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Friday 12 April 2002

Apocrypha Satirica

By Claude Lalumière

I've been an atheist since I was about nine years old. Considering that this column is reviewing biblical pastiches — both new and classic — it seemed like I should be upfront about where I'm coming from. I was raised Catholic, but it didn't take. (I was raised in French, and that also didn't take, but that's another story.)

In fact, although I was raised in a "Catholic lite" environment, the more I learned about the Church, the less I liked it. I read about other religions. Most of them didn't fare much better, whether for their enforcement of the ritual genital mutilation of babies, their endemic sexual inequities, or their attempts to control every minute of your life.

In my mid-teens, I decided to read the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Know thine enemy and all that (I read the Koran, too, and the Bhagavad-Gita, etc.). And then, at some point later, I acquired a taste for Biblical pastiches. The recent release of Christopher Moore's Lamb and Kyle Baker's King David — two new works by two of my favourite satirists — seemed like a good opportunity to survey one of my fetish genres.

Lamb, by Christopher Moore (Morrow, 2002)

While reading Christopher Moore's sixth novel, Lamb, I couldn't help thinking about Gore Vidal's classic historical epic, Creation. The two works have striking similarities: each has a sarcastic narrator from antiquity who is relating an epic cross-cultural voyage of his youth, where he met and interacted with the great sages of the epoch. Lamb also covers much of the same ground as Paul Park's The Gospel of Corax — that is, the story of Jesus/Jeshua's travels before returning to Palestine to preach his message — but Lamb provides more details about Jeshua's childhood and also offers its own version of the events covered in the four canonic Gospels. Vidal's book, although entertaining, strives for historical authenticity, while Park's novel is a deeply serious work. Moore's Lamb, however, is a laugh-out-loud, roll-on-the-floor dark comedy — a form at which Moore has repeatedly proven himself uncommonly skilled.

Biff, "Christ's Childhood Pal", is the narrator of Moore's Lamb. The novel kicks off with Biff's resurrection in modern times. After two millennia of silence, it's been decided that the true story of Christ's time on Earth can finally be told, and who better to tell the tale than Levi bar Alphaeus, called Biff? Biff was Jeshua's best friend, and stuck to him like a second skin from their early childhood to the crucifixion. What? You've never heard of Biff? Well, there's a reason for that.... Not everyone liked Biff, and he was written out of the story. But now his time has come.

Most of Lamb is devoted to Biff's Gospel. He goes into great detail about his and Jeshua's childhood, including how they first met Mary Magdalene and both promptly fell in love with her. Later, Biff accompanies Jeshua on his quest to understand his mission. For that, Jeshua seeks out the mages who came to him at his birth. The ensuing journey takes the two friends through much of Asia, where they do indeed find the mages, and Jeshua learns more about himself and how he intends to conduct his ministry. Meanwhile, Biff has lots of sex. They eventually return to their homeland, and Jeshua slowly recruits his disciples. And then the well-known story unfolds.

Woven into all this is Lamb's other narrative strand: the story of Biff in modern times, writing his Gospel while locked in a hotel room with an angel. It turns out that Biff is more than capable of dealing with modern life, while the TV-addicted angel has serious problems telling fact from fiction.

This synopsis, however, doesn't even begin to convey the nearly nonstop laughs provided by Biff's sarcastic telling of these events — from his unrequited lust for Mary (Jeshua's mom) to his creative enactments of a rather unusual version of the Kama Sutra. Beyond all this hilarity, though, what raises the novel above pure farce is Biff's deep and unconditional friendship with Jeshua — a friendship whose intensity suffuses the whole text. There's also a tender and complex love triangle at the heart of the story: both boys love Mary Magdalene, who loves both of them back but has a more intense crush on Jeshua — but Jeshua won't let himself have sex, while Biff can't stop thinking about her.

Like the best of comedies, Lamb is filled with tragedy, love, loss, beauty, anger, and, above all, an unfailing and intelligent sense of humour.

King David, by Kyle Baker (Vertigo/DC Comics, 2002)

Much of the humour in Kyle Baker's King David comes from the cartoonist's deft skill at creating dialogue that combines stereotypical biblespeak with contemporary slang, while keeping intact the story as related in the Bible. The absurdity of the characters' actions is thus amplified (and sometimes even commented upon by other characters involved in equally absurd acts) because their behaviour — proper for a millennia-old historical drama with a nationalist agenda — simply cannot jibe with contemporary Western urban culture.

Baker's pacing, both in terms of page layout and of dialogue, is impeccable. Baker has added a more explicit touch of Chuck Jones's style to his repertoire for this story, and it works very well in this setting, a departure for Baker. (Baker's comics usually take place in modern urban settings.)

So I loved the writing, the dialogue, the storytelling, the linework — all that constitutes the basic elements of the work — but, sadly, this book is marred by unfortunate production choices.

For one thing, Baker smudged spectacularly ugly computer colouring over his beautifully expressive artwork. In addition, his choice of garish colours distracts from the drawings, often coming close to ruining it. And Baker fails to hide the computer origins of his colours, which constantly scream, "Look! Fancy computer colouring!"

Even worse — and this is one of my pet peeves — the book is printed on slick, glossy white paper. This is the worst possible choice for comics — and yet a widespread one. Light reflects off the pages, constantly jarring readers out of the experience while they must re-angle the book. Also, it makes the colours look like they're lying on top of the art instead of part of it; they look like they're about to slip off the page. This is an ugly effect only emphasized by the ugliness of the colours. I ended up wishing that the colours would, in fact, slip off the page so I could look at the art comfortably.

King David is a good work — conceptually — but a clumsily produced book.

Apocrypha Satirica: The Classics

Behold the Man (1969), by Michael Moorcock
A psychedelic montage of several narrative strands and quotations from the Bible, Jung, and other sources, Behold the Man tells the story of Karl Glogauer's time-travelling quest to find Jesus, only to encounter a drooling hunchbacked idiot. To keep history intact, Glogauer must assume the mantle of Christ. Or is all this the product of the irrational hallucinations of a madman — Karl Glogauer — forever scarred by a wretched childhood and delusions of grandeur? A whirlwind novel filled with gritty details, philosophical ramblings, altered states of reality, and intense emotions. An entertaining and blasphemous exemplar of New Wave SF.

God Knows (1984), by Joseph Heller
God Knows records David's delirious, lusty, and joyfully anachronistic deathbed digressions, in which he begs his God — a god not known for humility — for an apology. The book falls a bit short of what appears to be a greater ambition, but it is nevertheless a very entertaining romp: David's uninhibited and chatty bedside manner is both seductive and endearing. Heller succeeds in making God Knows a page-turner on the strength of its narrator's voice and chutzpah.

Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), by Timothy Findley
Using the Noah legend to build a merciless attack on millennia of patriarchy, Timothy Findley has created one of the great fantasy novels of the twentieth century. Filled with spectacular scenes of mythic grandeur jostling with the matter-of-fact grind of quotidian life and brutal drama juxtaposed with angry satire, Not Wanted on the Voyage is a nonstop succession of unforgettable moments. It's an awesome reading experience, both epic and tender, beautiful yet filled with the ugliness that corrupts all our lives. It pulls no punches and reaches great heights of emotion and fiction.

Boating for Beginners (1985), by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson transposes the plot of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit — her debut book, a realist novel that earned her widespread acclaim — onto the Noah legend to much greater effect (albeit to lesser recognition). Boating for Beginners is a tale of lesbian sexual awakening in the context of biblical myth. A funny and tender work that infuses Winterson's personal tale with a satirical edge and a magical resonance that transcend the limitations imposed by the confessional nature of her first novel.

Ecce Hominid (1991), by Esther Friesner
Originally published as #6 in Pulphouse's Short Story Paperbacks series, Ecce Hominid is, like much of Friesner's work, a light but pleasant comedy. It reveals just who Adam and Eve encounter after God kicks them out of Eden — or more specifically who their sons mate with. In Ecce Hominid, creationism fornicates with evolution.

Live from Golgotha (1992), by Gore Vidal
Anyone who has ever read the Bible must make quite the mental leap to see any connection between the Gospels and the later books attributed to Paul, or even between the Gospels and Christianity. Christianity as we know it is the descendant of the teachings of Paul as recorded in the Bible — and the dissonances between those and the words related in the Gospels are numerous (not to mention the dissonances between the Gospels). Notorious crank Gore Vidal has raging fun tearing into Paul for his — and Christianity's — crimes of intolerance. A lesser book than it should be considering the subject matter, but the angry edge of this anachronistic time-travel comedy makes it fun to read anyway.

The Gospel of Corax (1996), by Paul Park
The Gospel of Corax — related by an escaped Roman slave named Corax — is the story of a brawny Essene rebel, Jeshua (Jesus), who must flee Palestine to save his life because of Corax's treachery. The story speculates on the years of Jesus's travels before he returns to his homeland to preach. Park's angry and burly Jeshua takes to spirituality with difficulty, and the story of his slow and subtle transformation is moving and deftly handled. Jeshua's true nature is left ambiguous, to great effect.

Bible Stories for Adults (1996), by James Morrow
Despite the title of this collection, only four of its stories belong to the eponymic (and seemingly randomly numbered) series: "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge", "No. 20: The Tower", "No. 31: The Covenant", and "No. 46: The Soap Opera". "The Deluge" — a 1989 Nebula Award winner — is a feminist take on the Flood myth. "The Tower" is a modern-day sequel to the Tower of Babel legend. "The Covenant" tells of a computer YHWH who reiterates the Ten Commandments. And "The Soap Opera" relates the further misadventures of Job (in play form). My favourite of these is "The Tower", mostly because of the devilish charm of the narrator — none other than God:

Being God, I must choose My words carefully. People, I've noticed, tend to hang on to My every remark. It gets annoying, this servile and sycophantic streak in Homo sapiens sapiens. There's a difference, after all, between tasteful adulation and arrant toadyism, but they just don't get it.

Claude Lalumière was a bookseller for 12 years. He is now a writer, critic, editor, and translator. He edited the recent Véhicule Press anthology Telling Stories: New English Fiction from Québec. His website features news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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