Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jeeves and the Tie that Binds by P.G. Wodehouse

Jeeves and the Tie that Binds by P.G. Wodehouse, 1971

For those unfortunates who have not encountered P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), here's a brief summary of his genius: Wodehouse was a fantastic writer and novelist who specialize in comic depictions of upper-crust British life (which, I know, doesn't automatically scream hilarity). He is hysterically funny and his best series--he had an entire universe of recurring characters, locations, events and themes-- follows the misadventures of idiotic aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his brilliant valet Jeeves.

No writer makes me as out-and-out happy as Wodehouse. His characters are always safe from any kind of real misfortune and the very worst threat that anyone in the Wode-verse faces is the anger of aunts or uncles.

The stories are hilariously complex and the language is incredibly witty. The jokes are pitch-perfect and laugh-out-loud funny. Once, while reading a Wodehouse story in public, I burst out laughing and got some very strange looks.

Jeeves and the Tie that Binds (1971) is the second-to-last Jeeves novel, and is the fourth or fifth that I've read. It was originally published when Wodehouse was in his nineties, which is pretty astonishing in and of itself.

The book finds Wooster trapped in a complicated tangle of problems at his Aunt Dahlia's house in Market Snodsbury. He becomes engaged (twice, both times unwillingly) while attempting to canoodle money for a friend from a rich businessman and get another friend of his elected to office.

The plot really doesn't matter in a Wodehouse novel; what does matter is the hysterical predicaments that the characters find themselves in. My personal favorite from this book? The incident in which Bertie Wooster goes canvassing for his politician friend and unwittingly knocks on the door of the opposition.

Or consider this exchange between Bertie and Jeeves, which should strike you as funny if you have a soul:

"These eggs, Jeeves," I said. "Very good. Very tasty."

"Yes, sir?"

"Laid, no doubt, by contented hens. And the coffee, perfect. Nor must I omit to give a word of praise to the bacon. I wonder if you notice anything about me this morning."

"You seem in good spirits, sir."

"Yes, Jeeves, I am happy today."

"I am very glad to hear it, sir."

"You might say I'm sitting on top of the world with a rainbow round my shoulder."

"A most satisfactory state of affairs, sir."----- (US edition, page 7)

In a lot of ways, Tie that Binds is a very average Jeeves and Wooster adventure. All the comfortable elements are in place and there continues to be fabulous dialogue and deliciously witty jokes.

But the novel also lacks a little of the clearness and crispness of prose that earlier Wodehouse books possess. The man was in his late eighties when he wrote the book and that comes through in the prose.

There's a spot of laziness in the characterizations this time around and each character's particular traits are emphasized over and over again (Jeeves is brainy, Aunt Dahlia is loud, Spode is irredeemably wicked). Certain recurring elements, like Wooster's Scripture Knowledge Prize, are referenced far too often, as though Wodehouse is running out of fresh ideas. The central plot is also highly derivative of earlier entries in the series.

Despite these flaws, the book is still largely terrific. Wodehouse at his weakest is better than most authors at their peak. I love Jeeves and Wooster, and I love the fact that there's a touch of sweetness between them at the end. Like Holmes and Watson, they endure many adventures together, but it's always nice to be reminded that there's a bond between them.

For those unacquainted with Wodehouse, Tie that Binds is a poor place to start. It relies too heavily on knowledge of the previous installments and is clearly one of the series' weaker links.

But for those who already know and love the series, it's a glorious two hundred pages of reading pleasure. Thank goodness there's so many books in the Wodehouse canon. I could easily spend many more books with Jeeves and Wooster.

NEXT TIME: I'm currently reading (and yeah, I know this is quite a contrast) Shakespeare's The Tempest and Stephenie Meyer's sci-fi novel The Host. I'll review whichever I finish first next.

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