Monday, 29 March 2010

Jerome K Jerome-- Three Men in a Boat

This calls itself a true story in the author's note, but I am treating it like a novel.

Jerome is a clear proponent of the Wodehouse Method. And before you slap me with a radically-striped spoon, I know Jerome came before our friend Pelham Grenville, in the writing game. But it's the Wodehouse Method, all the same. Three (3) reasons.

1) (One) I read Wodehouse first. In the SUoB (Subjective Universe of Ben, if I really have to explain), that means he somehow did it first, in a meaningless but important way.

2) (Two) He did it a lot more, and a lot more consistently, than anyone else. At the last count, PG wrote between ten and fifteen THOUSAND novels, and not once did he betray the Method by getting all deep/unfunny on us.

3) (Three) He did it a lot better. Basically, he's the master. We don't name things after who did them first, really, but who did them best. Otherwise everything would be called Adam (who didn't even have a useful surname.) But whoever heard of the Adam Method? (Rhetorical. Answer: nobody.)

Anyway, The Wodehouse Method: who needs a plot when you can be funny-as-all-hell?

Unfortunately, the answer is Jerome (am I calling him by his first name or his surname? Nobody knows. It's ambiguous. I make no secret of it.)

Jerome does need a plot, I think. This book is the story of him and two friends and a dog, in a boat, sailing up the Thames. Fine. There is absolutely no decelopment in character, event or message--but that needn't be a problem, with the Method.
Unfortunately, Jerome (which is it???) just isn't entertaining enough for the Method. Well, he is, sometimes. I laughed out loud a dozen or so times, reading this. It's properly funny. The hypocrisy of our narrator, recognised others faults but not his own, is great. Lots of this comes from the anecdotal tangents he goes off on.

You see, tangents are the best and worst thing about this book. In fact, they're pretty much the only thing. The 'story', minus narrator flaskbacks, is about ten pages long, and most of that is waffle. The rest is tangents.
Some of these are the aforementioned funnies, but others are random musings on the historic and natural surrounds of the river. They're not meant to be funny, which begs the question: why are they there?

They would never have remained in a Wodehouse novel. He had a tactic: he put all his pages on the wall. The funnier pages would be higher up, the less funny ones would be low down. So he would take the low down pages, and make them funnier, and put them back at their newly-deserved altitude, so they were the higher pages. Then the pages that were the higher ones before would now be lower than the rest, so he would take them off and make them funnier. Gradually, the whole book would crawl up the wall until he couldn't reach it.
His publisher, being a tall man, could reach the pages, and he would snatch them and stick them together, not really in any order, and publish them. If PG had been a bit taller, all his books would have been even funnier. Imagine that.
A page as boring as pg 121 of Three Men in a Boat would have been edited beyond all recognition before it reached the bottom of the window.

There is a real problem in this book, which is responsible for the boring bits, and it's one that's relevant to what I'm trying to do in my own novel at the moment: so I'm going to talk about it.
The narrator is a bit of an idiot. That's not the problem, it's where a lot of the humour comes from. Because the author isn't an idiot, and the reader isn't either, but the narrator is: it's funny. Getting the reader to know that what the narrator is telling them isn't the cold hard truth, but something tainted by his his perspective and abilities, is a skill. Especially when the gap between the narrator's version and the actual is what you're focusing on.
So when our narrator goes off on well-imformed, poetic asides, it's way out of character. Not only does it render those passages useless--they might not be boring, in a serious novel, but that's not where they are--but it undermines all the funny stuff. Because the author has spent a lot of time telling us this narrator is not as dumb as he needs to be for the jokes to work.

Christie manages it with Hastings a lot better. Today I bought myself another Poirot novel, and I intend to pay a lot of attention to how she does it, this time. The book I'm starting at the moment has two narrators, and they have different intelligences, and different levels of self-deception. It's first person, and whether I can communicate their biases succesfully or not is going to be key.

Back to Jerome, and his failed (pre-emptive) attempt at the Wodehouse Method. He wasn't consistently funny enough to get away with no plot. He should either be funnier, or plottier. I've talked before of my desire/fear at doing a funny novel, at some point. When I do, I'm going to have to give it a whole bunch of plot. Or get a lot taller.


  1. This review mentions Wodehouse. I'm sold.

  2. Is it just me, or does learning more about writing make writing seem scarier?

  3. Is Tristram Shandy on your list - or have you already read it? Talk about going off at tangents! I read it years ago (it was on my reading list prior to going to Uni to do Eng Lit) and I could not believe that one of the very first novels ever written was Crazy man!