Two common techniques in comedy are the telescope and the microscope. What this bit of comedy shorthand refers to is the simple device of either taking a minute event and expanding it beyond proportion for a comic effect or taking an epic story and reducing to the mundane for comic results. A classic example of the telescope is Alexander Pope’s “‘Rape of the Locke”, which rewrites a card game and a stolen lock of hair as an epic poem. Alternatively, the Seinfeld episode that reduces the JFK assassination to an incident of Keith Hernandez spitting on Kramer uses the microscope to full effect.
Over the course of eight novels Christopher Moore has developed a loyal fan base by applying these devices to the genres of horror and fantasy. In his books, supernaturals like demons and vampires have been forced to struggle through life in our modern world as they hold down cruddy jobs and search for love. In A Dirty Job, the personification of Death suffers the daily grind in 21st century San Francisco. The story gets a little high concept.
Charlie Asher is grieving for the loss of wife who died during the birth of their daughter. Shortly after her death, Charlie begins to notice a lot of other people dying around him. When they die, objects in their vicinity begin to glow red. It turns out that Charlie is a death merchant and these glowing red items contain the soul of the deceased. Their souls rest there until another soulless body reclaims it or until the soul is spiritually evolved enough to transcend to the afterlife. Charlie has to protect these souls from the dark forces of the underworld.
Rewriting Death as a fairly wimpy second hand storeowner provides plenty of laughs in the telescope vein. He is described as a Beta male and definitely not an Alpha male but he now holds the power of the afterlife. As well, the Forces of Darkness microscope it up and deliver solid gags as they bicker amongst themselves and forget that they have started to repeat threats. One of them continually threatens to make a basket from Charlie’s entrails to carry Charlie’s severed head around in and is disturbed as the shock value of the image begins to wear off. The rest of the characters are fun and quirky and seem to be created with a real sense of affection that makes them fully realized. Moore has a knack for quick clever dialogue, vividly absurd similes, and stretching a running gag to its farthest possible reaches. With a joke to page ratio this high, a lot of smiling will be done while reading, and maybe even some bona fide out loud laughing.
Elsewhere, it begins to feel too much. The subplot involving strange squirrel creatures that wear odd outfits like ball gowns or go-go boots enters in the realm of forced wackiness and one character is named Minty Fresh for no apparent reason other than it sounds funny to name him after toothpaste.
However, the jokes that don’t work are of little consequence. Move on to the next paragraph and there is probably a joke that you will like. In many ways, A Dirty Job is like a Ben Stiller movie in convenient book form. It’s pretty easy to see where it’s going but you have a good time because it works often enough to make the investment worthwhile.
This workman-like humour is the reason to pick up A Dirty Job, but the book cannot be completely written off as purely mindless entertainment. All of Moore’s novels contain a strange religious element to them. (It is amazing that Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal never received any protests from religious groups.) Underneath all the puns and silliness there is a meditation on the soul. The people in this book have literally placed their souls in material objects. Sometimes there is a sweetness to this like the pincushion that contains a woman’s soul because it reminded her of her grandmother. In these cases, it isn’t an endorsement of material objects but rather an observation that death is inevitable and reasons for living can be found in tiny daily joys. Other times it takes on a darkness as people’s souls are wrapped up in clothing and silicone breast implants.
The saddest observation though, is that most of the people Charlie encounters have no souls at all. At one point he estimates that there must be millions of people wandering the earth without souls. Since this book is a comedy, things must end happily and Moore turns that statement into something optimistic. The people in this book are not born with souls. They must discover their souls. They must nurture them and earn them. That piece of morality is the soul at the centre of this very funny book.
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