January 31, 2006

Plum Blogging

I'm just finishing up a new-to-me P.G. Wodehouse novel, Jill the Reckless, published in 1921. I can only say that if you've never read Plum's stories before, for Heaven's sake don't start with this one. If you are familiar with his writing, you might be interested in it for academic reasons, but if you're like me you'll have a hard time enjoying it.

The genius of Wodehouse was that when in form he crafted his stories with such exquisite balance, such perfect timing and such snappy dialogue that they appear to be absolutely effortless. (Thinking about it, the same thing can be said of the music of Mozart.) Here, the fact of the matter is that Wodehouse was trying too hard and it shows - patches of dialogue that turn into long speeches, intra-scene emotional swings in characters that seem forced and an absence of the musical-comedy-without-the-music structure and sense of proportion that Wodehouse consciously aimed for. The story isn't really all that off. But compared to the perfection of so much else that Wodehouse wrote, its shortfalls are that much more glaring.

Furthermore, once one becomes aware of Wodehouse's effort, the magic is lost. Plum's plots depend tremendously on coincidence and comic timing. While we float along in the dream of one of his masterworks, we don't mind this - we simply accept it as another one of the delights of the story, laughing at each unexpected encounter and its resultant plot twists and not worrying about it. But when Plum starts pressing, as he does here, it becomes difficult if not impossible to maintain this critical state of suspended disbelief.

It doesn't strike me that the relative flatness of Jill the Reckless is simply the result of Wodehouse's youth and inexperience in novel writing at the time it was published - I thoroughly enjoy other books of the period such as Uneasy Money (1917) and Indiscretions of Archie (1921). Instead, I think it's the product of an uncharacteristic earnestness which permiates this book and does not sit well with Wodehouse's style. The story concerns a young woman, Jill Mariner, who owing to one of Fate's banana peels, falls on hard times and must pull herself back up, both romantically and financially. Most of the floaters seem to occur when Jill or somebody else is speaking of her inner circumstances, of what She Truly Needs in terms of her self respect and her relationships with others, as if Wodehouse was overly anxious that we get it. Interestingly, the only other time I've really been aware of this kind of earnestness in Plum's work is in another heroine-beats-the-odds story of the period, The Adventures of Sally. Why it appears that Wodehouse loses some of his touch when he chooses a heroine as the center of the story instead of a hero, I leave to the trick-cyclists.

One other point of note. Much of the action takes place behind the scenes of a musical comedy being produced in New York. Wodehouse himself was quite heavily involved as a theatrical writer at the time and he takes the opportunity to showcase his insider knowledge of (and cynicism about) the inner workings of Broadway. Furthermore, the main hero of the story, Wally Mason, is a Broadway librettist of some repute. Wodehouse describes him as large and rather homely, but kind, sincere, humorous and energetic. In all my reading of the Old Boy's books, I don't believe I've every come across such an obviously self-referential character.

So there you have Jill the Reckless. In my opinion, a book more interesting than entertaining.

Posted by Robert at January 31, 2006 11:46 AM | TrackBack