Such is the dilemma posed by Gideon Defoe's farcical romp The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics. ("Romp" is one of those book-review words I try to avoid, but it's totes appropes in this case. As is "rollicking.") It's actually the fifth book in a series that somehow no one told me about--if you're my friend, and you knew about these books, and you didn't tell me? ANATHEMA--all following the adventures of a band of buccaneers as they meet various historical/fictional figures (Darwin, Ahab, Marx, Napoleon). This time around, in need of funds, the crew and their Captain answer a classified ad in a Swiss paper requesting "Exotic adventure! Should contain romantic elements, mild peril, and foreign travel," and find themselves at the Villa Diodati . . . occupied, of course, by Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Lord Byron, the latter introduced thusly:
Across the room a strapping man with a cascade of wavy black hair so shiny it looked like it had been conditioned in something really expensive, like lobster sweat or dolphin's eggs, balanced on the balustrade of an ornate balcony. The sudden appearance of a pirate didn't seem to bother him at all. He furrowed his brow, and held up two billowy shirts. "Which one do you think would look best on my shattered, yet still unfeasibly dashing corpse?"I've made no secret of my love of fictionalized Byron (nor my desire to punch the real Byron in his stupid face), and Defoe's portrayal of him as a goofy, melodramatic, jovial fellow--author of a quarterly newsletter of his own exploits entitled Young, Brooding, and Doomed--is absolutely priceless.
Romantics in tow, along with Charles Babbage of difference engine fame, the crew investigates the Captain's mysterious belly tattoo, chases a lost Platonic dialogue, visits a spooky castle in Romania (despite a brochure in which the South-Eastern Romania Tourist Authority "recommends travellers visit the new log flume at Carphatifun Land" instead), and takes every opportunity to dress up in ridiculous costume--for instance, they meet Babbage disguised as a bunch of nannies, except for the Captain, who goes with "sexy fireman." Meanwhile, Mary and the Captain bond over their fandom for monster fiction--she's working on a tale about a half-man, half-kelp creature--and maybe fall in love?
But plot--fun as it is--is naturally secondary here. The real star is Defoe's madcap comic prose, right up there with Douglas Adams for sheer delight. Here, let me pick a random page, and I'll find something to bust a gut over (seriously, the apartment is splattered with viscera). OK, p. 98! "'A man with my hair and physique mustn't trouble himself with numbers. They're literally poison to me. Did I ever tell you how I once caught consumption simply from being in the same room as a times table?'" P. 230: "Some of the pirates had other suggestions, but they were mostly serving suggestions for boiled hams, and so not particularly helpful at this time. Byron announced he was going to go be moody in the kitchen." P. 151: "Please note, I shall occasionally employ the myth of Orpheus to illustrate my passage into the academic underworld. I realise you pirates may not be familiar with the classics, so I've brought along some copies of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Share if there aren't enough to go around. No, there aren't any pictures. Yes, it's in Latin. What? You can't read Ovid in translation! Well, just listen then."
Oh, and that table of contents? Bonus story told through chapter headings for an elementary Russian textbook ("Unit Two: Basic Grammar--Boris and Anna Take the Subway Together"). And a list of entirely hypothetical illustrations ('Fig 1: The Bering Land Bridge at the last glacial maximum, as reconstructed from the latest research. Fig 2: Vin Diesel in "The Pacifier".').
And I have to stop now, or I'll just find myself retyping the whole book. Suffice it to say: I'll be searching out the other installments ASAP.