Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakespeare

Will Shakespeare Greenberg is a pot-smoking slacker grad student in Santa Cruz in 1986 whose primary passion, apart from getting high and having sex, is Shakespeare. Despite knowing quite a bit of Shakespeare's work by heart, Will is having a difficult time getting his Master's thesis finished (or started, to tell the truth), in large part due to his pot-and-psychedelic-mushroom-addled lifestyle.

Will Shakespeare is a young Latin teacher in Stratford in 1582 whose primary passion, apart from bedding local women, is composing witty satirical verse. His family's deep Catholic roots will land him in hot water.

Jess Winfield's novel, which recounts turning points in the parallel lives of the two protagonists, is something of an odd beast. The target audience would appear to be fans of Shakespeare who are knowledgable enough to get most of the references (many of which I think went right over my head), but who also don't mind reading a stoner comedy with extremely explicit sex scenes written largely for laughs. If you were to compose a Venn diagram of the two very different groups of readers Winfield's trying to attract, it's not clear how much overlap you'd get.

But while Winfield's novel is a weird hybrid beast, it's a beast that's extremely well crafted. Winfield knows his stuff. He's one of the founders of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. (The novel's 1980s narrative may contain a fictionalized version of the RSC's beginning, although Winfield has said Will Greenberg isn't supposed to be himself.) He's clearly done a tremendous amount of research into Elizabethan England and what little is known of Shakespeare's early life.

In the end, I have to say this is as good as any pothead sex comedy set in 1980s California and starring William Shakespeare you care to name. Winfield has tried something very strange here, and he's largely succeeded.

And thus ends my duo of Shakespeare books for November. I may try to polish off some of his actual plays next year. Cultural literacy and all that.

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