When the world is too much with us, some escapist reading can transport us to cloud nine or the ninth circle of hell. Taking a different slant in its own refuge from the headlines, The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear comes dressed to the nines in a ripped- from-the-funnies flight of near-Icarian fancy.
A bestseller in Europe and translated from the German, cartoonist and writer Walter Moers’ picaresque and illustrated all-ages adventure makes up a diversionary “demibiography” of a smarter than the average azure-furred bear who lights out for the territories of Zamonia, an imaginatively mythic and measureless-to-man land of providence and cliffhanging peril.
A hit-and-miss and heady brew of fantasy, folk lore, science fiction, myth and Klingon Dictionary of sorts, the alternately inspired and derivative “Bluebear” contains the requisite Jungian archetypes and the Joseph Campbell line of heroic journey as the author borrows a little here, a little there with rinse-and-repeat appropriations and evocations of Harry Potter, Homer, all things Tolkein and Swift, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Wizard of Oz, and Monty Python.
But a little goes a long-winded way with more than 700 minutiae-saddled pages, interspersed with entries from the fabled Encyclopedia of Marvels, Life Forms and Other Phenomena of Zamonia and Its Environs, and with illustrations loosely and serviceably Seussian. In an inconsistently scattershot and wide-eyed, serpentine negotiation through a “tale of mortal danger and eternal love, of hair’s-breadth, last-minute escapes,” we encounter such preternaturally Category 5 forces and otherworldly locales as the Eternal Tornado, the Cogitating Quicksand, dimensional hiatuses, the Captive Mirage, the Infurno and the Valley of Discarded Ideas. And we meet such featured creatures and entities as the Babbling Billows, the Professor With Seven Brains, the Headless Bollogg, the Bolloggless Head, rampaging Mountain Dwarves, the Sewer Dragon, Time- Snails and the Voltigorkian Vibrobassists.
There’s a good chance that Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds is there, too, along with the Emperor of Ice Cream and the Desolate Badlands of the Full Eighteen-Minute In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Wandering this wonderland, our brave-hearted blue bear, named, in a masterstroke of unoriginality, Bluebear, begins life – or, more accurately, begins his first life – as a Lilliputian creature abandoned and floating on the high seas in a walnut shell. Soon enough, it’s a Minipirates life for Bluebear, until he physically outgrows the bite-size beaucoup buccaneers and in short order is marooned, takes up with the Hobgoblin crowd and eventually finds himself enjoying a deceptively tranquil and nearly deadly stint on Gourmet Island, which ultimately becomes a savage place, a land of disenchantment.
It is at this point that the narrative’s largely forced whimsy gives way to its first burst of all-out inventiveness as Bluebear, his life in jeopardy, is dutifully rescued in the proverbial nick of time, deus ex machina style, by Deus X. Machina — nicknamed Mac — a flying, reptilian Pterodactylus Salvator. Unfortunately, Mac’s eyesight is failing, so he has a can’t-refuse job offer for Bluebear to become his navigator.
“You’ll get to see something of the world,” explains Mac, “Dramatic, last minute rescues, beautiful damsels in dire peril – things like that. What do you say?” Sold! Bluebear signs on, taking to the air as well as he had the water.
After a successful foray in aeronautic aid, the next major life change for the title character comes with his stay in the Gloomberg Mountains, where he makes lives-long friends such as Querty, the Gelatine Prince From the 2364th Dimension, who is “as transparent as a jelly,” and Fredda the 400-Year-Old Alpine Imp, whose true ugliness is concealed beneath a mass of densely matted hair. Here, Bluebear is enrolled in Professor Nightingale’s Nocturnal Academy to learn not only such essentials as darknessology, Zamonian poetry and Grailsundian Demonism, but also to become a walking encyclopedia who could “calculate the hourly expansion of the universe by observing the oscillations of the Gloomberg algal cell, replace a dislodged auditory ossicle with pincers, determine the blood group of a fossil insect by means of ommateal diagnosis, and gauge the number of animalcules in a glass of water from their weight — with my eyes shut.”
Figuring things out in the dark comes in handy when, his education complete, our forlorn hero must make his way to the outside world via a dank, dark maze of a tunnel. There, the Subterranean Homesick Bluebear encounters for the first time his nemesis, the wily Trogrotroll, a self-confessed “repulsive, warty, hairy creature with evil intentions! An object of universal loathing! A social outcast!” And loaded for bear, to boot.
Unexpectedly, Bluebear’s encyclopedic knowledge, along with his personal past, also serves him well in the one of the episodic novel’s few sustained stretches of edge-of-your-seat suspense and entertainment, largely absent of the Encyclopedia of Marvels fragments that often impede the narrative flow. A mid-existence crisis has Bluebear locked in a marathon Duel of Lies “congladiator” contest — a speechifying smackdown that smacks of American tall tales in-the-round. Here, Bluebear the Invincible is pitted against the legendary Nussram Fhakir the Unique, who is a Vulphead — a creature with a human body and the head of a fox. For Bluebear it’s a challenging give-and-take tug of verbal war with the inventor of, among other ploys, the “Twin Untenability, a con trick roughly comparable to performing a double somersault without a net or looping the loop blindfolded.”
From fun and games to frenzied denouement: No sooner is the fib fest finished than all heaven and hell breaks loose in apocalyptic and edenic splendor, abounding in allusions literary and cinematic, pop cultural and philosophical. The consequent pandemonium conjures in cartoonish fashion Dante, alchemy, Rube Goldberg, a Fellini- esque fun-house, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Woody Allen’s Sleeper, myths Greek and Grail, and a new twist on the legend of Atlantis. And if the penultimate possibility of the “longest journey ever undertaken” comes with seemingly far-fetched suggestions of the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult and Jonestown massacre, and questions as to whether Bluebear will climb aboard the Mothership or drink the Kool-Aid, well, blame or credit the piling-on of the kitchen-sink, coo-coo-crazy creativity of “Captain Bluebear” for stirring up a little armchair imagination of its own.
Moer’s stylistically erratic and structurally lopsided work, then, sees the story’s most cohesive and compelling moments – moments that tie up many loose ends and resolve some issues – coming in the last couple hundred pages, spanning the main character’s 12th, 13th and, oh yes, extra half life. But you really don’t know the half of it: A blue bear actually has 27 lives, but our erstwhile ursine idol surmises that he’ll just “recount thirteen- and-a-half of them in this book but keep quiet about the rest. A bear must have his secrets, after all; they make him seem attractive and mysterious.”
And, without the additional 700 pages, actually more bearable. Indeed, this tell-all tome could have used a bit more mystique mixed with the magic, with so-much so-what shoulder shrug fodder bogging down and detracting from the more fun displays of wit and wordplay legerdemain. Indeed, the Editor With Seven Brains would seem to be in order here, or a trip to the Valley of Discarded Ideas.
Around about Bluebear’s ninth life you may be wishing our hero was a blue cat instead. And don’t bears, even blue bears, hibernate? That could’ve saved some paper and print. As it is, though, the quirkily kaleidoscopic details get so belabored and excessive at times that, in an epic for kids of all ages like this, your inner child, if not sufficiently Ritalin-riddled, will be getting itchy for the ending: Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
Particularly when things go from the ridiculous (got musical instruments “made of milk”? a two-page salute to dumplings?) to — well, never really sublime, but in fits and starts, escapist enough.
From one moment to the next they calmed down, put their crests together, and went into huddle.
“I don’t feel like tormenting him.”
“Neither do I, I’m too upset. It’s strange, but … well, somehow I feel like helping him.”
The other wave shook itself a little. “Yes, me too! An odd sensation, isn’t it?”
“Very odd, but interesting, too, somehow. Crazy and novel and quite unprecedented!” the other wave repeated enthusiastically. “Yes, but how can we help him? What on earth can we do?”
They continued to circle my raft, deep in thought.
“I’ve got it!” cried the first wave. “We’ll teach him to speak!”
“You think we could?” the second wave said doubtfully. “He looks a bit retarded to me.”
One of them sloshed right up to me. “Say `Ah,’ ” it commanded, looking deep into my eyes and extending a seawater tongue.
“Ah,” I said.
“You see!” it cried. “Anyone who can say `Ah’ can learn to say `binomial coefficient’ in no time at all!”
* * * * *
When you tumble into a dimensional hiatus you fall in every direction at once: down and up, right and left, north and south, east and west. You also fall through time, not only in reverse but also at twice the speed of light, following a trajectory known as the Nightingalian octaval loop. Professor Nightingale was the first – as usual – to describe this phenomenon. The Nightingalian octaval loop should be conceived of as a double loop in the shape of an eightfold figure of eight of which one-eighth is situated in space, one-eighth in time, and the remaining six-eighths in the other six dimensions. This means that, while falling, you’re everywhere in the universe at every point in time.