SACRE BLEU: A COMEDY D’ART by Christopher Moore
William Morrow, 2012, 416 pages, 978-0061779749, Hardcover, $26.99
As an author, Christopher Moore is a personal favorite of mine. His novels are known for their zany, often morbid brand of dark humor and their unique, usually bizarre premises. But what makes Moore’s work a delight to read is the humanity that shines through each one of his novels. Moore is a keen observer of people and of their relationships, and he writes them so well that you can’t help but fall in love with his comical casts. Sacre Bleu is no exception. Moore’s ambition as a storyteller seems to have grown, as this book is an attempt to tell a story not just about people, but about a color–the color blue. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but while the story does occasionally lull–lulls, but never dulls–I absolutely could not put this book down.
Vincent van Gough is believed to have committed suicide. While painting a scenic cornfield landscape of Auvers, France, he is thought to have shot himself in the stomach before walking a mile through the woods to reach Dr. Gachet, a dear personal friend. But this is a lie. Vincent didn’t kill himself. He was shot by the Colorman.
Someone is working his way through France, killing several of its greatest artists, including the Impressionists. With the news of his good friend’s death, Lucien Lessard, a painter and baker living in Montmarte, Paris, is going to find out who is responsible. Of course, he’s going to do it with the help of his other good friend and painter, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
What initially struck me about this novel was how exceptionally well Moore researched his source material. When a story is based off of an historical period, especially one as vast as the Impressionist movement, you have to know every detail about what went on during that time. With Sacre Bleu, it’s clear that Moore spent a great amount of time doing his homework, learning about the painters’ lives, their work, their relationships, and their personalities. Moore covers all of the great painters of the time: Pissarro, Cezanne, Dega, Monet, Manet, and Morisot. Each one is portrayed in great detail. With the confines of such a well-documented history, it’s really incredible how “out of the box” Moore’s story really is.
This isn’t the first time, however, that Moore has placed himself in a box and colored all over the walls. Two of his best novels do the same: Lamb, the comedic retelling of Jesus’ life by his best pal Levi (who is called Biff), and Fool, the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear as told from the Fool’s point of view. And, just as he did with his previous works, Moore has created a fantastic narrative with Sacre Bleu. That said, for those who are not familiar with Moore’s work, I’m not certain that this is the book to start with. Sacre Bleu is very clearly one of Moore’s writing experiments, and, while it worked, it’s a bit of a bizarre read.
Not very much happens within the story, at least not with the point of driving action to move it forward. Much of the book’s time is actually spent in the past–at some points, it’s spent very, very far into the past. We learn about the mysterious Colorman and his connection to the lives of Paris’ great painters. We see their lives and their works. This large amount of time spent in the past is necessary, though, because this book isn’t just about Lucien and his journey, it’s about art, painting, Paris, and history. If Moore tried to cover so much without going into the past and laying this groundwork, the narrative would fall apart. Still, it’s a lot of passive storytelling, and when there is present action, half of it is spent either in a paint studio or a brothel. So, for those just starting out, or for those who need a more “present” narrative, consider picking up another of Moore’s books.
Now usually, I’m not fond of stories with slow pacing. I find that they fail to keep my attention invested in the novel. So what, then, was different about Sacre Bleu? Two things–the two that Moore is best at: his characters and his comedy. Featuring a family of bakers, a hedonistic dwarf, two scientists–one deranged, the other not–and the entire Impressionist movement, this is easily the largest cast Moore has ever worked with. And yet, each character feels like a real human being. Each is expertly crafted and has his or her own personality. Pissarro is warm and loving, Monet is the wise sage, and Dega is a douche bag. And that’s just the painters. Lucien is the perfect picture (no pun intended) of a man lost in love, and Henri is a character with so much depth that he often steals the spotlight from everyone around him.
Each character also has his own quirks and sense of humor, which creates some really funny writing. With Lucien’s puppy-dog infatuation, Henri’s debauchery, and the Colorman’s hobby of flashing the maids, every member of the cast brings comedy to the scene, and it makes the book an absolute delight to read.
Overall, this book was simply fantastic. It was definitely a page turner, as I burned through the 400 pages in a day. Some may find it a bit too slow, and to them I’d say get familiar with Moore through his other novels, particularly Lamb or A Dirty Job (my personal favorites). But I’d also say, give the book a try anyway. It more than stands on its own two feet. And for those, like me, who are already a fan of Moore’s work, go out and buy this book. You won’t regret it.