P.G. Wodehouse

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: P.G. Wodehouse

Why it’s daunting: Logistics and aesthetics stand in the way of anyone wishing to dive into P.G. Wodehouse’s canon. His work sprawls over 90 books published over 75 years, most of which are constantly sneaking in and out of print, many of which have different British and American publication titles. His short-story collections tend to overlap and make each other redundant. But the issue of distance from the material can be even more challenging for novices. People continue to read Wodehouse primarily for the structural perfection of his farce plots and the ways he slammed American and British slang against each other, mixed in upper-class starch, and saw what emerged. But the whole environment—linguistically and socially—is far from any modern analogues: a sexless, genteel place where the greatest danger the mostly moneyed characters face is getting married to the wrong person. (Or, in the case of the Jeeves-Wooster series, getting married at all.) Wodehouse’s characters were anachronisms from the moment he began writing them. “His picture of English society had been formed before 1914,” George Orwell noted. “Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915.”

Possible gateway: The Mating Season

Why: With the exception of 1974’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (or The Cat-Nappers, depending what country you’re in), the 34 short stories and nine novels of the Jeeves-Wooster cycle represent the most consistently amusing, well-paced series of Wodehouse’s career. The Mating Season isn’t as widely praised as The Code Of The Woosters or Jeeves In The Morning, but it’s just as deft, and it doesn’t have too many recurring characters to overwhelm novices. In the relationship between feckless Bertie Wooster—a young British aristocrat with too much money, too little to do, and a perpetual aversion to any kind of commitment, romantic or otherwise—and his infinitely wise valet Jeeves, Wodehouse found the perfect excuse for infinite complications to be endured by Bertie and sorted out by Jeeves. Much of Wodehouse’s work circles the same basic setpieces and situations over and over; the political meeting/village concert—begun with a dismal speech and frequently ending in disorder—is one of his specialties. The one in The Mating Season is one of his best, from the vicar’s fundraising speech onward: “The Church Organ, he told us frankly, was in a hell of a bad way. For years it had been going around with holes in its socks, doing the Brother-can-you-spare-a-dime stuff, and now it was about due to hand in its dinner pail.” Summarizing something in the most incongruous, inappropriate language possible is one of Wodehouse’s most reliable tricks. The book only features two returning characters besides Jeeves and Wooster, and both have their backgrounds summarized before the plot kicks in.

Next steps: It’s hard to go wrong with any of Wodehouse’s numerous short-story collections. For more Jeeves and Wooster, all you need—assuming you can find a used copy—is the complete anthology The World Of Jeeves, which looks far more daunting than it is. For a general survey of the Wodehouse landscape, 1937’s Lord Emsworth And Others is a succinct introduction to Blandings Castle—home of Wodehouse’s second-most-popular franchise—and Ukridge, the cynical get-rich-quick dreamer whose exploits provided Wodehouse with as much edge as he ever had. Also included are members of the Drones Club, the social institution all Wodehouse’s characters belong to, where narrators like The Oldest Member and Mr. Mulliner hold court, telling lengthy anecdotes no one particularly wants to hear. There’s even a smattering of his golf stories, which should amuse even those who can’t tell birdies from bogeys. For one of his best non-series works, 1936’s Laughing Gas is a rare novel set almost entirely in America, neatly sending up Wodehouse’s frustrating time in Hollywood. As far as body-swapping comedies go, it deserves to be up there with Big, or at least above Freaky Friday.

Where not to start: Wodehouse didn’t really hit his stride until 1923’s Leave It To Psmith, when he figured out how to strain the earnestness and sap from romantic comedies and leave the buoyant farce (“musical comedies without music,” as he described them). Everything up to then, including the entire Psmith franchise, should be approached only by those already comfortable with Wodehouse’s work. Some of the closest he came to revealing anything of himself, the Psmith books give in to human sentiment and are firmly rooted in the public-school ethos Wodehouse was inculcated in—school spirit, cricket, and all the rest—which makes them fascinating biographical clues, but not ideal entertainment. Reading any book not in the established series—Jeeves, Blandings, Mulliner, Drones, Ukridge—always means taking a risk. Wodehouse’s one-novel-only characters tend to be wan variations on the same archetypes developed better in his series: the leisurely young man in love, the wacky uncle, the lower-class swindler, the brassy bride, et al.

More Gateways To Geekery