Friday, June 03, 2011

Review: Lamb, by Christopher Moore

I felt that I was clever to choose this book for Easter reading, not by virtue of the menu item (which in the context of one of the story episodes, would have been a little off-putting anyway), but for its holiday theme. Lamb is a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ (some time later, thanks to some divine intervention) by his best friend Biff. That cover synopsis gives you all you need to understand the tone and theme of the book, but there's a note of honesty beneath the levity, and a touch of context under the unlikely adventures. Biff's just a nickname anyway, based, he tells us, onomatopoeically on the frequent disciplinary whacks to the head he tended to receive. The son of God is given to us as his friend Joshua, which is a little bit closer to his Hebrew name, not thanks to Moore's sense of accuracy I think—he doesn't do the same thing with the rest of the gang—but to help create a little more distance between the character and the usual weight of his Christian associations. If nothing else, it's all worth it to make a joke when a reanimated Biff encounters a guy named Jesus. Moore can't resist a healthy bit of this sort of intentionally anachronistic humor, and Biff gets to "invent" a lot of modern traditions for this sake. Sometimes it's brilliant: Biff's dissertation on sarcasm vs. irony, for example, is priceless, but some of the others are just good-natured groaners. Sure, it's a given that Jesus Christ might appreciate some of the mental discipline of studying martial arts, and reject the aggressiveness. But Jew-do, "the way of the Jew"? Where's my tomato. (On the other hand, I agree completely with the author that the question of "what if Jesus knew kung-fu" is indeed an essential one.) Moore also smartly works in a few early bits that Jesus would later use in his sermons. You might learn about foundations, for example, if you're apprenticed at an early age to the depressing life of a stonemason. And I think I laughed every single time Biff said Jeez! in the usual modern way. It's a silly book, but one where the jokes belie a certain depth, reminiscent of Terry Pratchett's writing, the style and tone (and subject) of Good Omens in particular. Biff is a great narrator, the obnoxious smartass who is funny enough, with enough underlying decency, and who gets a regular enough comeuppance to keep him loveable. The whole thing is obviously playful and speculative about a story that some people take very seriously, and it clearly doesn't place much weight on the hard-to-swallow-anyway One True Wordiness of the gospels, but it's irreverent in a way that I think will affirm the basic message if you're a more liberal-minded believer, and that will draw out the power of the story if you're not a believer at all. After all, if there was anyone who was entitled to a little gallows humor, it was Jesus H. Christ.

Because when you get to it, it's the human element of the Christ story that's the powerful one. Here's some poor bastard (literally) who's saddled with being the son of God, has some idea of what's in store for him, and, if you want to take the tradition as, um, gospel, then he's got some idea of the sacrifices that his sort of sinlessness is going to entail. How hard it must be to embody the contradiction of a loving god who has nonetheless consigned us to all of this crap (which was even more craptastic than usual in occupied Judea). Moore does a good job finding a uniting character to marry together the various accounts of his life, making Joshua some combination of a distant brooding studious sort and one of those rare truly decent folks, irrepressibly earnest, oblivious to the danger of speaking his mind, and yet engaged with the people, impossible to dislike. The girls loved him of course, but the poor guy was destined to love everyone, which isn't easy when you're 14. It's got to take a little inner torture to get to the inner peace. Jesus would have needed a friend like Biff to get him through his youth at least, someone to lie and distract for him as he went about his righteous subversion. Otherwise, how would he even make it to 33 with that habit of calling things as he wisely saw them and showing up the authorities.

The first third of the book, covering the early years, is probably the most entertaining, where we can see Josh and Biff acting most like children and teenagers, and dealing with the pressures of growing up fast in tough times, as well as with some of the neighborhood awkwardness that comes with Josh's whole who's-your-daddy issue. I think here's where Jesus most convincingly needs a helpful Biff too. As they get old enough, the boys are inspired to explore Joshua's heritage, and hunt down the three wise men. This takes them on a rather lengthy trip east, devoting years of their life to the study of Chinese and Arab teachings, early Chinese Buddhism (the admitted stretch—in addition to karate, he learns something about compassion and original sin from a yeti), and some yogi mysticism. (He eventually outclasses these teachers as much as he did the Pharisees.) And this is great, because now we can finally make a guess as to where Jesus might have obtained his Buddha nature, not to mention some select bits of Confucianism, some inner-spirit conjuring tricks, and in an earlier cameo, the version of the golden rule attributed to the rabbi Hillel. The last third of the book takes us through the gospels, kind of the backstage view of the events we're familiar with. This is the weakest section to my mind, as Moore doesn't get to innovate as flippantly, and is stuck trying to find a new angle on old material. Most of the disciple gang are a bunch of useless fuckups and true believers—I was especially disappointed with Thomas, who was made into a dolt to serve a pun--but we do get some good jokes here and there. After a Looney Tunes moment at Peter's expense on the lake, it's "Peter, you're dumber than a box of rocks. I'm going to call you..."

The apostles quickly attain the wisecracking level repartee of a fraternity bullshit session, which is okay by me and all, but it comes at the point where the book most needs to acknowledge its serious points. If we're running under the assumption that the new testament is basically a true story, then someone had to be capable of pulling off all that evangelizing. But on the other hand, our narrator Biff is given to deconstructing things like capability an leadership (his whole raison d'être is to humanize his friend after all), so it fits pretty well. And poor Biff. He's constantly accused of being dense, which he may have been—willfully—but it comes through that it's really his annoyingness that made the writers of the original gospels ignore his contributions. That's tragic enough, but among all of them, he was clearly the most loyal, and clearly understood Jesus/Joshua far beyond the capability of the rest. And he is the one whose passion for the guy prevented him from buying in at the very end, his wisdom to challenge the truth and the justice of it only left him out-saved by an endless bunch of simpleton zealots. Biff at least, with a chance to tell his story, is given a touching second go.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this one and agree that the Gospel section at the end was perhaps the least satisfying. I didn't love the angel interaction sections and wasn't surprised by the reunion with MM. Overall a fun read.

-Erin, who can't be bothered to log in today as bright.

Keifus said...

I'm thrilled you liked it!