"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Potent Quality of 'Sacré Bleu'

Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'ArtSacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art by Christopher Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the most profound moments of my creative development was attending a Vincent Van Gogh exhibit in Los Angeles during a college choir trip. You haven’t fully experienced a Van Gogh painting until you’ve seen the canvas in person. So whenever I encounter something Van Gogh related, I take special notice. Author Christopher Moore gave a great interview about his novel Sacré Bleu on NPR and I resolved to buy the book. To my delight, I scored a signed first edition from my local bookstore. More on that later.

Sacré Bleu portrays Van Gogh as a murder victim. But this is not a conspiracy work in the pseudoscientific sense. (Moore makes clear in his Afterword that Vincent indeed shot himself in real life.) Van Gogh’s death is only the catalyst for a novel that sports equal parts fantasy and murder mystery. And it is in those realms where the novel excels. Hastened along by crisp and witty dialogue, Sacré Bleu never stops feeling amusing, even during moments of high drama. The author describes it best; this book is a “dark little fairy tale of the color blue.”

That summation is a key point in assessing the book’s merits. The main character is not Van Gogh. Instead the leading presence remains the color blue. On a related note, given this book drips with oily pretension, it makes me chuckle to say I loved the pictures. My hardcover edition includes relevant paintings from many of the greats of Impressionism. Each painting provides a new layer of intrigue to the plot. History and art make significant guest appearances, but they remain supporting characters in this loose and bawdy tale.

This brings me to Sacré Bleu's chief drawbacks. Unless you are exceptionally well-versed in the history and artists (Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc.), you are likely to miss much of Moore’s historical nuance. I did. The only reason I know it’s there is I read Moore’s enlightening Afterword. Nuance out of reach is nuance that does not add measurably to one’s enjoyment of a book.

More critically, Sacré Bleu presented me with a cast of characters that the author, through an authoritative main character, describes as “whining narcissists.” As this main character and I agree, associating with them makes for “long periods of suffering and neglect…” With some wonderful exceptions, much of this book comes across as impersonal narrative whimsy. It’s clever and lively, but I never felt closer than arm’s-length to the material.

Still, I love owning a signed first edition of Sacré Bleu. As I type, I keep peeking over at it. A metallic blue dust jacket presents the title in a bold mustard yellow font. This feels appropriately flagrant. Ironically, by only protecting half the book the dust jacket proves twice as useful. The front cover becomes a striptease by a mysterious woman painted in various shades of blue. Inside, there is an intricate period map of Paris and a range of inviting bluish fonts on rough-edged paper. Eat your hearts out readers of e-books. And kudos to designer Jamie Lynn Kerner. There is no substitute for being in the room with a blue-adorned work of art. Long live ultramarine!

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