November 5, 2013

“There is a good saying to the effect that when a new book appears one should read an old one. As an author I would not recommend too strict an adherence to this saying.” -Winston Churchill

This is the strongest recommendation I would offer anyone tempted by the new Sebastian Faulks Jeeves and Wooster novel, “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.” I know. I have read it. I know that it was endorsed by the Wodehouse estate. Bully for it. George Lucas himself specifically wrote and specified the prequels, and we know what those were like.

Only halfway through the Author’s Note, I was cowering like a wet sock. It runs as follows: “This book is intended as a tribute — from me, and on behalf of any others who don’t think it falls too lamentably short of the mark — to P. G. Wodehouse: a thank-you for all the pleasure his work has given . . . The great man’s descendents hope, I know, that a new novel may help to bring the characters of Jeeves and Bertie to a younger readership — that lucky group of people who have yet to open The Mating Season or Right Ho, Jeeves. I hope so too, and I envy them the joys that lie in store. To the old hands, meanwhile, I would say only this: that yes, I did understand the size of what I had taken on, and yes, it was as hard as I expected. Wodehouse’s prose is a glorious thing; and there’s the rub. I didn’t want to write too close an imitation of that distinctive music for fear of sounding flat or sharp. Nor did I want to drift into parody. What I therefore tried to do was give people who haven’t read the Jeeves books a sense of what they sound like; while for those who know them well I tried to provide a nostalgic variation — in which a memory of the real thing provides the tune and these pages perhaps a line of harmony . . . I hope that readers of this story will be encouraged to go back to the peerless originals, and thence to a brighter future.”

A few notes on this premise, before we move to the work beyond.

Reading “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” will not sell you on Wodehouse. Other than that, the premise is entirely sound. You don’t sell someone on heroin by giving him methadone. Wodehouse is some of the strongest stuff there is, hard to imitate, as Faulks acknowledges, hilarious, tightly plotted and easy to read. It is the genuine article. So I don’t understand why we’re doing this exactly. Are the originals being put back into the Disney vault? If you are trying to sell someone on the Beatles, you don’t hand them a cover by Carrie Underwood. If you want to sell someone on hamburgers, you don’t hire a guy to tell him how good it would be if he were eating a hamburger and draw him a picture of How I Remember Hamburgers To Be, A Nostalgic Harmony To The Hamburger Of My Youth. Do you? No. You hand him a hamburger. Why would a novel that admits it is only a poor imitation of the original, set in the same world and with the same characters, somehow attract people to the original? Is there some hypothetical Young Person who hasn’t read Wodehouse on the grounds that “he hasn’t published anything in a while, but if he came out with a new book, I’d see him differently”? Because this person sounds like an idiot, and I don’t know why we have to cater to him.

Didn’t want to imitate the Wodehouse Style? Well, of course not. It’s daunting. But given that your are the Estate-Sanctioned Next Book In The Series, An Honor Some People On The Internet Would Walk Barefoot To Panama to obtain, one wishes you had tried.

I should note now that all the blurbs on the back cover and inside cover, without exception, are in praise not of Sebastian Faulks’ Wodehouse but of Wodehouse himself. “Wodehouse is the greatest comic writer ever” says Douglas Adams. “You don’t analyze such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendor,” says Stephen Fry. “A brilliantly funny writer — perhaps the most consistently funny the English language has yet produced,” says the Times. “Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in,” says Evelyn Waugh. “The funniest writer ever to put words on paper,” says Hugh Laurie. Tell me again why we cannot hook people on Wodehouse with Wodehouse, if all this is true? Are we afraid that he is not as good as we have been saying he is? Because the thing about Wodehouse, to borrow Orwell’s quip about Shakespeare, is that he really is very good in spite of all the people who say he is very good.

But you see I’m not even to the book yet.

The Jeeves and Wooster formula is as follows. The location may vary. The plot may vary. The cast may vary. But, in brief, the narrator, the amiable if not particularly independent bachelor Bertie Wooster, along with his paragon of a valet, the brainy Jeeves, winds up being called upon to extricate a friend or an aunt from trouble. Matrimony and arrest may threaten, engagements and nights in jail cells do ensue, but invariably the status quo is restored, thanks to Jeeves’ brilliance. Bertie and Jeeves, who has vowed to turn in his notice if matrimony ever looms, are reunited, and Bertie gets rid of some article of clothing that has been making Jeeves upset. All this in a nostalgic vision of England or New York where excruciatingly little of world events ever penetrates. “How’s the weather, Jeeves?” Bertie asks one morning. “Exceptionally clement, sir.” “Anything in the papers?” “Some slight friction threatening in the Balkans, sir. Otherwise, nothing.” This, in Jeeves in the Springtime, is as close as we ever get to World War I.

Of course, Mr. Faulks brings it right in.

Which brings me to the subject of fanfiction. What is it, exactly?

I would submit that three kinds of fanfiction: the sanctioned published kind (spin-off Bonds, Star Wars sequels, many of these aimed at men), the kind you forget is fanfiction (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Milton’s Paradise Lost) and the kind the word evokes, written on the Internet largely for and by women between 14 and the designated demographic of “50 Shades of Grey.”

If you want to read a story about Bertie and Jeeves where people deal with World War I and everything changes, go to the Indeed, Sir fanfiction archive where there is plenty of that, much of it better written. If you want to read a story about a young Wodehouse male who falls in love and gets into scrapes, read the “Indiscretions Of Archie.”

Some writers do violence to their own creations. Many fanfic writers do. This is where we get tropes like the Mary Sue, a perfect female character suddenly introduced to the story who can do everything really well and the main character is just destined to fall in love with. This is frowned on even among tweens.

Fanfiction is motivated by the sense that there is something missing. Generally, what is missing is that not enough of the characters are having explicit sex, or that two of the characters that you wish were having sex with one another are not doing so, although in Wodehouse fanfiction this is not always the case. It’s a tribute, but it’s also about filling in the gaps.

And you could argue that Wodehouse’s work, by definition, set in the perpetual greenwood, with no history and nary a hint of sex — biographer Robert McCrum quotes George Orwell’s comment that Wodehouse sacrifices all the farcical potential of “anything in the nature of a sex joke” — is rife with gaps to fill. Except that its incompleteness turns out to be the secret of its perfection.

Fanfiction neglects to notice this. So you find plenty of scenes in the bowels of the Internet in which it is revealed that World War I happened, Bertie’s deceased parents are flung repeatedly at the reader like a dead rodent being shoveled at you by a cat in the hopes it will impress you, or the writer gets out of the need for Bertie’s impossible voice altogether by having Jeeves narrate. The status quo must be shaken, so something that doesn’t happen in Wodehouse must happen — war, serious injury, a new girl who is not like the rest, Bertie being forced to change places with Jeeves and talk to the servant class where his eyes are opened. All of these things occur in Faulks’s rendering except the injury, but after the book I attempted to jump out of a low window so we managed that, too.

I could dwell on the niggling details — Bertie’s friends are actually somewhat helpful. “For old time’s sake I’m prepared to believe your ridiculous story,” his most recently conjured chum tells Bertie, something that generally does not happen.

By the eighth page I was emitting a stricken woofle like a bulldog that has been denied cake. There had been the introduction of a girl with “chocolate eyes” and a kind heart who is far more beautiful than anyone Bertie Wooster has ever dated. Anyone who has read fanfiction will note the tell-tale sign of a Mary Sue, but I thought, surely not. Not in a first outing.

But I persevered. There were nods at the Wodehouse style, allusions to “contented local hens” and “contented deer” grazing in neighboring parks that only made one wistful for the most memorable Wodehousian use of the adjective — “They serve a very good lemonade here,” one character says. “Probably made from contented lemons.” Faulks has a good handle on Wodehouse’s rhythm — IF SOMEONE TAKES THIS HALF OF THE SENTENCE AND USES IT AS A BLURB I WILL HAVE YOUR GUTS FOR GARTERS — if not his music. Bertie enjoys “a pensive cigarette” and the formulation “it was an [adjectived] Bertram who” makes numerous appearances.

But the humor is largely absent. I did chuckle at one point at the description of someone making a noise “like a mastiff sneezing,” but it was a sad, knowing laugh. One character, a tremendous bore, launching into another tale, tells everyone, “I was very intrigued by my own response,” which lacks Wodehouse’s subtlety and isn’t something a person would say.

Soon Jeeves and his master, who is posing as a member of the servant classes so that this book can be more like Downton Abbey with Wise Below-Stairs Staff giving pep talks and experiencing Feelings. Oh, the Feelings. Bertie keeps bringing up his parents’ death, the loss of the “family hound” when he was a young boy at boarding school.

They say that one of the surefire ways to make a character likeable is for him to feel less sorry for himself than you do. If this is the case, Bertie has sunk in my estimation, because he spends a lot of time brooding insecurely about whether this paragon of a Mary Sue — I’m sorry, Georgiana — could ever love a lightweight like him. I wish I were making this up.

I will let you guess how it all ends. But, spoiler alert, there will be permanent changes in the Wooster menage. Wodehouse managed to write more than a dozen books in which he got Bertie out of every scrape successfully without shackling him to anyone in holy matrimony. Faulks takes him for a single outing, and, well — it is trickier than it looks, I guess.

Bertie’s particular charm — the charm of Bertie and Jeeves — is that nothing changes. The stakes are always the same. Restore the status quo. You would think it would be an easy formula to replicate. On the surface, these capers set in country houses or in apartments filled with cats seem like they’d be easy to churn out.

If I were being glib and cruel I would say something like, “This is the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been for several hours on end without the end result being a live baby.” But I am trying to imagine a reader who wants to read this book. The only one I can conjure up is someone who actually has read all the existing Jeeves and Wooster tales and is baying desperately after more. And this isn’t that. This is caffeine when what you want is cocaine. I think? I am not very up on my drugs.

Look, this is fanfiction. I am not an expert except in the sense that all former nerdy 14-year-old girls are experts. And fanfiction is not what they wrote. It is what you remember. It is what you loved, what spoke to you. It is what Faulks describes in the introduction. There is much good fan work out there, approved and un-. But as an introduction to the work in question, I cannot recommend it.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.