Book Review 21: A whale of a tale

"You know, I sure wish I could figure out why these guys sing," Nate said, the hummingbird of his mind having tasted all the flowers in the garden to return to that one plastic daisy that would just not give up the nectar.

Page 7

"Fluke: Or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings" is a fun Christopher Moore novel. This time, instead of California, Las Vegas, and the South Pacific, Moore takes us to the Hawaiian islands for his English bending tale of whale songs.

Dr. Nate Quinn is a marine biologist who longs to understand why humpback whales sing. Amy Earnhardt is the young, able, and nubile assistant that Quinn can't get out of his head. Clay Demodocus, Quinn's research partner is less of a scientist and more of a documentarian. While Quinn does the science, Clay manages the operation. Rounding out the main cast is Kona, a white Rastafarian kid from New Jersey who at any given time has more THC than DNA in his body. Joining them is an assortment of neighboring researchers, tourists, interns, military men, sponsors and ex-wives.

The story gets off to a quick start when Quinn, out on the water with Amy, (and feeling terribly guilty for his impure thoughts) spots odd markings on a whale's fin that appear to say, "Bite Me." When they return to base, Quinn and Amy discover their research facility has been trashed, and the mysteries begin.

For a while the story slows to a crawl. The first hundred pages or so have a lot of background and tangents that are entertaining, but Moore spends too much time here. After a rocky start, though, the book and story pick up their pace and the plot starts moving forward again.

Once things start moving, the novel is filled with inventive twists and turns that in unexpected ways are reminiscent of "The Matrix" trilogy. The story moves through some complex mythology, always advancing the plot and finally concludes with a surprisingly satisfying ending.

This is an important point. I am often critical of the way authors wrap up books. It's kind of a pet peeve of mine. I like a story that actually wraps up most of my loose ends, and doesn't leave me asking, "What the hell just happened?"

Moore does a great job of avoiding those pitfalls. The book ends in a way that is logically, creatively, and emotionally satisfying.

One of the great things about a Moore novel is the way he plays with language, and "Fluke" is no different in that regard. He explores the subtle nuance of words and combines them with pedestrian imagery that brings great clarity to some otherwise cloudy concepts. For example:

"Ooo ahe-e, I aya oa a," she said in yawnspeak, a language -- not unlike Hawaiian -- known for its paucity of consonants. (You go ahead, I'm okay she was saying.)

Page 128

Pondering is a little like considering and a little like thinking, but looser. To ponder, one must let the facts roll around the rim of the mind's roulette wheel, coming to settle in whichever slot they feel pulled to. Margaret and Libby were scientists, used to jamming their facts into the appropriate slots as quickly as possible, and Kona, …well, a thought rolling around in his mind was rather like a tennis ball in a coffee can -- it was just a little too fuzzy to make any impact…

Page 200

Moore likes to de-romanticize things. This novel is strong in "Save the Whales" ethos, but he doesn't praise the animals as brilliant, misunderstood creatures to be exalted. They are animals. Fascinating animals for sure, but animals nonetheless. When we get a peek into a whale's thought stream, it rarely goes beyond food. And even when we aren't in the whale's head, we still see it as a simple beast.

Humpbacks, like their other rorqual brothers -- the streamlined blue, fin, sei, minke, and Byrd's whales -- were just too fast to catch in sailing ships and man-powered whaling boats. No, the whalers came to Lahaina to rest and recreate along their way to Japanese waters where they hunted the great sperm whale, who would literally float there like a big, dumb log while you rowed up to it and stuck a harpoon in its head.

Page 12

Male lead characters in Moore novels are often fairly similar. They have above average intelligence, but they are always in slightly over their heads in their everyday lives. Then, when the action of Moore's absurd stories kicks in, the characters are in way over their heads.

Generally, it seems what they could most use is a good nap.

The female characters are often stronger, more self assured, and a bit crazy. They usually intimidate the males.

When talking about his assistant, Quinn thinks:

She's so small, yet she contains so much evil, Quinn thought.

Page 110

He doesn’t think this out of spite. It's more a sense of, "What have I gotten myself into?"

The world of Fluke is absurd, but we accept it.

"…It's seven below Fahrenheit here. I'm out installing bloody sound buoys in a monthlong blizzard to keep right whales from getting run over by supertankers."

"Right, the sound buoys. How are those working out?"

"They're not."

"No? Why not?"

"Well, right whales are stupid as shit, aren't they? It's not like a supertanker is quiet. If sound was going to deter them, then they be bloody well deterred by the engine noise, wouldn't the? They don't make the connection. Stupid shits."

"Oh, sorry to hear that. Uh, why keep doing it then?"

"We have funding."

Page 158 - 159

This is one of my favorite passages. It combines the put upon male character, with an absurd situation, and a simple, beautiful use of the language.

Since his mother had passed away, Clay had taken the bearing of bad news very seriously -- so seriously in fact, that he usually let someone else do the bearing. He'd been in Antarctica on assignment for National Science, snowed in at the naval weather station for six months when his mother, still in Greece, had gone missing. She was seventy-five, and the villagers knew she couldn't have gone far, yet, search as they might, they did not find her for three days. Finally, her location was revealed by her ripening odor. They found her dead in an olive tree, where she had climbed to do some pruning. Clay's older brothers, Hektor and Sidor, would not hold the funeral without Clay, the baby, yet they knew their brother would be completely out of touch for months. "He is the rich American," came their ouzo-besotted lament. "He should take care of Moma. Perhaps he will even fly us to America for the funeral." And so the two brothers, having inherited their mother's weakness for alcohol and their father's bad judgment, packed the remains of Mother Demodocus in an olive barrel, filled the barrel with the preserving brine, and shipped it off to their rich younger brother's house in San Diego. The problem was, in their grief (or perhaps it was their stupor) they forgot to send a letter, leave a message, or, for that matter, put a packing label on the barrel, so months later, when Clay returned to find the barrel on his porch, he broke into it thinking he was about to enjoy a delicious snack of Kalamata olives from home. It was not the way to find out about his mother's death, and it engendered in Clay very strong views about loyalty and the bearing of bad news.

Page 122 - 123

The problem I have with this novel, is in first third of it. Moore takes too long to get into the plot, and, while I enjoyed learning about these people, I was waiting for something to actually happen to our apparently stalked scientists. There is no hint of what direction the book is going in the beginning. Once we get there and the plot really begins, the surprises are exciting, but it require a little too much perseverance to get there.

Also in the first few chapters, More refers to the characters by several different names. Sometimes he uses a first name in his narration, sometimes a last name, sometimes a nickname, etc. Since the characters are still being introduced at this point, it gets a bit confusing, and I found myself flipping back pages at a time to figure out who was who.

Since Moore is telling the story through the eyes of different characters, it makes sense that the way someone is referred to would change, but there must be a more elegant and simple way to do it. Perhaps later in the book it wouldn't matter as much. But early on, it gave me some trouble.

Those issues aside, "Fluke" is an entertaining ride. It has all the trademark weirdness you'd expect from Christopher Moore. The twists in the story are great, and it kept catching me off guard. The language is beautiful, and the characters likable.

If you are willing to push through the first 100 pages of character development and stage setting, you will be well rewarded.

My other Christopher Moore book reviews are here:

Practical Demon Keeping
Coyote Blue

Other book reviews are here.

1 comment:

Book Calendar said...

Christopher Moore is very cool. He has a lot of recurring characters in his novels. One of my favorites is Emperor Norton of San Francisco who is basically a kind of supernatural homeless guy. The last book I read by Christopher Moore was You Suck. I also read Coyote Blue. A lot of his novels are about tricking the bad guys to win. His novels are quite funny. I'll probably end up reading this one.