Friday, October 28, 2005

Tales of the Blue Bear

When I was a little kid, about ages four and five, one of my best friends was another boy named Brendan. He was, and quite possibly still is, the best storyteller and most convincing liar I've ever known.

Once when I was visiting him he convinced me dinosaurs lived under his house, and the little hill in his front yard came from a Tyrannosaurus rex bumping his head. The dinosaurs hid underground during the day but prowled the neighborhood at night; the only way to keep them at bay was to have a red-colored night light shining in your bedroom. Otherwise, you'd become a nice midnight snack for something large and reptilian. Now I knew dinosaurs were extinct. And I knew the probability that some small contingent of them living under Brendan's house was pretty small, but he told it so well I believed him. I used that damn red night light for weeks. He even had the ability to convince himself of ridiculous things. I remember one hot summer week spent digging a hole in his backyard because Brendan convinced us that we all wanted to go to China. And Brendan worked harder at it than anyone else.

The title character in Walter Moers’s fabulous illustrated novel The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear is much like my old friend Brendan. Bluebear is, quite simply, a walking, talking bear with blue fur. A blue bear, as we are told on the first page, lives for 27 years and this novel is a first person account of Bluebear's first 13 1/2 lives. Each "life" is a stage in his growth and works like a fable with a little lesson. But don't worry. These aren't preachy little fables with some old man with aa long beard scolding you at the end. These are fables of monsters who fatten up their victims with fabulous food for months before eating them. Fables of city-sized, smoke belching battleships cruising the high seas. Fables of....

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The book opens with Bluebear's first memory: as a cub, floating with nothing more than a nutshell as his life-raft, he heads straight for a giant whirlpool threatening to suck him down into oblivion. Suddenly, he's saved by a boatload of liliputian pirates who teach him everything you could ever want to know about sailing. From there he enters into a lifetime (okay, 13 1/2 lifetimes) filled with humor and bizarre adventures. One part Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth and two parts Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the novel mixes fantasy, science fiction, and tall tales into a wonderfully satirical cocktail you can't help but gulp down. Traveling through a land called Zamonia, a lost continent floating somewhere on the planet Earth, he encounters headless giants, pterodactyls who fly around saving people from otherwise certain death, and a giant spider who lures in its prey through fabulously convincing illusions. Many of the stories are improbable, in fact downright unbelievable, but Bluebear's wry and sly storyteller's voice, much like my friend Brendan's, makes you want to believe so much that you can't help but buy every little thing the hirsute adventurer is selling you.

There is much to entertain here; Moers’s wild imagination and fun wordplay have an almost childlike whimsy that remind me why exactly I love reading. Although much of the book walks the line between YA and adult, Moers works in enough depth to entertain the most disbelieving adults. The writing is definitely strong enough to carry itself, but coming from a comic book background Moers also includes black and white illustrations that enhance the whimsical nature of the story.

With so many little side trips to Bluebear's narrative, the story might frustrate those eager for an easy to follow, straght-lined plot. But this is not that kind of story. This is the kind of story you have to sit back and enjoy, no matter where it takes you. It does, eventually, tie together all the loose threads in a number of fun ways, re-using characters from past adventures and forcing Bluebear to use skills he learned earlier. This is truest in the city of Atlantis, where Bluebear becomes a professional story teller. Pulling from all his past adventures, his wild imagination and natural gift for drama Bluebear competes in slam-style competitions for money and fame. He's wildly successful, besting all challengers quite easily until he's faced with his idol, a half-man half-fox creature who returns to competing after a lengthy retirement

After developing a strong cult following both in Moer's native Germany and the U.K., there's now a movie in the works and a second book on the way. With the first book finally coming to the U.S. there are likely to be many more joining me in this joyous, guilty reading pleasure.


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