Recently in Wodehouse, P.G. Category

Sisyphus was a writer

| No Comments
Maya_Alexandri_in_a_cage_of_her_own_making.jpgP.G. Wodehouse repeated himself - jokes, similes, motivations, plots, quotes from poetry.  I love him so dearly that the repetitions don't bother me at all.  They're a quirk of a beloved - if soused - uncle, and if he didn't repeat himself, I'd ask him to, "Tell me the one about . . ."  

But I don't repeat myself, I thought.  I'm not writing in a genre, like Wodehouse (even if it is a genre of his own invention); each of my books is new and fresh and different and reflects the stupendous growth I've experienced since I finished my last book.

Well, ha.  Ha.  Ha.  And, for good measure, ha ha ha ha ha.  Rereading my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, this past week during the audio recording, I noted numerous instances of writing that I recognized - with a sigh and a resigned grimace - from later works, specifically my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband.  Certainly, the repetitions didn't rise to the P.G. Wodehouse level in either number or their verbatim quality, but I was plainly writing again, and around, and about, familiar themes.

In particular, a theme that manifested itself in similar terms in both books is the experience of feeling humbled before wonders, and how that humility is, in fact, empowering. 

I was interested to see this idea mentioned in Susan Neiman's recent NYT book review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.  According to Neiman, Dreyfus and Kelly argue that
reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times.  These qualities, [the authors] believe, can be cultivated to provide a bulwark against the nihilism they rightly view as threatening our ability to lead meaningful lives in the 21st century.
. . . .
The reason so many of us feel so miserable is that we can neither find meaning in ourselves alone nor give up the longing to find it somewhere else.
. . . .
[The authors discuss] the Greeks, who were less reflective than we are, and less convinced that they were in control of the world. This left them open to experience a world in which things shine as works of art do, to feel gratitude not only for the bounties of nature but for human excellence in all its forms, itself regarded as a gift.
This quest after meaning, and finding its satisfaction in experiences of "reverence, gratitude and amazement" is a major theme in my life (and, unsurprisingly, my writing).  I hadn't thought I was trendy, or part of zeitgeist, but - worse - a cliché, but turns out I'm not only repetitive, but also unoriginal.  I better hope I at least write pretty.

So here's the writing: judge for yourself.  This first quote is from The Swing of Beijing, when one of the main characters, Tyler, is in a club listening to a jazz singer, called the Marquise:

     The Marquise was now doing her delightful version of "Take Five," in which she scat sang the signature saxophone solo.  Tyler closed his eyes again, enjoying the gravel-tinged honey that was the Marquise's voice, sweet and rough, simultaneously coating and caressing, and jutting against and ricocheting off of, the rhythm.  She sang the way she lived, accepting the rhythm - however strict, however unexpected - as a non-negotiable and nonetheless not letting it get in her way.  And, although neither she nor the song were Chinese, the Marquise's "Take Five" embodied Beijing for Tyler, better than any summation he'd encountered in any medium.  In her interpretation of the song - with its bizarre time signature; its odd drafting of the piano to do the work normally assigned the drums; her willful, beautiful occupation of melody; and the unbelievable way it melded these non-conforming elements to roll over Tyler with a soft power that submerged his individual existence into the flow of music - "Take Five" distilled Beijing, a city that in its near millennium of history had defied lack of water resources and a profusion of invaders, had witnessed profound progress in dark ages and starveling stagnation in eras of modernity, and throughout had inspired big imaginations to draw on its leviathan depths of potential and recreate it.  Like the song, Beijing humbled Tyler with the evidence of his meagerness and uplifted Tyler with its grace in enfolding him anyway; but most of all, it impressed Tyler with its capacity for strange and boundary-less change, a flexibility to which Tyler felt distinctly unequal.
Now compare that paragraph to these passages from The Celebration Husband (and this is a selection; there are other passages I could've excerpted), where the provocation for the experience of uplifting humility is not music, but the landscape:

    Looking beyond the station, Tanya absorbed the Eastern Rift Valley: game-rich forest and fertile farmland punctuated by the voluptuous protrusion of the extinct volcano, Mount Longonot, to the west.  Verdant green after the rains and dusty yellow during the dry season, Mount Longonot hid from Tanya's view Lake Naivasha, a vast stretch of fresh water so well integrated into the landscape that it often deceived observers into thinking it was part of the sky.  Augmenting the Valley's grandeur were the clouds, transformed by moody and variable weather into actors in an epic drama, involving much darkening and glowing, rearing up, rolling about, thunder-and-lightning sound effects, and honey-cognac lighting.
    Pitched midway on the escarpment that descends into the Valley, Kijabe afforded Tanya a prime vantage point for this spectacle.  As her eye roamed the scene, grey and gold clouds floated at eye level, so that the capacious sky seemed to arch overhead and then drop below her into the Valley.  Tanya had never before known the sensation of sky beneath her.  Kijabe elevated her; Tanya felt that the scenery demanded that she present a better, more noble self.
. . . .
    Arduously, achingly, she angled herself on her knees so that she faced Mount Kilimanjaro.  On the corridor of plain stretching before her, round white butterflies fluttered, their wings beating like nuns' wimples in a breeze.  Looking on the mountainous sanctum in the distance, Tanya saw that a cloud mass had swept over the snowy peak.  Her view of the colossus now occluded, Tanya remembered von Lettow-Vorbeck's remarks about Kilimanjaro's ability to dwarf an event as monumental as battle.  The mountain was so miraculous that it could remove any vastness from her perspective, even itself. 
    As it is with the mountain, let it be with me, she thought.  Let Kilimanjaro be my cathedral, let my perspective be guided by the light it filters onto me.  If war itself vanishes into the maw of the mountain, let me cast my pain upon it, and let my sorrows dwindle in its immensity.
    Then, still kneeling, Tanya bent her torso forward until her forehead touched the prickly ground.  She had seen Hassan bow this way during prayer, and the action had puzzled her.  She didn't understand how Hassan could willingly adopt a posture of such abject submission.  Now she imitated him intuitively.  She'd had no expectations of the movement; she had prostrated herself unthinkingly.  And yet, with this motion, she gained a sense of power.  Bowing to the mountain, Tanya was blessed with the insight that triumph, too, can emerge from surrender.
Seeing this theme emerge in different stories, in various words, written over four years of my life, I can feel how deeply I want my characters to undergo the liberation of humility, and how persuaded I am of edifying effects of such experiences.  I just hope audiences can bear with me (that I can bear with myself) as I write the same damned thing over and over again, trying (vainly) to pin the ineffable on paper.

Uncle Wodehouse, can you tell me the one about the peak in Darien?

(Photo of Maya Alexandri in the art cage of her own making by Andrew McConnell)

A different kind of magical realism

| No Comments

This post was written for The Rumpus,which publishes readers' pieces about their last favorite book - but not, apparently, mine.  Having received no response to my submission, I am publishing the piece here.  Enjoy!
My last great literary discovery wasn't a book, and I didn't read it.  It's the short story, "Romance at Droitgate Spa," by P.G. Wodehouse, published in Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, and I listened to the talented Jonathan Cecil read the short story collection as an audiobook.

I'm a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse, and I particularly admire his mastery of comic plotting.  But P.G. Wodehouse is also impressive for the way he works with his limitations.  He's not particularly skilled at characterization or endowing characters with emotional depth.  Wodehouse was aware of this weakness and, although he probably could have tried to develop his capacities for rendering characters (as opposed to caricatures) on the page, he didn't.  He once described his approach to writing novels as "making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life all together."

But even characters in musical comedies need some realistic emotional presence if they are to resonate with audiences.  As hilarious as P.G. Wodehouse's work can be, his method can also result in two-dimensional, stereotyped characters that fail to grip, regardless of the humor intrinsic in the plot circumstances.  Psmith, Journalist is one painful example; but even Galahad at Blandings suffers in this way.  In the Wooster-Jeeves novels, Wodehouse decisively solved the problem by creating two characters - an airhead clubman and his brilliant gentleman's gentleman - both of whom are flatly realized, but who together function as a compelling (and comically riotous) team.

"Romance at Droitgate Spa" shows P.G. Wodehouse devising another solution to his problem.  In the story, Freddie Fitch-Fitch is in love with Annabel Purvis, but he needs his uncle, Major-General Sir Aylmer Bastable, to release his trust fund so that he can marry.  

Uncle Bastable suffers from gout and lives at Droitgate Spa.  Despite the healing waters, he is snubbed by the "elite" of the spa community, who are those afflicted with complex and intractable diseases; gout doesn't qualify.  This ostracism pains Uncle Bastable because he's a class snob and believes he should be received by the best people wherever he goes.

Given his constant distemper, Uncle Bastable is disinclined to approve of Freddie's marriage.  Poor Annabel is low-born.  At the opening of the story, she's a "conjurer's stooge"; she stands on stage in pink tights, looking enchanting and occasionally handing her employer, the Great Boloni, a bowl of goldfish.  Uncle Bastable disapproves.

To sweeten his uncle, Freddie sends Annabel to nurse Uncle Bastable.  Freddie instructs Annabel to tell Uncle Bastable that she's of "gentle birth."  Freddie is confident that Uncle Bastable will be charmed by his lovely new "nurse," and that he'll approve the marriage without discovering that his nurse used to be a "conjurer's stooge."

Freddie's plan works perfectly.  Uncle Bastable blesses the marriage, and Freddie goes to London to finalize legal documents his uncle must sign to release Freddie's trust funds.

So far, the set-up is both superficial and standard for P.G. Wodehouse: young lovers are thwarted by money and cantankerous relatives; a softly-deceptive scheme solves both problems.  Then Wodehouse dropped acid or was struck by lightning or was crammed into a barrel and sent over Niagara Falls - or some such - because, mid-plot, the story abruptly deviates from the form-book.

In London, Freddie is called into the small smoking room of his club, where a "Mr. Rackstraw" awaits him.  Entering the room, Freddie finds "a tall thin man with pointed black moustaches, who was pacing up and down, nervously taking rabbits out of his top-hat."  Mortimer Rackstraw flashes his sinister eyes, twirls his mustache and - as Freddie soon discovers - performs under the name, "The Great Boloni"; and he used to be Annabel's fiancé.  "Fiend!" Rackstraw greets Freddie, before instructing him to "take [a card], any one" from a deck, to memorize it and to return it to the pack.  Throughout their conversation - during which Rackstraw warns Freddie that he will take revenge for Freddie's theft of Annabel - Rackstraw performs magic tricks.  He makes a rabbit vanish, an egg appear from Freddie's head, and he removes a cage of lovebirds from his hat.  After his dramatic exit from the smoking room, he re-enters to bow to the left and right before leaving for good.  Freddie is left to wonder "what a man so trained in the art of having things up his sleeve might have up it now."

With Rackstraw, P.G. Wodehouse throws up his hands at the very task of characterization.  Instead, he makes a joke of the challenge.  He takes the most hackneyed villain - the guy who would tie the damsel to the railway tracks in the black-and-white-films - and reveals his distress and anxiety with behavior that, of course, no one would ever manifest.  In the process, however, Wodehouse achieves an unexpected victory: Rackstraw's unconscious default to sleights-of-hand in times of stress is so amusing and delightful, that it endears him to the audience; I empathized with him.  (Jonathan Cecil, I should add, excels in his performance of Rackstraw.)         

Suddenly, I was more deeply engaged in the story, at which point, Wodehouse produced another surprise from his hat.  Annabel summons Freddie to Droitgate with a frantic telegram and, upon arriving, Freddie learns that Annabel has locked Rackstraw in the cellar, the door of which - from the pounding sounds - Rackstraw is well on his way to banging off its hinges.  Annabel is trying to prevent Rackstraw from meeting Uncle Bastable - who is in the Pump Room, listening to the band - because Rackstraw wants to introduce Annabel's Uncle Joe to Freddie's Uncle Bastable.  Uncle Joe, she explains, is not Uncle Bastable's "sort," and if Uncle Bastable meets him, their scheme will be ruined: Uncle Bastable will know that Annabel comes from humble origins, and he will refuse to bless their marriage.

Freddie dashes to the Pump Room, hoping to attain Uncle Bastable's signature on the necessary legal documents before Rackstraw frees himself.  But Uncle Bastable is a music lover, and he makes Freddie sit through the band's renditions of "Poet and Peasant" and an encore, the overture to "Raymond," by which time Rackstraw has arrived.  Rackstraw (who is mechanically juggling in one hand two billiard balls and a bouquet of roses) immediately denounces Annabel, exposing her claim to be the daughter of a "colonel" with the information that her father was a colonel in the Salvation Army, before which he was "a Silver Ring bookie known to all the heads as Rat-faced Rupert, the Ber-mondsey twister."  Then Rackstraw produces his ace: Uncle Joe, a "ghastly outsider" in these "refined" surroundings: a man wearing a morning coat, a red waistcoat and brown shoes, who greets Uncle Bastable as "old cock."

Just when Rackstraw's revenge appears to be unstoppable, Uncle Joe shows that Rackstraw isn't the only man with a trick up his sleeve.  "Uncle Joe" turns out to be Joe Boffin, a famed patient whose been written up in The Lancet.  He's spent most of his life in hospitals, beginning as a child with congenital pyloric hypertrophy of the stomach, progressing into adulthood with thrombosis of the heart and vesicular emphysema of the lungs.  His temperature has twice been up to 107.5 (when he had hyperpyrexia).

Uncle Bastable is rapturous with admiration.  Joe Boffin is his hero.  Uncle Bastable aspires to have ailments on Joe Boffin's scale, so that he can be catapulted to Droitgate Spa aristocracy.

The Droitgate Spa snobs then wander over, themselves equally enamored of Joe Boffin, who brushes away their apologies for interrupting with the assurance that he's "always glad to meet the fans."  Upon hearing that Joe Boffin's niece, Annabel, is going to marry Bastable's nephew, Freddie, the Droitgate Spa snobs are stunned at the honor.  They invite Bastable to join their exclusive group "the twelve jolly stretcher cases" and wonder if Bastable would join them that evening.  Boffin, they presume, wouldn't condescend to fraternize with their little assembly, but Boffin counters, "There's nothing stuck-up about me," adding, "We can't all be Joe Boffins, that's the way I look at it."

The chief Droitgate Spa snob, Lord Rumbelow, sighs, "The true democratic spirit." 

Joe Boffin then admits that he was best man at a friend's wedding recently, and the only thing wrong with him was "emotional dermatitis."  (Jonathan Cecil's delivery of this line made me laugh out loud.)

"Emotional dermatitis" might well summarize P.G. Wodehouse's view of the work of conjuring realistic emotional lives for his characters.  But with Joe Boffin, as with Mortimer Rackstraw, Wodehouse achieves great effect by giving up and making a joke of the whole endeavor.  With Boffin, Wodehouse takes the basest proletariat and makes him the catalyst for stunning upward mobility (both of himself and of Bastable) by inventing a social standard that - like Rackstraw's anxiety-induced magic - doesn't appear in the real world.  The transposition of snobbery from matters like education and wealth to an equal-opportunity arena like disease is, in Wodehouse's hands, so quixotic and charming that the audience is seduced.  By the time that Rackstraw takes "the flags of all nations from Annabel's back hair and, with a despairing gesture, [strides] from the room," I was convinced that I'd heard Wodehouse's supreme story.

Wodehouse's oeuvre is so enormous (more than ninety books) that I can't say for certain that he never used the techniques on display in "Romance at Droitgate Spa" again, but the delightful Mortimer Rackstraw and Joe Boffin do not seem to have had encore performances in Wodehouse's work, which is a shame.  As much as I adore the Jeeves-Wodehouse series, "Romance at Droitgate Spa" tantalizes with the possibility that Wodehouse could have reached other comic pinnacles had he elaborated on his "Droitgate Spa" insights.  I won't say it's a loss on par with Aristotle's discourse on comedy, but - in my book - it's close.

(Trailer for this cute amateur production of "Romance at Droitgate Spa" from YouTube)

Gate crashing

| No Comments
Lorrie_Moore_1999.jpgIn his New York Times book review of Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, Jonathan Lethem begins

I'm aware of one - one - reader who doesn't care for Lorrie Moore, and even that one seems a little apologetic about it. "Too . . . punny," my friend explains, resorting to a pun as though hypnotized by the very tendency that sets off his resistance.
Although I am plainly beyond the scope of Jonathan Lethem's awareness and likely to stay that way, I don't care for Lorrie Moore, and I'm not apologetic about it.  On the contrary, I'm mystified by Moore's success.  Rather than finding her, as Lethem writes, "the most irresistible contemporary Ameri­can writer," I find her among the most over-rated.  Maybe it's me.

Biases disclosed, allow me to move on to the opening of A Gate at the Stairs.  As anyone who has ever tried to write one knows, openings of novels are hard.  (P.G. Wodehouse - by any measure a master of the machinery of plot - begins many of the Wooster-Jeeves novels by overtly complaining about the difficulty of starting.)  

That said, the worst that most bad openings do is fail to draw me in.  I can't think of another novel that offended me so deeply within the first 60 pages.  And this from a novelist feted by Jonathan Lethem as "brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny."  I don't see it.  Maybe it's me.

The assault begins on page 5, on the morning of 9/11.  The protagonist, a 20-year old college student, Tassie, receives a phone call:

My roommate, Murph . . . had met her boyfriend on September tenth, and when she woke up at his place, she'd phone me, in horror and happiness, the television blaring.  "I know, I know," she said, her voice shrugging into the phone.  "It was a terrible price to pay for love, but it had to be done."
I raised my voice to a mock shout.  "You sick slut!  People were killed.  All you think about is your own pleasure."  Then we fell into a kind of hysteria - frightened, guilty, hopeless laughter I have never actually witnessed in women over thirty.
Eight million people live in New York City.  Two-hundred and fifty thousand live in Washington, D.C. (on 9/11, myself included) and millions more live in the surrounding states of Maryland and Virginia.  These millions of people endured the closest experience Americans have had to being bombed by foreign attack on their mainland.  As members of the so-called East Coast literati, some not insignificant group of these people might be expected to be counted among Lorrie Moore's readers.  And they might feel queasy, repulsed, disgusted or otherwise off-put by this callous, unsympathetic, cosseted and immature depiction of a college-aged provincial response to 9/11.  Irresistible you say?

Two pages later, Moore is joking about the owners of a Chinese restaurant who assure Tassie, "'Take your tie!  No lush!'"  For real?  In this day and age, Lorrie Moore thinks this mushy racism make for a good laugh?  In a book that is at least partially about racism (the plot, such as it is, involves adoption by a white couple of a part-black baby girl) - a book, I might add, that contains pages of redundant, tiresome, supposedly-intelligent analysis about black-white race relations - Moore manages to forget that Asians are also "people of color" subject to racism (as in, her own)?  

In fairness to Moore, I'm sympathetic to the problems of rendering the dialogue of people who don't speak English perfectly.  In my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, I have a handful of characters with imperfect English to juggle.  The answer that I've struck upon is not to "clean up" the dialogue, but to ensure adequate characterization of the characters, so that they have dignity and humanity notwithstanding their clunky speech.  If I don't have an opportunity for such characterization, I won't subject the character to ridicule based on a toss-off line of dialogue.  Moore doesn't make a similar choice.  Maybe it's me.

After demonstrating her skills in conjuring shockingly cavalier 9/11 reactions and racism-lite, Moore moves on to grossing-out the reader.  At evoking this response, Moore excels, and the examples abound (see page 48 for Tassie's gift to her brother of dog poop in a candy box).  Here's Moore describing Tassie's use of a sex toy:

[Murph] had bequeathed me her vibrator, a strange swirling, buzzing thing that when switched to high gyrated in the air like someone's bored thick finger going whoop-dee-doo. . . . I kept the thing on the kitchen counter where Murph had left it for me and occasionally I used it to stir my chocolate milk.
(p. 12-13.)  If this passage is meant as an example of Moore's allegedly "Lily-Tomlin-funny" humor, I have to protest on Lily Tomlin's behalf.  Lily Tomlin is funny.  This "joke" is merely unhygenic.  (And I say this as a novelist who, in Portnoy's Daughter, wrote a scene in which a couple has anal sex with highlighters.)  In the first place, using someone else's vibrator - however washed it is - is the kind of idea that could only occur to an individual without even the most rudimentary exposure to germ theory.  Second, using someone else's vibrator in your food is right up there with using menstrual blood as a condiment in terms of its laugh value.  Even in American Pie, no one ate the pie after Jim Levenstein fucked it.  

And then there's Tassie's casual cruelty towards her mother, a sad woman whose inept parenting seems - in Tassie's description - to be no more noteworthy than average, and a good deal better than the mothering many receive.  Yet Tassie seems to hate her:

"Oh, well, someday maybe I'll open a restaurant," [Mom] said now, sighing brightly, which seemed about as happy as she got - a sigh with some light in it.  She then added a remark that typified the sort that filled me with loathing for her.  "You know, with the new year approaching, I've come to realize I've done nothing these past decades but devote my energies to the interests of others.  So, soon?  I'm going to start focusing on myself."
(p. 53.)  Loathing?  Tassie loathes her mother because she expresses a desire to live for herself now that her daughter's in college and her son's about to graduate from high school?  In case that reaction seems extreme, here's Tassie on her mother's favoritism for the son in the family, Robert:

He had, however, the same loneliness in him that I did, though he had always been my mother's favorite.  Where had that gotten him?  My mother's love was useless.
(p. 60.)  Loneliness, of course, is an attribute notoriously unresponsive to the ministrations of loved ones, especially mothers.  Nonetheless, rather than seeing loneliness as an existential condition, Tassie blames her mother for it.  Tassie's rage at her mother suggests some profound issue, but A Gate at the Stairs never explicates it.  As a result, Tassie's baffling hostility makes her merely a brat with whom it's difficult to identify.

Or maybe it's me.  Lorrie Moore is nothing if not a darling of the critics, and even Michiko Kakutani, who observes in her New York Times review some of the serious structural problems with A Gate at the Stairs, smooths over her criticism as follows:

If Ms. Moore, who started out as a short-story writer, demonstrates some difficulty here in steering the big plot machinery of a novel, she is able to compensate for this by thoroughly immersing the reader in her characters' daily existences.
Such immersion is exactly what the offense of the first 60 pages prevented me from achieving.  So - with all this praise swirling around a book that struck me as wholly unappealing at the outset and, as I intrepidly continued reading, a complete mess by its end - I have to wonder about the source of this disconnect.  Possibly Moore's person - she comes across as a sweet and likable individual - has managed to sway America's book critic clique.  Or potentially Moore's writing irks me unreasonably for irrational reasons - there's no accounting for taste, after all.  Or perhaps Moore, ensconced in the Mid-West, taps into some emotional current that Americans in the States share to the exclusion of expats like myself.  Maybe, to phrase the matter in Moore's "brainy, humane, unpretentious . . . warm . . . lyrical [and] Lily-Tomlin-funny" way, by virtue of the distance I have from America, I can see that Moore appeals to those with sentiments like the "bubot or eelpout" fish served on Fridays at the Wie Haus Family Restaurant in Tassie's hometown, fish that are called "lawyers" because "their hearts were in their butts."  (p. 7.)

(Photo of Lorrie Moore in Madison, Wisconsin, 1999, from The New York Review of Books)  

Psorry, but Psmith Psucks

| No Comments
Psmith.jpgNotwithstanding the title, I come to herald Caesar, not to bury him - Caesar being, of course, P.G. Wodehouse, the great comic novelist and short story writer.  Having no shortage of admiration for Wodehouse, I have recently begun to delve into his considerable repertoire outside the Wooster-Jeeves stories.  In so doing, I had the misfortune to pass more hours than I'd have liked in the company of Psmith, Journalist.  (The "P," in case you were wondering, is silent, as it is in "psoriasis.")

The plot of Psmith, Journalist sounded interesting: high-bred British Communist takes over a refined American weekly, Cozy Moments, and turns it into a radical rag.  But from the outset, the book sags.  (Or I should say, "psags.")  

P.G. Wodehouse never really got America.  That he loved it is abundantly clear.  But you have to get a place to skewer it.  He got England so well that his skewering is timeless.  But his American pieces are always a bit awry, and Psmith, Journalist is no exception.  The accents and character types are too stereotypical and two-dimensional.  In England, where repression has been necessary to maintain the "stiff upper lip" and manners for which the British are famous, stereotypical, two-dimensional people are usually secreting an individual beneath the surface.  In America, where earnestness is the watchword and repression is a mortal sin, stereotypes are as unoccupied as abandoned hermit crab shells.

Then there's Wodehouse's unfortunate use of terms like "wop," "dago" and "coon" in Psmith, Journalist, not to mention his descriptions of black people with "woolly head[s]" and "rolling eyes."  In contrast to his timeless British stories, Psmith, Journalist (which was published in 1915) is painfully, cringe-worthily dated.

And, although Wodehouse exhibits his typical mastery of plot (and its attendant twists) in Psmith, Journalist, his skills at characterization fail him.  Psmith's own motivations remain superficial and scantily addressed.  In the Jeeves-Wooster stories, love or freedom is the standard motivation for the hijinks: couples are trying to scrape together the financial means to get married, or men are trying to summon the gumption to propose (love); or men are trying to escape a bad marriage (freedom).  In Psmith, Journalist, Psmith is never doing more than amusing himself.  Nor is his bizarre habit of referring to everyone as "Comrade" - or his ostensible Communism - ever explained; it's as external an adornment to Psmith's person as his monocle.  

Additionally, Psmith, Journalist lacks a single female character.  Women, of course, were a major problem for P.G. Wodehouse to depict as human beings, an issue that may stem of his authorial struggle to sympathize with them.  But Wodehouse nonetheless used them wonderfully as foils for the character development of his vapid male characters, for whom he seemed to have no shortage of empathy.  (Jeeves, in fact, does similar foil-for-protagonist work in Wodehouse's stories.)  Fascinatingly, in the course of his explorations of the utilitarian benefits of female characters, Wodehouse created one brilliant, fully-realized, totally lovable and sympathetic female character: Aunt Dahlia.  Troublemaker, defender of the clan, foodie, fox hunter, magazine editor, devoted wife, blackmailer, gambler and articulater of some of the finest comic dialogue in literature, Aunt Dahlia (and not Jeeves) may well be Wodehouse's most astonishing achievement.

What redeems Psmith, Journalist and makes it worth reading is a similar opportunity to witness Wodehouse's extraordinary growth as an author.  As much as his towering literary achievements, Wodehouse's trajectory - from psucks to pstupendous - is an amazing legacy.  

Nonetheless, appreciating this kind of developmental legacy seems to be something of a challenge in the current publishing environment (and its penumbra of book criticism).  For instance, in a profile of novelist Nora Roberts about a year ago in The New Yorker, Lauren Collins made the eyebrow-raising statement, "Most writers have worked out the kinks in their writing by the time they are published."  Not if they're any good they haven't.

In my experience, as both a reader and a novelist, growth is an intrinsic part of a writer's process.  If a writer is engaged in the world, his or her work will not be static.  What wasn't a "kink" in an earlier work will be identified and ironed out in a later work.  This process happens over many articles, stories and books.  

Ian Rankin, for example, experienced this process and spoke on Bookslut about his "long apprenticeship" over seven Inspector Rebus novels, which led to his eighth, Black and Blue, being a breakthrough:

I felt it. When I started plotting [Black and Blue] and started writing it, I could feel that it was a different kind of book. It was initially given an injection from my close and passionate reading of James Ellroy. I went on a real tear with him. If you read the opening pages of Black and Blue, there's a real James Ellroy feel to them - very staccato sentences with a lot of slang that you might not know but that gives a lot of mood and character. I knew the book was going to be a lot darker and use a real-life case, which I had never done before.
. . . .
To me, it felt like a big important book.
Rankin was right, and just in time.  As he recounts in The Scruffy Dog Review

There were a lot of years back then when I just wasn't selling. The first six or seven books sold very poorly and then suddenly Black and Blue came along at a time when my publishers were getting ready to drop me. They felt they had done everything they could to try and break me into a bigger market, so they were getting ready to let another publisher take a shot . . . ."the books aren't selling, they're not getting well reviewed," and that was eight years of my writing career. I was panicking.
Black and Blue went on to win the Gold Dagger Award, and Rankin ultimately broke ground on the UK best seller list when six of his titles graced the Scottish Top 10 simultaneously.  By 2002, he'd received an O.B.E.

As the examples of P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Rankin suggest, if an author lives in Lauren Collins' world and doesn't publish until he or she works out the kinks, then one of two possibilities will occur.  Either he or she will not work out all the kinks.  (Ian Rankin wouldn't have written seven Inspector Rebus novels if the first hadn't been published.)  Or the author is going to starve.

P.G. Wodehouse didn't starve.  He was publishing from 1902 to 1974 (and even into 1978, posthumously).  His bibliography runs to something like a hundred books.  I can imagine that Wodehouse could relate to Samuel Johnson, who (as described by Andrew O'Hagan in The New York Review of Books)

while half-blind and aching with the gout, in a cold garret and dressed like a mendicant, formed his nation's dictionary and an entire multivolume edition of Shakespeare with commentary and notes, while also devoting himself to poetry, plays, hundreds of essays, parliamentary sketches, prayers, prefaces and multiple biographies . . . . [H]e believed that only work, only application, could justify the claims of a writer.   
Writers need to write if they're going to reach their pinnacles.  To write, they need to eat.  To eat, they need to publish.  To publish enough to eat, sometimes they need to publish crap, but only by writing and eating and publishing will the crap improve.

All of which is to say that Psmith is a pstep that Wodehouse had to take to give us Aunt Dahlia, and I'm psuper grateful that the publishing industry psupported Wodehouse in the course of his literary pstruggles.  This lesson is one that publishing will forget at psociety's expense.

(Image of Psmith from The Project Gutenberg)   

Show and tell

| No Comments
The_spectacular_PG_Wodehouse.jpgAnyone who takes a writing creative class these days is admonished to "show, don't tell," and the prescription has escaped the classroom and entered the market.  An industry professional reviewing an early draft of my current novel, The Celebration Husband, noted that I was "telling" more than "showing."

But with all respect accorded to the industry professional, "show, don't tell" is more of an ideology than a precept of good writing.  While in certain instances - particularly the presentation of exposition and other background material, the revelation of character traits, or an action scene - "showing" can be more effective than "telling," the foregoing is not absolutely true.

For instance, P.G. Wodehouse, one of the world's best selling authors, relies heavily on "telling" in all three instances.  In Right Ho, Jeeves, after sighing about the "dashed difficult problem" of how to begin a story, Wodehouse commences with a recitation of Bertie Wooster's trip to Cannes with his Aunt Deliah and Cousin Angela - a classic instance of "telling" background details.  

Nor does Wodehouse wait to let the reader figure out his characters.  Thoughout the Jeeves novels, Wooster is telling you what they're like.  In Thank You, Jeeves, Wooster explains away readers' questions about the presence of his friend, Chuffy, on the pier late at night by telling us that Chuffy is the kind of guy who stands beneath his beloved's window and, if she's on a yacht (as she is), well, then he'll go stand on the pier.  No need for Chuffy to "show" us this side of himself.    

Wodehouse even makes masterful use of the "telling" technique for action scenes.  In Thank You, Jeeves, Jeeves narrates a brawl between two small boys that draws their parents in and eventually results in the breaking off a real-estate deal.  Many other writers would have shown such a juicy squabble, but Wodehouse opts to alternate between showing and telling.  

Wodehouse's style of alternating between showing and telling owes something to drawing room and musical comedies.  In Auntie Mame, for example, the climactic horse race is depicted from the perspective of the crowd watching the race - told, not shown.  Similarly, in Pygmalion, the culminating garden party, where Henry Higgins presents Eliza Doolittle to great acclaim and triumph, happens offstage - we hear the characters talk about it.  

Of course, some of these theatrical choices were pragmatic.  Running a horse race in a theater is obviously a non-starter.  Staging a garden party requires many actors and increases costs.  

But an underlying wisdom supports these choices as well.  "Showing" leaves less room for the imagination than "telling."  When - in the movie of Auntie Mame - we watch the horse race (not the spectators), we see how it happened; in the musical, we imagine other possibilities.  The principle is no less applicable with books.  When Jeeves narrates Gussie Finknottle's attempts - and failure - to reach a fancy dress ball in Right Ho, Jeeves, we imagine Gussie's comic plight; but when we see Gussie give a speech to a boy's school while drunk, we need not imagine anything: the scene is completely detailed.   

Alternating between showing and telling invites the audience to engage its imagination and thereby deepens the audience member's experience of the story.  Engaging the imagination encourages the suspension of disbelief and the immersion in the world the author has created.  Audience members thus become more active participants in the story, as contrasted with their more passive counterparts being shown everything (as, for example, in a James Bond movie).

Active readers are desirable readers.  Their imaginations engaged, they are unlikely to recommend that writer adhere mindlessly to an ideological motto.

(Image of P.G. Wodehouse from The Guardian)

What the Houseboy saw

| No Comments
oyono-ferdinand.jpgI am grateful to University of Nairobi history professor Margaret Gichuhi for bringing to my attention Ferdinand Oyono's 1960 novel Houseboy.  Originally written in French, it's a valuable and rare document of black perspectives on colonial rule - exactly the sort of post-colonial literature that is unlikely to see another print run and, unless it finds new life in digital form, will bury its insights with its lack of availability in hard copy form.

A quick read - 122 pages (properly a novella by some people's score) - Houseboy is an entertaining, fast-moving account of a peasant boy's employment with a French colonial family in Cameroon and the dismal end to which it brings him.  Nonetheless, I wish Oyono had slowed down the pace.  As credible and interesting as is the voice of Toundi, the protagonist, he doesn't reveal enough truly to earn the novel's sad ending.  

The opacity against which the reader struggles is a built-in limitation to the first person voice; Toundi can only tell us what he sees, experiences and thinks.  The reasoning of the colonists around him is hidden, except to the extent that they unburden themselves to Toundi, which they do not in any significant way.  But Toundi's account - his observations and analysis - are too slim, and the reader is asked to infer too much, to give the conclusion the weight Oyono clearly wants it to have.

Toundi's demise occurs, in part, because he is insufficiently discreet about the affair his "Madame" - the wife of the Commandant - is having with M. Moreau, the prison warden.  Toundi's indiscretion is not a matter of gossiping, but of ignorance: he asks too many questions, he doesn't know what condoms are when, cleaning up, he finds them, etc.  His co-workers warn him:  

Toundi, will you never learn what a houseboy's job is?  One of these days you'll be the cause of real trouble.  When will you grasp that for the whites, you are only alive to do their work and for no other reason. 
(p. 87.)

[B]ecause you know all their business, while you are still here, they can never forget about it altogether.  And they will never forgive you for that.  How can they go on strutting about with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth in front of you - when you know.  As far as they are concerned you are the one who has told everybody and they can't help feeling you are sitting in judgment on them. 
(p. 100.)

Toundi doesn't heed their warnings because, as he rightly points out, "I'm not the only one who knows that Madame sleeps with M. Moreau . . . ." (p. 100.)  

The chambermaid, Kalisia, predicts that Toundi will be punished as a scapegoat because, "At the residence you are something like . . . a representative of the rest of us."  (p. 100.)  But Toundi doesn't listen, and the reader can understand why: Kalisia's explanation isn't enough.

Colonists - indeed, anyone with a coterie of servants - is used to having house workers knowing all their business, indiscretions and moral lapses included.  Moreover, people with servants have to acclimate themselves to the judgment of those who know their failings and secrets.  If the judgment is subtle, unstated or otherwise easy-to-ignore, employers are probably happier; but if the servant is valuable enough, an employer can accommodate him or herself to extremely high degrees of articulated disapproval.   P.G. Wodehouse wrote scores of books making comedy out of exactly this situation.  Karen Blixen understood the dynamic as being intrinsic to the master-servant relationship.  When she is leaving her farm in Out of Africa, she describes the response of her servants as follows:

There is a paradoxical moment in the relation between the leader and the followers: that they should see every weakness and failing in him so clearly, and be capable of judging him with such unbiased accuracy, and yet should still inevitably turn to him, as if in life there were, physically, no way round him.  A flock of sheep may be feeling the same towards the herd-boy, they will have infinitely better knowledge of the country and the weather than he, and still will be walking after him, if needs be, straight into the abyss.  The Kikuyu took the situation [of the sale of the farm] better than I did . . . but they sat round my house and waited for my orders; very likely all the time between themselves expatiating freely upon my ignorance and unique incapacity.
(p. 318-319.)

In short, knowing of a master's indiscretion is not enough to justify imprisonment, flogging and death, but Oyono doesn't tell us enough about why Toundi was less lucky than the other servants who knew of the Madame's infidelity.  He doesn't show us Madame's (or her husband's, or her lover's) point of view to explain why Toundi, especially, was a threat.  The fact that Toundi asked questions and was ignorant and insufficiently familiar with the ways of an ideal houseboy could just as easily council in favor of treating him as a harmless idiot, rather than a scourge to be eliminated, and Oyono doesn't help us understand why Toundi fell on the unhappy side of that choice.

Oyono leaves the reader to infer that Toundi's fate follows from his skin color: that a black servant in the colonial scheme was not permitted to sit in judgment of his overseers, and that the punishment for violation of that rule - even inadvertently - was death.  No doubt colonialism encompassed such arbitrariness and abuses, but colonialism also embodied complex dynamics.  Colonists, as much as the colonized, were humans with ambiguous, emotional, contradictory and inconsistent traits, but too often - as here and in Ngugi wa Thiongo's A Grain of Wheat - they are depicted as cardboard, two-dimensional "baddies."  The portrait is as diminishing to the colonized as it is inaccurate.  Oyono is a talented writer (in addition to being a renaissance man, an actor and a diplomat); had he devoted himself to fleshing out the complex motives at work in Houseboy, our historical record and our literature would have been much enriched.

(Image of Ferdinand Oyono from
<< 1 2

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Wodehouse, P.G. category.

Winterson, Jeanette is the previous category.

Wolf, Maryanne is the next category.



OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04