The Short Version: Vincent van Gogh dies under mysterious circumstances. Most assume that the already-kinda-crazy painter had simply lost it for real – but his friends and contemporaries in Paris aren’t so sure. As Lucien Lessard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec begin to look into it, they discover a conspiracy of sorts that surrounds the greatest painters of all time, their muses, and one particular color: the sacred blue.
The Review: You know, Christopher Moore is one of the funniest novelists writing today. Lamb is, without doubt, one of the most hilarious novels I’ve ever read. So let me get it out of the way: this novel isn’t really that funny. Sure, there are plenty of sassy remarks and even a few good laugh-out-loud-ers. But I’d say it isn’t really a comedy, despite its subtitle. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, just an observation. Come for Moore’s wit but don’t expect it to be one of those gut-busters.
So, then. Now that we’ve cleared that up: what is this novel? I’d say it’s a mystery, more than anything else. Driven home by a tossed-off comment near the end of the novel, about how Lucien and Henri are bumbling fools and should read “that new Conan Doyle fellow” to learn how to be a detective, I think this was a mystery more than anything else. Or at least, that’s what it wanted to be. The question that drives our heroes at the beginning is “what really happened to van Gogh?” but the mystery shifts to “where did my girlfriend go?” and “what the hell is happening to all of us?” – and I have to say that this hazy focus was a distraction. The novel, clocking in around 400 pages, probably could’ve been a hundred pages shorter had it tightened its focus a little bit. I honestly wanted it to be more about “what happened to van Gogh” – a question which was answered rather quickly.
Here’s the thing: Moore comes up with a rather curious and damned original rationale for why so many artists a) died young and b) went some kind of crazy. Anyone who’s ever created something knows what can happen when you get caught up in an artistic rapture – time seems to expand, you forget about eating and hygiene, etc etc… and then you wake up with a novel in your hands and 15 missed calls from your mother. Moore’s hypothesis is not all that ‘original’, although it’s sadly gone out of vogue and I appreciate him bringing it back: the idea of the Muse. Bleu, as she’s called, is just that (and this shouldn’t really be a spoiler to anyone, it’s kind of obvious within about 15 pages that there’s plenty of supernatural mumbojumbo going on) and so that’s pretty damn cool. Her ‘handler’, the Colorman, is an intriguing idea of a villain although in the end he’s a little predictable.
Mostly, the story itself is predictable. The fun comes from seeing the greatest painters perhaps of all time – and their paintings are, wonderfully, displayed throughout the book itself – show up in fantastical circumstances. The scene where Lucien goes out to visit Monet was sun-drenched and gorgeous. The way Moore lovingly describes Montmartre – the Montmartre of the late 1800s – is a fantastic addition to that age-old canon of “those who love Paris”. There’s something magical about that city before the wars, before modernity. And Moore decides to take the magic a little further by actually making there be magic. Well, at least a magical spirit. Goddess, if you will.
I’ll also mention this: the ink is slightly blue. Not just the titles or anything – but the whole book is printed in a dark blue ink. Moore’s publishers (in this case, the folks at William Morrow – who sent me this book a while ago and I’m sorry I’ve just got round to it now) are the greatest for going the extra step with his novels. Lamb has that wonderful looks-like-a-Bible version and this, with the blue ink and the full-color paintings, are reasons to keep the book-as-object alive. You wouldn’t get the same experience if you read it on your Kindle.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Sadly not a whole lot to say, really. I enjoyed the book – but felt that it was just unfocused. It was funny, but it didn’t split my sides. It was original, though. I will say that: Moore has a rampant imagination and even when it doesn’t quite coalesce into something truly wonderful, it’s still a good time for all.