other readers have the same reaction? Does that make it a funny book?
The trouble with analysing a novel, any novel, as comedy is that you run the twin risks of reacting so personally to the humour that no-one else is liable to share your enthusiasm or distaste, or of being so po-faced that the book ends up appearing dull and unfunny.
Of course, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove isn’t really a comic novel. It is a serious book that just happens to be written with a light touch and to feature a lot of very funny incidents (or at least incidents that I find very funny, and for the purposes of this review we’ll just have to assume that the two are synonymous). It is, after all, a novel about moral, personal and professional failure, about murder, about our inability to face up to our own lives, about success gone sour, about our reliance on prescription drugs as a cure-all for society’s ills. Serious subjects all, and treated with remarkable seriousness (even when a minor character is bumped-off, albeit in a ludicrous manner, the pain and horror of the incident is described with a directness I cannot recall in any other so-called comic novel). That consideration of all these serious subjects is triggered by the emergence of a sex-crazed prehistoric monster which achieves its most spectacular effect while trying to hump a fuel tanker, and which spends most of the book disguised as a mobile home thoughtfully eating any unwary visitors, seems somehow almost incidental.
The title of the book, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, inevitably sets up expectations: this is a comic fantasy. But, (and it is, of course, in the way of comedy to upset our expectations) the book hardly conforms to the pattern of what we have come to accept as comic fantasy. In Britain, at least, comic writing in the fantastic mode has been effectively defined by Terry Pratchett. He is a stand-up comedian among novelists, his work a barrage of comic lines, comic characters, comic situations. Even when Death, in hollow capitals, appears as a character it is not to in consideration of our own mortality but because of the silliness of this black-caped skeletal figure being involved in the quondam worries and preoccupations of mortal man. Pratchett is a skilled writer who can make this constant string of jokes work well (and his more recent books have been getting progressively darker in tone); but he has spawned a host of imitators who measure the sub-genre purely in terms of the number of (weak) jokes that can be squeezed onto a page. Moore, by contrast, has written a form that few other contemporary fantasists have even attempted, a comedy-drama in which both comedy and drama are kept in balance. It would have been all too easy to let the scales tip to either side. The opening of the novel, for instance, in which we are given a sensitive but detailed description of an apparent suicide, hardly seems like the curtain-raiser for a ludicrous romp. At the same time, two black blues singers accidentally snagging a sea monster during a fishing trip on a southern bayou don’t appear to belong in a book that can ask awkward questions about the way psychiatrists routinely prescribe Prozac as a lazy solution to every problem. There are jokes in the book, but they don’t always come thick and fast, and at times they are likely to make you feel oddly uncomfortable while you are laughing.
We start with that suicide, or is it murder? It falls to the local representative of the law to investigate, unfortunately he is no detective but a local loser addicted to his home-grown marijuana who is kept in place by the sheriff who wants to hide his own much more invidious drug operation. Meanwhile the dead woman was a patient of the local psychiatrist who fears that the suicide may have been the result of drug dependency, and in a panic decides instantly to take all her patients off their prescriptions, with devastating results. At the same time the local bar owner has hired a blues singer for the season to try to make the customers more miserable, because miserable people drink more; unfortunately the blues singer meets a former art teacher, the pair fall in love and for the first time the bluesman has to risk being happy. While in a trailer park on the outskirts of town the former star of a series of soft porn movies is quietly going mad following the loss of her brief shot at glory, until she meets a new neighbour.
These could be the ingredients of any small town drama, until you realise that the neighbour that the one-time actress falls for is a sea monster that has assumed the shape of a mobile home, and which obligingly eats anyone who has ever been nasty to the faded star. The monster is in town because the bluesman once caught and killed its offspring on an ill-fated fishing trip. The monster attracts its prey by giving off a sex pheromone which causes local born-again Christians to worship it as a god, while also driving the local rat population wild, which in turn brings a researcher in animal behaviour to meet the local psychiatrist. And as if all this didn’t cause enough mayhem to keep our lawman away from his marijuana, he finally discovers what the sheriff has been up to, a discovery which could prove fatal.
It is an intricate plot, carefully structured so that the mundane and the fantastic, the serious and the comic each depends upon the other. If it weren’t funny it would be sad, not so much because the over-riding subject of the book is melancholy but because without the humour it would be a clichéd soap opera with silly fantasy trimmings. But the comedy somehow serves to emphasise the seriousness of the book while making palatable its formulaic content. At the same time the seriousness stops it being merely silly. It is a fine line that Christopher Moore has chosen to walk, but he has managed it with consummate ease.