Monday, December 16, 2013

Reviewing P.G. Wodehouse's "Laughing Gas"

It was my first exposure to P.G. Wodehouse, and I didn’t know it until years afterward. This is how it all began: my devious mother got me a “comedy book on cassette.” Already I have to interrupt myself to explain cassettes to the young and ignorant whippersnapper readers.  Are you sitting comfortably? “Cassettes,” dear children, are from the era you’ve probably been taught in history class to refer to as B.C.D., that is Before CD’s. CD’s, you may vaguely recall, are those coaster-shaped things that you used to use before you got an iPod and started downloading everything. 

But as I was saying, my mom checked out this “comedy” book on cassette from the library.  Maybe she was being her usual devious self. Maybe she had intended to listen to it in her nonexistent spare time, and when she realized the futility of this intention she passed it on to me so I wouldn’t annoy her by listening to The Adventure of the Speckled Band for the fortieth time. Either way, I listened to it.

Sure, I thought it was funny. I hadn’t been as exposed to British accents at that tender age, so at least there was the strange pronunciation to get a giggle out of every few minutes.  However, nothing had prepared me to process the Wodehousian speak that MAKES Wodehouse’s writing so unique. I didn’t really get that it was supposed to be humorous. 

“Wow, I knew English people talked weird,” I thought to myself, “But I didn’t think their vocabulary was THAT different.” I mean, who goes around calling “a punch in the nose” a “poke in the snoot”? Once might be eccentric, but to use it consistently, as if it were an accepted figure of speech! This was beyond my comprehension. 

But let’s get back to the story. Or rather, since I haven’t really talked about the story, let’s get ON with the story. It’s about this British Earl named Reggie who goes to Hollywood to talk his drunkard cousin out of marrying what the Stiff Upper Lip Relatives think is an American gold-digging bimbo. Complications arise, he ends up eating ice cream at the wrong time and on the wrong tooth, and he ends up under laughing gas getting his tooth fixed. At the same time Joey Cooley, child star a-la Shirley Temple, is ALSO under laughing gas getting a tooth pulled. When Reggie’s consciousness returns, he finds it’s returned to the wrong body.  Yep, that’s right, it’s a Body Switching Story. Freaky Friday + 1930’s Hollywood + the usual Wodehousian plot gambits with spunky women, bratty kids, mean aunts (though in this case it’s not technically an aunt), and famous old gentlemen who hate spats. 

As I said, my twelve-year-old self didn’t really know what to make of this world. Much later I discovered Jeeves and Wooster, late enough for me to have forgotten the name of this book.  “This P.G. Wodehouse writes a lot like that guy who wrote the bodyswitching story with the dentist thing,” I commented to myself.  Then it dawned on me that I should read through Wodehouse’s bibliography…and found Laughing Gas. I listened to it just recently, and enjoyed it a lot more now that I understand what Simon Prebble was saying.*

Speaking of Simon Prebble, first let me note that I love his narration, but sadly he should not have read Laughing Gas. Why? Because this book is mostly set in America, with American characters sporting American accents. And Simon Prebble, proficient as he may be with different British regional dialects, cannot do an Ohio accent for the world.  It took me several C.D’s (There I go again, young ones, showing my age with my refusal to use a downloadable audiobook) to realize he was even TRYING to do anything with Joey Cooley.  Granted this book is set in the 30’s, and most American films from around that time sound vaguely British (mostly because actors wanted to be taken seriously and hired British elocution teachers. I naturally learned all this from Singin in the Rain), but since Joey Cooley is described as having a hopeless Ohioan accent, there really is no excuse.

Prebble isn’t the only problem. After all, here’s Wodehouse writing all these Americans as if they were British. It should have been a HUGE tipoff that Joey Cooley had been replaced mentally by an Earl when Reggie kept greeting people with “What ho.” 

Unfortunately, though Lauging Gas is as hilarious as I’ve come to expect of Wodehouse, it’s not his crispest work, technically speaking. His plots are always hinged on the humor of coincidence: people bumping into each other at the worst or most unexpected moments, that sort of thing. These coincidences aren’t always believable (there’s something of a heightened reality about these stories), but it’s easy to suspend that belief when there are a limited amount of characters in a small country estate. In contrast, it’s hard to suspend believe in the huge, sprawling, overpopulated United States (or even just Hollywood), and the humor seems forced and not quite up to snuff by Wodehousian standards.

*Thank you, Masterpiece Theater, for helping me to learn British English.


  1. Heavens, I haven't read any P.G. Wodehouse since the eighties. I can certainly remember that one had to suspend one's disbelief at some of the antics. I hate to scare you but there really isn't such a thing as a British accent per se. With four countries making up Britain each has their own accent and sometimes even language. And again in each country that makes up Britain, )Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland), there are regional accents. I live in Scotland near Edinburgh and all I need to do is drive less than 20 miles to hear a different accent. The English in the P.G. Wodehouse books is something very rarely heard today in Britain. I'm sure it must be the same in America. Anyway, great review.

    1. Thanks for reading, Christopher!

      Don't worry about scaring me; I've watched plenty of Brit TV and listened to plenty of audiobooks since I was twelve, and have always found regional accents (of various countries) fascinating. Also interesting is how accents evolve over time: as I pointed out, early Hollywood actors sound a bit British (especially the non-rhotic pronunciation) which might be partly the actors trying to sound more dignified, but I've heard older generations of Americans speak with that accent, so perhaps the USA has gotten MORE rhotic over time.

      There's a "Talk Like a Pirate Day," I vote we start a "Talk Like a Wodehouse Day."