★ On "Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves"

I finally decided to dive headfirst into Wodehouse - that is, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, famed British novelist and playwright. I had been recommended his work over the years, but never actually made a serious effort to read any of it. His most famous creations - bumbling playboy Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves - were brought to life in an acclaimed British television series starring comedy geniuses Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, and were also the subject of a Lovecraft-inspired short story included in Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier (which I should say is thus far my favorite installment in that particular series). Given that Wodehouse's works had influenced the works of those three titans of British popular culture, I figured I might as well give him a chance.

And last night I finished reading the first of what will likely be many Wodehouse tales I consume over the next year, entitled Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves. I won't bother providing a synopsis, as the whole of the story really consists of a series of increasingly frenetic conversations revolving around a few small but ostensibly significant plot devices. What makes Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves a wonderful read is Wodehouse's mastery of language and the precision with which he draws his characters.

The novel is told from Wooster's perspective, with the narration conforming to his unique understanding of the English language. Words are constantly misplaced and misused, and details of the plot typically fly right over his head, leaving the reader to sort out for himself what is actually happening. In many ways a passive protagonist, Bertie is nonetheless tremendously entertaining, especially when paired with the much more astute Jeeves, who repeatedly rescues him from uncomfortable situations, including his impending marriage to Madeline Bassett, his contentious friendship with Gussie Fink-Nottle, and his dangerous physical encounters with Roderick Spode. (Crafting outlandish names for his characters is one of Wodehouse's greatest strengths.)

The key to the novel's brilliance is Wodehouse's understanding of the power of detail. He builds his characters around one or two very small ideas and then plays variations upon them as a master musician plays variations upon a theme. No character is fully developed (save possibly for Bertie himself) but they are developed enough that we feel we know them just as we know our fellow human beings. In a sense, Wodehouse perfectly captures the phenomenon of casual human interaction - no small feet, but essential to a novel that focuses primarily on the petty and idiosyncratic.

Author Christopher Buckley observed of Wodehouse's creations, "It is impossible to be unhappy while reading the adventures of Jeeves and Wooster." On that point, he is correct. Every line of Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves elicits pleasure, and I recommend to anyone who enjoys frivolity, mirth, and good writing. It is an exceptional piece of work.