The joys of pop fiction

Recently, I’ve been making my way through P. G. Wodehouse’s books. (You know, Wodehouse, the guy who wrote those books about Jeeves, the butler, and Bertie Wooster, the gentleman of negligible intellect for whom Jeeves worked. Yes, they were books before they got abducted by British television, and magazine serials in the old Saturday Evening Post before they were books.)

The real reason I’m reading P. G. Wodehouse is escapism, pure and simple: his books are worlds of delightful fantasy, with no particular relationship to reality, where everything turns out just fine in the end. But if you ask me, I’ll tell you that the reason I’m reading his books is because he’s such an excellent English prose stylist, and I’m reading him in hopes that I can learn to write better. Both are true statements, but the second statement is the kind of truth that’s so faded that it’s barely there at all.

Yet even though there is so little of substance in Wodehouse’s books, once in a great while, to my vast surprise, he actually has something to say that is more than mere gossamer fiction fantasy. When I read the following passage in the novel Picadilly Jim (Arrow Books ed., 2008, p. 85), I had to read it twice, because it actually said something of substance:

…But his father’s reception of the news of last night’s escapade and the few words he had said had given him pause. Life had taken on of a sudden a less simple aspect. Dimly, for he was not accustomed to thinking along these lines, he perceived the numbing truth that we human beings are merely as many pieces in a jig-saw puzzle, and that our every movement affects the fortunes of some other piece. Just so, faintly at first and taking shape by degrees, must the germ of a civic spirit have come to prehistoric man. We are all individualists till we wake up.

As I thought about this passage, a strange vision came to my mind: Ayn Rand and P. G. Wodehouse in a sort of literary fight club….

…They come out of their respective corners and meet in the middle of the ring, literary knuckles bared. Wodehouse says, “I published nearly a hundred books.” Rand sneers at this pathetic jab, and replies, “Yes, but they were drivel; my big serious novel has sold nearly 7 million copies.” Wodehouse winces; he feels this blow keenly; but he rallies, saying, “Yes, but I was knighted.” Rand reddens in anger, and replies, “I repeat, you wrote drivel, mindless musical comedies in sticky-sweet prose. Whereas I promoted a serious philosophy, an ethical egoism that rejects the ethic of altruism.” Wodehouse smiles faintly, pauses, and says, “Ah yes; so you did: we are all individualists till we wake up.” It’s a knockout blow: Rand grunts in pain, clutches her head, and hits the canvas, out like a light.

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