The Jeeves Codex

There’s a new name on my writers-I-like-a-lot list, though this name took a circular route to get here. I was introduced to the novelist Jonathan Ames a few years ago by my friend Christian Crumlish who’d apparently been his college buddy at Princeton. We’d dropped by a Jonathan Ames reading at a small Greenwich Village theater, but you couldn’t call the performance a reading so much as, well, an astonishing spontaneous thirty-minute filibuster of disgusting personal facts and scatological observations regarding Ames’s body and his highly varied sexual desires. It was all quite humorous, and the crowd seemed to like him a lot. But scatology is not my bag and I honestly didn’t know what to think about my friend’s friend.

But something compelled me to pick up his latest novel, Wake Up, Sir! and I am now a believer in the worthiness of Jonathan Ames. In fact I’m still glowing from this artful book, which radiates a complex warmth beneath its comic surface.

The book is an explicit homage to a favorite writer of mine, P. G. Wodehouse, in that it features a hedonistic narrator with a calm valet named Jeeves. Ames’s hero Alan Blair is a modern slacker with a manic personality and a slippery grip on reality, and he speaks in the same bemused cadences as Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster.

But there are also echoes of Charles Bukowski and Fyodor Dostoevsky in the utter self-deprecation that permeates this narrator’s every thought. Ames writes by letting his character spill out everything about himself, whether he wants us to know it or not. It’s a cathartic, ecstatic kind of self-revelation, and in this context I have a better understanding of the performance I saw in Greenwich Village a few years ago. This book is tamer and has a surprisingly polite tone, but the veneer breaks often, as in the ridiculously detailed long scene in which the narrator discovers he has an STD and goes into a frenzy of suicidal yearnings and obsessive self-shaving and cleansing that lasts 14 pages. Somehow, believe it or not, the 14 pages are fun to read. It’s all so remarkably childish as to be endearing; reading this book is like watching a child throw a hilarious fit.

Some reviewers of the book have hinted that Jeeves is imaginary, while other reviewers treat the character as fully real. I take a strong stand on this matter, because I believe the proper way to interpret this book is as a series of strong hints and clues — a Dan-Brown-like codex, even — which proves that, beyond any doubt, Jeeves is not real, and is in fact the central psychological metaphor of the book. Here’s why I’m sure.

First, nobody but the narrator ever interacts with Jeeves. When they go to a writing colony, we are told that Jeeves will dine with the kitchen staff, but no further mention is made of this and there is a chilling sense that Jeeves will not be dining anywhere. Likewise, when they are driving, Jeeves does not appear to ever take the wheel.

The second clue is the more subtle one, and is designed to be noticed only by hard-core Wodehouse fans like myself. There is a curious subplot involving some stolen slippers which the hero is accused of having absconded with, and when he then finds himself in a very uncomfortable situation at the end of the book, the stolen slippers return in such a way as to miraculously save the situation. This is a classic Wodehouse ending, and the hero even thinks to himself that Jeeves must have devised the solution. But that’s the twist — it turns out somebody else did it. This blunt reversal is the clearest signal that Jeeves can only reach the edge of reality in this novel, and is in fact, like Harvey the rabbit, like Donnie Darko, like the creepy twin kid in Thomas Tryon’s The Other, like Leland Palmer’s Bob, like Tony Soprano’s Kevin Finnerty, like Hamlet’s Ghost, an utter figment.

Despite this Matrix-like undercurrent of meta-meaning, the book’s plot generally glides sweetly upon the author’s felicitous prose. Two highlight scenes: the surreal moment when the narrator resumes his psychotic alcohol abuse at a party with several equally unbalanced writers, and the hilarious scene when he first arrives at a rural writer’s colony (based on the real Yaddo) and becomes convinced that he has been deceived into staying at a mental hospital, based on the grotesque facial appearance of several nearby poets.

Ames hints on his own website that Wake Up, Sir! may be made into a movie. If this happens, I hope Ames will play himself and Stephen Fry will play Jeeves (he got it right in a recent television production, although co-star Hugh Laurie was absolutely absymal — I’m talking Tom Hanks bad — as Bertie Wooster, and made the series unwatchable). Perhaps this film will be the great Wodehouse movie that has never been made (in fact, Arthur starring Dudley Moore and John Gielgud was not too completely far from this mark; Wodehouse seems to inspire great homages).

I hope the Ames film happens. I think I’m going to pick up his new book of essays next. I’m not sure what to expect.

8 Responses

  1. So… you don’t see Edward

    … you don’t see Edward Norton as Ames and Brad Pitt as Jeeves?

  2. Edward Norton as Ames —
    Edward Norton as Ames — that’s not a bad idea, Bill.

    Not sure where you’re heading with this Brad Pitt, thing, though. I didn’t know that comedy was his forte. Steve Martin or Bill Murray could handle it, though.

  3. The Brad Pitt thing was one
    The Brad Pitt thing was one of my typically oblique veiled references that hardly anyone gets, like Harvey the rabbit, Donnie Darko, the creepy twin kid in Thomas Tryon’s The Other, Leland Palmer’s Bob, Tony Soprano’s Kevin Finnerty, and Hamlet’s Ghost. But I’ve already said too much.

  4. I wanna knowWhy are some film
    I wanna know

    Why are some film adaptations great, some terrible? Does the “crew” not get it? The Wodehouse weekly series on PBS a few years ago was pleasantly dull. But Wodehouse’s writings never are; insipid at times no doubt, but not dull.

    Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 and Mother Night were unwatchable. But the film Catch 22 was better than the book. To me this is one of the great central core issues for any writer. You would think that a film crew has so much more capacity to capture facial expression, verbal inflection, setting, mood; and all at an augenblink. I can’t imagine not being able to do every scene in my writing, a million times better as a film director. So how is it possible that a writer could produce better quality than a film version of the same subject? I wanna know (he demanded angrily beseechingly, the ash falling off his cigarette onto the carpet as the wind swept the dust down the lonely street outside the window and other horseshit descriptions you use to convey events that the camera could pick up all at once without all these clumsy cumbersome words).

  5. Ahhh, yes. I get it now, and
    Ahhh, yes. I get it now, and so does Chuck Pahlaniuk if he’s reading. Well played, Ectric.

  6. I think a good writer allows
    I think a good writer allows each one of us to imagine part of the scene the way we interpret it. I’m reading Diary by Chuck Palahniuk. On page 8, he writes, “Picture the kind of castle houses that a little girl living in a trailer park would draw – big stone houses, each with a forest of chimneys, each a mountain range of different rooflines, wings and towers and gables, all of them going up and up to the lightning rod at the top. Slate roofs. Fancy wrought-iron fences. Fantasy houses, lumpy with bay windows and dormers.” I love that description, and even though it is somewhat specific, there is still room for each reader to see it their way. This changes once a movie set is built. Well, that is more about description, but I think the idea holds true for character development and action, too.

  7. Yeah, but I need to be more
    Yeah, but I need to be more specific, Bill. A car or a buiding explodes, as in an action movie; people rush around. They can do so madly, frantically, lost, dismembered, stunned; but you’ve a limited number of descriptive phrases, words are limiting. There is a distinction in art forms, writing v filming, like the differences in cinema and live theater. And there are two associative questions, key to both. A – why wouldn’t every movie wildly outshine the writing it was based on? and B – how can some writers write better than film adaptors can adapt? Say for example, you can’t capture Wodehouse’s charm on film…why not? And I realize that, as you said, perhaps the best I can do is to give the reader a gateway to his own imagination. But I want to banter about how that’s done.

    And people might be bored with this redundant search for answers to technique; but I think of Miro, Gris, Braque, Picasso talking about methodologies, mechanics in painting. The Lake poets chatting about metrical, rhyming patterns, around the coffee table. The Black Mountain poets, and so forth. And I would never presume that we are in their league, nor would I ever presume otherwise. But it an essential in the creative nebulae to not only talk about art, but to also talk about how to do it.

  8. league schmeegue, mcteague.(I
    league schmeegue, mcteague.

    (I just wanted to say that).

    Yeah, I see what you mean. Well, it could be that some movie makers are just dumb-asses.

    But seriously, one thing I do hear a lot is this: Movies are so expensive to make that it takes a lot of financial backing, and every backer wants to have their say in the way the movie is made. Not always, but sometimes. A book, in theory, is just the author, the editor, and the publisher, and sometimes even they can screw it up.

    I wish some other people would get in on this discussion, don’t you?

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