Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Christopher Moore's pacing, rhythm off in new novel
PROLIFIC American fantasist Christopher Moore's new novel is being sold as a thriller, a mystery, a comedy, a love story and an art history lesson mixed together. It is none of the above.
Too slow-paced to be a thriller, lacking the momentum of a mystery, mean-spirited enough to obscure its occasional humour, too misogynistic to pass as a love story and mostly devoid of factual art history, Sacre Bleu is an imposter of a good impasto.
The title is a play on the notion that the difficult and expensive-to-craft paint colour blue possesses some sort of mystical and magical attributes.
Formerly made of the blue mineral, lapis lazuli, the pigment contains sulphur, silicate and sodium aluminum. Moore's novel contains four "interludes in blue," wherein he provides some perspective on the colour's religious association and its prevalence in representations of the Virgin Mary. The word sacre, used in the French exclamation sacre bleu, also expresses irreverence and surprise. Blue, then, can signify holiness or sacrilege.
Set mostly in Paris at the end of the 19th century, the book takes the odd detour into ancient, even prehistoric times (one chapter is set in 38,000 BCE France), in an effort to illustrate the way in which the colour blue has both inspired and tormented artists throughout time.
The colour is the novel's main character, embodied in the shape-shifting, time-travelling, red-haired ("therefore, evil") woman, Bleu, who works in cahoots with "the Colourman," from whom the painters must procure their drug: the colour blue.
Bleu's common attributes over centuries are her colouring and her role as painter's muse and downfall. An occasional painter herself, Bleu recognizes that this talent must go unrealized in each incarnation since women "didn't paint, and if they did, they weren't recognized for it."
The men, therefore, are the unbalanced heroes of Moore's imaginative, yet unsettling and ill-tempered glimpse into the self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing Parisian art scene in the late 1890s.
Aspiring painter Lucien Lessard is primarily a baker, working in his family bakeshop, where his caustic, sometimes violent mother tests the quality of the French baguettes by whacking Lucien in the ear. Lessard is, perhaps, the most sympathetic of Moore's decidedly unappealing cast of characters.
If the novel possesses a saving grace (and everything is relative), it is in the off-balance, physically small in scale, mostly fictional, representation of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Well-known for his colour lithographs depicting Montmartre actors, music-hall singers, prostitutes and waitresses, Henri here is of an offhandedly funny, perpetually drunk libertine, determined to uncover Bleu's shamanic secret.
The time period in which the San Francisco-based Moore sets the bizarre tale is replete with an array of talented artists. He paints them all with the same tormented brush, however; whether or not this is mostly an accurate representation is impossible to establish. Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Whistler, Seurat, Degas and Renoir are some of the self-absorbed, obsessive group in which Moore places the murderous muse, Bleu. Although the painters produce some of their most famous works under her intoxicating influence, most of them pay for the public recognition with their lives.
It isn't just that the characters, themselves, are disagreeable, it is Moore's arrogant tone as well. Having sympathy for either the sometimes revered, often demonized Bleu, or any of the tormented, desperate painters portrayed in the novel is next to impossible.
Moore has a dozen novels already under his belt -- You Suck (2007) and Fool (2009) are among the better known -- but his pacing, unity and rhythm here are unbalanced. There is no thriller contained in a tale about a group of self-aggrandizing male painters bent on self-destruction; there is no love story in this dark depiction of artistic inspiration; there is no art history lesson in fabrication; no comedy exists in a bad plot.
Elizabeth Hopkins is a Winnipeg writer.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 J7
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