- by Carol Standish
If you haven’t read Fluke by Christopher Moore (Harper Collins Perennial, 314 pp, $13.95) now (deep winter) is the time. It will carry you off to the always warm and hospitable Hawaiian Islands, bobbing you along in the sun with a bunch of amiable and easy-going whale researchers as they record whale song. When you’re appropriately soothed and basking it will then plunge you into an under-water world both cool and scary.
The main human character, marine behavioral biologist Nate Quinn is introduced as a calm reasonable guy, as are his fellow “action nerds” so the reader is lulled into thinking that the book’s title refers solely to the tails of his subject species and that nothing preposterous is going to happen. Nate is simply going to fall happily in love with his research assistant (with the cute bottom) and together, after a few dicey and hair-raising adventures, will find the answer to his research question: why do the whales sing?
Moore has forewarned the reader, however, that there are no fewer than four definitions of the word fluke, only two of which relate to the cetacean. The other two definitions refer to chance—a stroke of good luck or a chance occurrence, an accident.
The accidents encountered by our rational, methodical heroes slowly become more and more bizarre-o until Nate is gobbled up by a whale and finds himself in conversation with a disembodied voice speaking English while he’s being squeezed through the whale’s baleen. Admittedly, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief falters at this point and has to shift gears as the balance of the book blossoms into a pure fantasy world of the enveloping quality reminiscent of Ursula LeGuin.
The novel is pure escape and much, much more. Part fantasy, part literary spoof of such classic seas yarns as Jonah, Moby and 20,000 Leagues, part silly-raunchy sex romp, part social commentary, told with a combination of sneaky satirical and slapstick humor which implies that we’re all teetering on the cusp of being too stupid to be alive. Author, Christopher Moore is at once, humorist. satirist, ironist, spoofer, very possibly, a connoisseur spliff-smoker. How else could he think such whacky stuff up?
“The whale was into…a long series of whoops that sounded like an ambulance driving through pudding.” The research vessels used by our heroes are named Constantly Baffled and Always Confused. A competing researcher, standing on the bow of his Zodiac looks like “a skeletal statue of Washington crossing the Lethe.” Chapters have titles like “The Inner Secrets of Cetacean Sluts” and “Motherfluker.” And so on.
Some of the most preposterous scenes are based on actual fact which further blurs the line between fantasy and reality. “Many of the research anecdotes…were fashioned out of the stories told to me by the researchers themselves,” admits author Moore who rode on a research boat in Maui for two seasons. He cites the story of female right whale who swam under the researcher’s Zodiac and positioned it on her body as a barrier to the sexual assaults of the amorous males pursuing her. In the novel, this scene, hilariously exaggerated, has sexual repercussions for the female researcher in the Zodiac.
Fluke is the best kind of entertainment. Moore’s strongest comic relief character, the white Rastafarian from New Jersey is so energetically and endearingly drawn that the more conservative characters, even the bad guys would pale if it weren’t for the soup of situational comedy they struggle in. Moore is definitely not afraid to be goofy, but while he and the reader are having fun, a message is seeping in, “shut up and stop killing whales.” And Moore has helpfully appended a mini-essay on how to do that at the end of the novel.