Sunday, February 12, 2012
The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse
The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse, 1938
He returned with the tissue-restorer. I loosed it down the hatch, and after undergoing the passing discomfort, unavoidable when you drink Jeeves's patented morning revivers, of having the top of the skull fly up to the ceiling and the eyes shoot out of their sockets and rebound from the opposite wall like racquet balls, felt better. It would have been overstating it to say that even now Bertram was back again in mid-season form, but I had at least slid into the convalescent class and was equal to a spot of conversation.
"Ha!" I said, retrieving the eyeballs and replacing them in position. "Well, Jeeves, what goes on in the great world? Is that the paper you have there?"
"No, sir. It is some literature from the Travel Bureau. I thought that you might care to glance at it."
"Oh," I said. "You did, did you?"
And there was a brief and-- if that's the word I want-- pregnant silence.
I suppose that when two men of iron live in close association with one another, there are bound to be occasional clashes, and one of these had recently popped up in the Wooster home. Jeeves was trying to get me to go on a Round-The-World cruise, and I would have none of it. But in spite of my firm statements to this effect, scarcely a day passed without him bringing me a sheaf or nosegay of those illustrated folders which the Ho-for-the-open-spaces birds send out in the hope of drumming up custom. His whole attitude recalled irresistibly to the mind that of some assiduous hound who will persist in laying a dead rat on the drawing-room carpet, though repeatedly apprised by word and gesture that the market for same is sluggish or even non-existent. ---- (pages 7-8)
If this review could consist entirely of quotes, we'd all be much better off. There is no good way to do justice to the genius of P.G. Wodehouse. His writing is as brilliant as any that I've ever read, and his talent for comedy is absolutely unparalleled by any humorist I'm aware of. At his best (which he is at, in The Code of the Woosters), Wodehouse borders on the sublime. The Jeeves and Wooster series is an absolute embarrassment of reading riches, and Code is a fantastic installment in the ongoing saga.
As it so often does, Bertie Wooster's troubles begin with something deceptively small. His beloved Aunt Dahlia gives him a simple task: go to a London antique shop and sneer at a silver cow-creamer. Things quickly snowball, and Bertie finds himself headed to Totleigh Towers, an English manor house that's fraught with peril for the young Englishman. From scheming friends to sinister magistrates to harebrained schemes, Bertie is trapped in a hopelessly tangled mess that threatens to land him up to the neck in the mulligatawny-- or possibly in prison for theft. Naturally, there is only one man with the smarts to get him out.
I've never read a Jeeves novel that I didn't think was funny, but there have been a few that have been somewhat haphazardly plotted, as though the jokes were more important to Wodehouse than the story. Code,however, is not only a marvelous piece of comic writing, but a fairly brilliant and incredibly intricate example of Wodehouse's hilariously convoluted storytelling. Every single character and storyline at Totleigh Towers (and there are a lot of them) are hopelessly entangled with one another. Wodehouse was an avowed fan of mysteries (he was friends with Rex Stout, and reportedly loved the Nero Wolfe novels), and much of his writing is an affectionate parody of the genre. I love the way that Wodehouse twists mystery/thriller cliches and uses them for comedy; Wooster's straight-facedly dramatic narration is itself a bit of a sendup of overwrought penny dreadfuls. What makes the device so funny is that it isn't overdone.
Dear God, this book is funny, though. And on so many levels. Wodehouse is a master of pretty much every form of comedy: low, high and everything in between. There are several marvelous sequences of pure physical comedy--Roderick Spode getting a painting around his neck could be a Three Stooges original-- as well as farce, wit and sheer weirdness. And all of the humor works together. One scene can combine a pratfall, a play on words, a farcical misunderstanding and some sneaky inside jokes, all wrapped up in Bertie's hilariously effervescent narration. The book seems smooth and effortless, but Wodehouse was aware of the delicate balancing act he was engaging in. It would be ridiculously easy for the jokes to get stale or the stylized narration. In some of the later Jeeves tales, you can see Wodehouse struggling a bit to come up with material that feels fresh. There is no sign of this in Code, where everything works from start to finish.
Wodehouse's attention to continuity is another of his finest attributes. Not only does Bertie remember (and refer to) previous adventures, he has actually learned from them, too. Rarely has he learned anything useful, of course, but the way the past installments affect the current one is truly masterful. Code has a huge cast of recurring characters, too: Aunt Dahlia, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Basset, Pop Basset, Stiffy Byng, Stinker Pinker and Roderick Spode, who Wodehouse seems to take particular delight in tormenting. Stiffy, a highly manipulative and unlikable friend of Bertie's, makes what I think is her first appearance in Code, and she's part of a long line of female friends who torment Bertie mercilessly. She's not as much fun as Bobbie Wickham, and if I have a criticism for the book, it's that the plot relies a little too heavily on Stiffy's capricious whims.
On the other hand, my favorite piece of character development is the timid and weak-willed Gussie finding an unorthodox way to gain confidence: thinking (and writing down) insulting thoughts about authority figures. This leads to some frankly amazing scenes where Gussie bosses around the fearsome Spode and treats Bertie with cold contempt, only to revert back to his old persona when his notebook of criticisms is stolen -- hilariously, they seem to mostly revolve around the way Spode eats asparagus at the dinner table. Obviously, this is is not exquisitely subtle character work, but it is an example of the marvelously effective ways that Wodehouse plays with his characters and allows them to have just barely enough depth to not be complete caricatures. If Bertie Wooster wasn't a fundamentally kind and good person, his over-the-top idiocy would be wearying.
Likewise, a novel with this much lunacy in it needs to be tethered somehow, however tenuously, to reality. Most of all, though, it needs to be funny, which The Code of the Woosters is, gloriously, brilliantly, laugh-out-loud-in-public funny. P.G. Wodehouse was clearly a genius and one of the most accomplished writers I've ever read, even though he turns his enormous talents to comedy instead of drama. Just because something is brilliant doesn't mean it can't be fun, too.
NEXT UP: The Girl Who Played with Fire, Number Two in the Millennium Trilogy. And while you're waiting breathlessly for that review, why not hop on over to my new companion blog, As I Lay Reading? It's free for the first thirty days (and all the rest of the days)!