Thursday, July 09, 2009

Bungalow In Quogue

Vadim Rizov at the AV Club has a good "Gateway to Geekery" piece on the work of P.G. Wodehouse. I agree with him that The Mating Season is perhaps the best introduction to the Jeeves novels; its plot, while complicated, requires less explanation than The Code of the Woosters (and doesn't depend on the now-incomprehensible term "cow-creamer"). It also isn't as cruel as Right Ho, Jeeves, where Jeeves is, as he often was in early stories, kind of a bastard: there are many stories that imply -- or, in the story narrated by Jeeves, outright say -- that Jeeves actively tries to maneuver Bertie into humiliating situations from which Jeeves can "save" him.

Also, it's one of the few Jeeves novels that doesn't involve Bertie's "good and deserving" Aunt Dahlia, which is a relief. Aunt Dahlia, an old lady who used to be a sportswoman (and Wodehouse is both admiring and terrified of athletic women; many of his golf stories revolve around a big, athletic golf player named Agnes Flack, who scares men away with her booming voice and robust physique), isn't a very interesting character, certainly nowhere near as funny as Bertie's fearsome Aunt Agatha -- who rarely appears in the novels -- and the plots involving her and her home, Brinkley Court, get very repetitive.

And of course, stay the hell away from Ring For Jeeves.

The one thing in the piece I don't really agree with is Rizov's praise of Laughing Gas. It's an interesting novel in theory because it's so different from Wodehouse's other books -- a supernatural fantasy, sort of like Thorne Smith without the sex -- but I don't find it very funny. It feels to me like Wodehouse wrote it in the hope of a movie sale (hence the American setting and the body-switching plot, which would be easy to execute in film), and, as usual, didn't get one. (Another book he originally conceived of as a movie was The Luck of the Bodkins, about a cruise ship voyage and an attempt to smuggle valuables into America hidden in a plush Mickey Mouse doll; it seems like he might have intended the story for RKO, which distributed Mickey Mouse cartoons at the time.) But with the exception of a few of his more surreal Mr. Mulliner stories -- my favorite Wodehouse series -- he wasn't the kind of writer who did well when he tried something different; his stories depend so heavily on the ritual of repetition, of story ideas, character types, and phrases (take a drink every time you read the phrase "like a rocketing pheasant" in a Wodehouse book) that a book doesn't feel quite right when it takes place in a different "universe" from the rest of his work.

His novels and stories mostly take place in the same world, with unusually strict continuity between them -- he frequently refers to characters and plot developments that happened in books written many years before -- meaning that none of them really stand on their own; reading one novel is amusing enough, but only by reading a whole bunch of them do you realize that much of the humor comes from references, allusions and shared situations between the different books.

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