Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Short Fiction Recommendations - P.G. Wodehouse

There are authors who can write anything -- tough or sweet or intellectual or dumb. Variety is the spice of life, and they do it all.

But sometimes an author does just one thing -- one voice, one kind of story -- and learns to do it so brilliantly that no one can ever touch him. Furthermore, after all those years of practice, he delves deeper and brings out more in the narrow medium than anyone ever thought possible.

P. G. Wodehouse, otherwise known as "Plum," is one of the latter breed. All of his stories, especially once he had fine tuned his style, are variations on the same bloody story. Nothing of real consequence happens in them, but they are rivetingly tense and surprising. His idiot heroes get themselves into terrible messes, in which they are menaced by domineering aunts, and sticky children and angry geese and terrifying prospective father-in-laws, and via mad twists and turns (and the assistance of brainy servants, and twists of fate) manage to wend their way back out by the skin of their teeth. They are often transformed from spineless terrified twits to bold, brave and honorable twits.

Wodehouse honed the voice and story style so well, that even though you can't always remember one story from another, the stories are still full of surprises and tension and laughs.

That's one of the reasons, though, I'd rather people start with his best stories. His earlier stories -- the ones in the public domain -- have all the elements, but he hadn't mastered them yet. The rambling narrative voice really does ramble a bit more, his story elements are not quite as surprising. Once the twenties hit proper, his timing was dead on, his set-ups and pay-offs sharper.

For writers: the thing to learn from Wodehouse is first his "deep point of view." One of the things he often did was narrate stories from the point of view of characters who, shall we say, aren't very bright? He used deep point of view to help us experience the world through the eyes of such a fool, and thereby sympathize. He also used this point of view to do two things: create anticipation when we could see what the poor airheaded hero cannot, but also to raise the stakes. The insurmountable problem for the hero is just as suspenseful for us. (Partly because we'd never have got into that situation, so we don't know how to get out of it either.)

Of course that part -- the twists and turns and the feeling of high stakes -- is due also to excellent set up. That is, the laying of clues and subtle touches of foreshadowing. This is worth it for any writer to study.

One other element Wodehouse is known for is "voice" -- clever, witty narration. He often used storyteller characters, like Mr. Mulliner, who would tell endless stories of the difficulties of his many nephews and nieces, and The Eldest Member, who told golfing stories at the club. These were actually omniscient and wise -- unlike the heroes of the stories -- and maybe just a little unreliable. But they, like Wodehouse himself, took advantage of deep point-of-view too, and so we got the best of both worlds, where information could be hidden or exposed at will by the storyteller.

We very seldom get this kind of art in a modern story. When we do, it's usually in a short story, since it's easier to maintain an experiment with something short.


As I said yesterday: there are NO Wodehouse stories available for ebooks which are not in the public domain, but there are crooks who will try to fool you into buying the same stories, poorly packaged. Don't be fooled. (You can get the public domain stuff at Project Gutenberg's Wodehouse Page.)


Wodehouse is most known for his stories about Jeeves, the genius valet of the benighted Bertie Wooster. Bertie gets into trouble, and Jeeves, without so much as lifting an eyebrow, gets him out of it. These stories started early and there are a couple of collections in the public domain, and they are good. Just not great. (There are both novels and short stories in the Jeeves series.)

Mulliner Stories

If you can, get your hands on a copy of Meet Mr. Mulliner. Read "Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo" and the next story in the same collection, which is a sequel to the first. They are the best.

Golfing Stories

Wodehouse started out writing school and sports stories, but he eventually specialized in stories about golf. You don't have to like golf to love these stories -- which are more about love and honor than anything else. There is one collection available in the public domain, "The Clicking Of Cuthbert." These stories are not as fine tuned as the later ones, but could be a fun place to start if you do happen to like golf.

Blandings Castle

I don't think there are many short stories in this series about a fuzzy headed old Duke who is easily bullied or fooled, and he denizens of his castle, most of whom want something from him or each other. However, my very second favorite Wodehouse story of all time (after "buck-u-uppo") is a novelette called "The Crimewave at Blandings."

You can find examples of much of these, including "The Crimewave at Blandings," in The Best Of P.G. Wodehouse.

In the meantime I will end this post with the first page from "The Crimewave at Blandings."

The day on which Lawlessness reared its ugly head at Blandings Castle was one of singular beauty. The sun shone down from a sky of cornflower blue, and what one would really like would be to describe in leisurely detail the ancient battlements, the smooth green lawns, the rolling parkland, the majestic trees, the well-bred bees and the gentlemanly birds on which is shone.

But those who read thrillers are an impatient race. They chafe at scenic rhapsodies and want to get on to the rough stuff. When, they ask, did the dirty work start? Who were mixed up in it? Was there blood, and, if so, how much? And -- most particularly -- where was everybody and what was everybody doing at whatever time it was? The chronicler who wishes to grip must supply this information at the earliest possible moment.

The wave of crime, then, which was to rock one of Shropshire's stateliest homes to its foundations broke out towards the middle of a fine summer afternoon, and the persons involved in it were disposed as follows:

Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, the castle's owner and overlord, was down in the potting-shed, in conference with Angus McAllister, his head gardener, on the subject of sweet peas.

His sister, Lady Constance, was strolling the terrace with a swarthy young man in spectacles, whose name was Rupert Baxter and who had at one time been Lord Emsworth's private secretary.

Beach, the butler, was in a deck-chair outside the back premises of the house, smocking a cigar and reading Chapter Sixteen of The Man With The Missing Toe.

George, Lord Emsworth's grandson, was prowling through the shrubbery with the airgun which was his constant companion.

Jane, his lordship's niece, was in the summer-house by the lake.

And the sun shone serenely down -- on, as we say, the lawns, the battlements, the trees, the bees and the best type of bird and the rolling parkland....

You will note that there is a distinct narrator here -- an omniscient voice with an opinion and motive, even if he doesn't appear in the story.

Tomorrow I'll talk about someone who is near the other end of the spectrum from sweet and frivolous P. G. Wodehouse: Harlan Ellison. Ellison can be sweet and light and frivolous, but so can jalapeno candy. At the same time, of the authors I've read, he and Wodehouse have the most to teach us about mastery in the short form.

See you in the funny papers.


stu said...

I love Wodehouse's work. I actually went through a phase of ripping him off terribly by writing evil fantasy overlords with suspiciously erudite goblin manservants.

The Daring Novelist said...

LOL -- everybody has ripped off Wodehouse.

In some ways, I think a little bit of Mick's voice comes from Bertie Wooster. Mick is a young gunslinger detective, and is definitely brighter and more practical, but he has a sunny disposition, and often engages the brain a touch too late.

Casey is no Jeeves, though. If she doesn't like the hat you're wearing, she won't clear her throat discretely. She'll put a bullet hole in it.