Wednesday, August 27, 2008
"The Man With Two Left Feet, and Other Stories" P. G. Wodehouse
The Man With Two Left Feet was one of P. G. Wodehouse’s first short story collections. Its claim to fame is that it contains the first appearance of a Jeeves and Wooster story, “Extricating Young Gussie.” However, don’t turn to this collection if you’re looking for Jeeves—he only has two lines and is in every way a background character. None of the other stories deal with this duo, and “Young Gussie” is not the stand-out story in this bunch. The two stories about the dog stand out the best (“The Mixer” I & II). Nonetheless, I loved this collection. The stories are light, fluffy, and enjoyable—perfect for de-stressing. They are masterful works of light comedy. Most of them are trite and forgettable—even the Jeeves and Wooster story, if you don’t know what comes after it—but Wodehouse’s style is something to behold. Reading this collection gave me a better context to appreciate some authors today. I would argue that Connie Willis is the closest thing we have to Wodehouse today, despite her fiction noticeably lacking valets.
Most of the time when people call an author “Wodehousian,” they’re talking about imitating the Jeeves/Wooster pairing. For instance, the perfectly blatant Phule series by the late Robert Asprin and the (still living) Peter Heck. In that series (six books so far) a rich toff and his improbably competent servant get involved with a military force, In Space. Only slightly less blatant is Charles Stross’ novella, included in Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Two titled “Trunk and Disorderly.” In it a dissolute rich gentlemen bounces around various family and social obligations, surviving only thanks to his robot butler. It’s not a terribly successful story, but it is clearly a Wodehouse homage. Nonetheless, the writer who gets closest to Wodehouse today is Connie Willis. This has less to do with her plots (when she decided to directly reference a pre-WWI humorist she chose Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), not a Wodehouse story) and more to do with her style. Wodehouse’s key tactics involved caricature and comedic complication, things that Willis excels at.
Caricature is obvious in almost all of Wodehouse’s stories, at least in this collection. He exaggerates certain personality traits and makes them the stand-out core of the characters involved. The self-absorbed writer is 100% Self-Absorbed; Bertie Wooster’s terrifying Aunt Agatha is the personification of the Authoritarian woman making sure her family behaves Properly; the dog in the two “Mixer” stories is 100% Dog, always trying to please given his own understanding of things. Connie Willis does this wonderfully as well in her comedic stories and some of her serious ones as well. I’m particularly reminded of the Over Protective Mother, who is also Aggressively and Uselessly Helpful from Doomsday Book, the Single-Minded Historical Recreationist whose demands drive the plot of To Say Nothing of the Dog and the (equally as severe as Aunt Agatha) Aunt Who Insists on Proper Manners from Willis’ recent Hugo Award winning novella “All Seated On the Ground.” Given today’s literary expectations, these caricatures may lead some to suspect Willis of writing cardboard characters. What she, Wodehouse, and every political cartoonist in the universe knows however, is that those instantly recognizable exaggerations allow us make the character into the people in our own lives who fit the stereotype—we end up filling in the gaps with real people we know, a sort of add-your-own-realism reading experience.
The other aspect that Wodehouse and Willis share is the comedic complication. Wodehouse stories are almost impossible to summarize: you’re either going to give no explanation at all (the dog ends up saving the house from the burglar—but it’s really funny!) or you have to re-tell the entire story (so the dog’s adopted by a criminal, but he doesn’t know he’s a criminal, and the guy goes out to the country and trains the dog to ignore him but the dog just thinks he’s shy and… oh just read it, will you!). The relatively simply plots are kept entertaining by throwing more and more obstacles in the way of the happy ending, before having everything resolve in the most improbable way. Again, this characterizes a lot of Willis’ fiction. To briefly summarize “All Seated on the Ground” (a journalist and a choir director figure out how to talk to aliens) is to lose all the humor, whereas to convey the humour you end up telling the entire story (the aliens just stand there and glare until one day in a mall they sit down and the fundamentalist thinks they’re protesting the lingerie store and the biologist thinks it may be the scents from the Yankee Candle store and they lock off the mall with all the Christmas shoppers including the 7th grade choir and no one will listen to the director or the journalist and they look just like the journalist’s unpleasant aunt and… yeah just read it.) What’s particularly impressive about Willis is that she uses this technique in her dramatic books as well as her comedic ones—Doomsday Book and Passage have, if anything, more of this sort of thing than To Say Nothing of the Dog. I appreciate that, since it brings out that part of real life that tends to get left on the metaphorical cutting room floor of literature—the committee meetings, misunderstandings, and personality conflicts that arise whenever a group of people try to do anything, which consists of about 90% of everything we do outside the home. These things happen no matter how trivial or weighty the stakes, and one can either laugh at it or throw your hands up in despair. Wodehouse and Willis see how incredibly silly things can get, and yet how we always seem to muddle through anyways. They decide to laugh.
I’m afraid that I’ve said as much about Connie Willis as P. G. Wodehouse here (and not enough about Terry Pratchett, who also does this in spades but with a different spin). That’s because the style of the pieces in this collection was much more of a revelation to me than the stories themselves. The stories themselves don’t necessarily stand the test of time—the only ones that will really stick with me are the ones from the point of view of a dog, in which he captures a doggy spirit and perspective with absolutely perfect pitch. The other stories tend to concern men and women falling in love in New York: struggling playwrights, dancing instructors, former dancing instructors, vaudeville performers, athletes and bookshop owners. Boys meet girls, boys and girls find themselves flung apart for various reasons, silly things happen, and boys and girls find themselves together at last. It’s the style with which they’re executed that makes these particularly enjoyable. For one more comparison, look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Light, fluffy, but executed with remarkable style, especially in the caricature aspect, that makes them stand out. (Although to be fair, Pratchett has developed much more gravitas in his subject matter than Wodehouse ever did, I suspect.)
These Wodehouse stories are not the sort of classics that you should read because you have to. You should read these because they’re fun. They age well, and they strike a wonderful balance. You can feel noble and productive (you’re reading classics), while still having a stress-free and laugh-filled reading experience. Try doing that with Thomas More’s Utopia! (Which I’ll be tackling sometime soon, ghods save me.)