[20 November 2013]
How does one criticize a venture that everyone, including the author himself, admits is most likely folly? It’s a bit easier now, because people have been actually reading Sebastian Faulks’ Jeeves and the Wedding Bells for weeks, due to an aggressive advance publicity campaign from the publishers. It’s a good move: the hurdle in selling copies of a tribute to P.G. Wodehouse is less overcoming the backlash from fans of the master than it is getting new readers to start reading the work of a humorist most active in the early 20th century with, essentially, an exercise in fan fiction.
By all accounts the exercise has been successful. Readers, including Wodehouse admirers naturally skeptical of the idea, have generally taken to the book and major publications have praised it. The ruse has succeeded. Right ho, Faulks, etc.
Yet some of these plaudits really call for a bracing perspective on the affair. An outstandingly silly pull quote from Publisher’s Weekly opines that “Faulks has outdone Wodehouse.” Take a philosophical tack for a moment and muse on whether it’s possible for one writer to “outdo” another by imitating a style the first writer originated, and rather perfected. For laughs, imagine that the writer in question is one of the most acclaimed English prose artists, and said style extends not just from a distinctly musical grasp on the Queen’s, but also to a knack for labyrinthine plotting and the resolution of such. One might propose “equalled” or “neared” or “brought little shame to his house”, but “outdone” seems an absurd notion.
This is not the breathless furor of a die-hard fan, either. The seams in Faulks’ imitation show easily with a little scrutiny. Much of the delight in this new novel comes in the early pages, for the prose seems to pass the first test almost right away. The first-person narration of Bertie Wooster is probably the trickiest to imitate, with its British witticisms combined with Latin phrases learned at Eton, confounding similes, and that endearing sense of chivalry and old-guard nobility that ropes the hapless fop into one social quagmire after another. Faulks makes a good go of it, but after about a hundred pages the strain is evident. Phrases like “It was a pensive/haggard/frustrated Bertram…” pop up so often that it seems the author has assembled a Wodehouse phrasebook and consults it whenever the going gets tough.
The distinction between the approach that Faulks has taken and the actual function of Wodehouse’s stories lies, I think, in the more character-based mode of writing that Wedding Bells indulges. Motivated by tendencies common throughout fan fiction, Faulks’s plot takes Jeeves and Wooster to a realm which Wodehouse flirted with throughout his writings but never seriously considered, choosing instead, usually, to tell a good joke. Faulks’ is an understandable motivation; after so many decades of indignities and social embarrassment, shouldn’t every reader want to see Bertie get a really triumphant ending in the vein of his romantic heroes and to live happily ever after, no less, with R. Jeeves at his side?
All well and good, and the conclusion should indeed satisfy many who have grown fond of Bertie over the years and wondered what it might be like for the silly egg to score a W in the engagement column. But though it might have been possible to deliver a great Jeeves story that ends so triumphantly, Faulks doesn’t pull it off. His priorities are clear: the fully-rounded character arc over the construction of a deft comic plot, the happy ending at the expense of a good punchline.
Late in the game, the arrival of a tertiary character serves as the capper for a chapter of mayhem, which in Wodehouse would likely have complicated matters further and required a memorable gambit from Jeeves to be revealed in the closing pages. Instead, Bertie runs from the imminent madness and finds out a few moments later that things have just sort of worked themselves out. The denouement unfolds over almost 50 pages with a breezy, summery feel in which the guiding hand of Jeeves is present but hardly results in any new comic scenarios.
Perhaps the funniest gag in the whole book is a metafictional one. Bertie’s proposed plots, nearly always deflected by Jeeves, focus on his self-certified knowledge of “the psychology of the individual”. One might say the same focus lies at the heart of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, which shows exactly what to expect when a writer identifying first and foremost as a novelist attempts to imitate a world-class humorist.
To say that Wodehouse would have written it this way or that way would be deeply fallacious criticism, but it doesn’t take a devoted student of the old works to see Faulks’ plot as a rather facile romantic comedy containing only three or four real comic scenarios, which mostly involve facetiously cozying up to someone else’s fiancee. Broad stuff and pretty weak tea, especially the second time Faulks trots it out. The rest, involving a cricket match (surprise, Bertie’s no good) and a public performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rely on puns.
And if you do want to compare this new novel to the old ones, for after all, Faulks and St. Martin’s Press have rather begged for such an analysis, things get even dicier. Compare the lumpy plot of Wedding Bells to something like The Code of the Woosters, not quite the best Jeeves book but surely the most fiendishly constructed, with so many reversals and new embarrassing scenarios arising every chapter that it tends to induce whiplash.
Or for the antidote to Faulks’ motherly attitude toward Bertie, try Right Ho, Jeeves, in which the young Wooster’s utter humiliation proves central in Jeeves’ scheme to mend the various conflicts at play in their social circle. Bertie’s reaction to the unveiled gambit tells us all we need to know about Wodehouse’s philosophy toward his characters: frustrated, but it did work, and the code of chivalry demands that one simply grin and bear it. After all, Jeeves is still going to work up one of his marvelous restoratives and deliver it along with breakfast in bed.
I imagine some readers over the years have parted ways with Wodehouse over such a finalé, deeming it an unkind attitude toward such an innocent and well-meaning chap. And again, a book with Faulks’ endgame and Wodehouse’s sharp comedy might well be possible. It simply isn’t this one. Bertie’s romance with Faulks’ creation, the angelic Georgiana Meadowes, spoils any sense of comic momentum by cropping up time and again for scenes in which Georgiana tries hopelessly to communicate how smitten she is to the oblivious, self-deprecating Bertie. To the author’s credit, he has strived to create a character that could serve as a plausible partner for Bertie without reducing her to total cliché. The only flaw is that she crops up for the first time in this book and therefore doesn’t get any good jokes.
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is no travesty but far from a triumph, its only crimes being ill-considered pacing and an over-abundance of good intentions. Still, one can rest easy that a positive reception of Faulks’ book will direct more attention to the old stories and a new generation will have cause to discover this brilliant realm of comic writing. No doubt all involved, including the approving Wodehouse estate, will benefit many times over from the venture.
So I feel no qualms in saying, once more: “Outdone”? What absolute rot.