I only recently read Brideshead Revisited, my first encounter with Evelyn Waugh’s work. That book displayed an impressive amount of range. While it was focused on the upper upper English class, there were many aspects to the novel — youth, war, sexuality, marriage, religion, alcoholism — that all flowed naturally from one narrative. Despite that range, however, I was not expecting what I found in The Loved One. Not only does the setting shift from upper-class Britain to a sort of no class America/Hollywood setting, but the tone is completely different. This cover, which I thought was just some cover designer’s abstract interpretation but which is actually quite literal, should give some clue:
To get right to it, this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and one of the best. (I’ve said such things a lot this year. I can only thank fellow bloggers and commenters who give me good suggestions constantly.) From the first page I was drawn into Waugh’s darkly humorous prose and subject matter. There we meet Dennis Barlow and his uncle Sir Francis Hinsley, two Englishmen who have resorted to live in Southern California, “the counterparts of numberless fellow countrymen exiled in the barbarous regions of the world.” Hinsley works in the movie industry where he has recently run into some trouble with one of his stars:
‘He had most of her nose cut off and sent her to Mexico for six weeks to learn Flamenco singing. Then he handed her over to me. I named her. I made her an anti-fascist refugee. I said she hated men because of her treatment by Franco’s Moors. That was a new angle then. It caught on. And she was really quite good in her way, you know — with a truly horrifying natural scowl. Her legs were never photogenique but we kept her in long skirts and used an understudy for the lower half in scenes of violence. I was proud of her and she was good for another ten years’ work at least.
‘And now there’s been a change of policy at the top. We are only making healthy films this year to please the League of Decency. So poor Jaunita has to start at the beginning again as an Irish colleen. They’ve bleached her hair and dyed it vermilion. I told them colleens were dark but the technicolor men insisted. She’s working ten hours a day learning the brogue and to make it harder for the poor girl they’ve pulled all her teeth out. She never had to smile before and her own set was good enough for a snarl. Now she’ll have to laugh roguishly all the same. That means dentures.’
Though Waugh presents his characters as people who take their ridiculous jobs seriously, we know that Waugh’s portrayal of this society is dead serious — and dead on. Just like this actress is used and abused to create a new entity from the surface out, much in this novel deals with the veneers people place over themselves. These veneers ultimately serve to destroy them. Neither Dennis nor Hinsley are doing particularly well in America. They don’t like the culture; indeed, Barlow in particular is very cynical about America (“A man could leave such a girl in a delicatessen shop in New York, fly three thousand miles and find her again he cigar stall at San Francisco, just as he would find his favourite comic strip in the local paper; and she would croon the same words to him in moments of endearment and express the same views and preferences in moments of social discourse.”).
Still, though they pretend they are outside of the society, they cannot rise above it. Barlow, a failed poet, now works at The Happier Hunting Ground, a pet mortuary and one of my favorite literary creations (or is it for real?):
‘Our Grade A service includes several unique features. At the moment of committal, a white dove, symbolizing the deceased’s soul, is liberated over the crematorium.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr Heinkel, ‘I reckon Mrs Heinkel would appreciate the dove.’
‘And every anniversary a card of remembrance is mailed without further charge. It reads: Your little Arthur is thinking of you in heaven today and wagging his tail.’
‘That’s a very beautiful thought, Mr Barlow.’
I can’t resist including a bit more of Waugh’s hilarious prose about the pet mortuary:
Not all his customers were as open-handed and tractable as the Heinkels. Some bogged at a ten-dollar burial, others had their pets embalmed and then went East and forgot them; one, after filling half the ice-box for over a week with a dead she-bear, changed her mind and called in the taxidermist. These were the dark days, to be set against the ritualistic, almost orgiastic cremation of a non-sectarian chimpanzee and the burial of a canary over whose tiny grave a squad of Marine buglers had sounded Taps.
It isn’t long before Hinsley loses his job and commits suicide. Barlow finds him hanging in the apartment and must now go about arranging for his funeral. This takes him to the Happier Hunting Ground’s aspiration: Whispering Pines. Here The Dreamer has founded a virtual fairytale necropolis. It is to here that the elite of Californian society bring their Loved Ones for a final ceremony and for a final resting place. The workers roam around reverently preparing Loved Ones for — well . . . for a show. One gets the feeling that Whispering Pines is the equivalent of a quickly raised gated community. Everything has the look of something else that’s really nice: “Then there is Lovers’ Nest, zoned about a very, very beautiful marble replica of Rodin’s famous statue, the Kiss.” And here is one of my favorites in a sort of Poet’s Corner based on Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “[N]ine rows of hapricots (which by a system of judicious transplantation were kept in perpetual scarlet flower)”; “He looked into the hives and saw in the depths of each a tiny red eye which told that the sound-apparatus was working in good order”; “Peace came dropping rather more quickly.”
While preparing for Hinsley’s finale, Barlow meets Aimée Thanatogenos, a new but rising cosmetologist. Proud of her work, Aimée attempts to show Barlow the importance of what Whispering Pines is, though she admits it’s frustrating to have art that decomposes so quickly. An interest, nevertheless, sparks between the two. To complicate matters, Mr. Joyboy, the head cosmetologist — indeed a god among the workers of Whispering Pines — is pining for Aimée too:
‘But Mr Joyboy, you’ve given him the Radiant Childhood Smile.’
‘Yes, don’t you like it?’
‘Oh, I like it, of course, but his Waiting One did not ask for it.’
‘Miss Thanatogenos, for you the Loved Ones just naturally smile.’
‘Oh, Mr Joyboy.’
‘It’s true, Miss Thanatogenos. It seems I am just powerless to prevent it. When I am working for you there’s something inside me says “He’s on his way to Miss Thanatogenos” and my fingers just seem to take control. Haven’t you noticed it?’
Aimée confounds herself trying to choose between the cynical, ungodly Barlow, though attracted to him, and the godly, artistic Mr. Joyboy. Whose Loved One will she become?
As I hope you can see, this novel entertained me to no end. I still get excited reading these pulled quotes (by the way, sorry for the large amount of quotes in this review; there were many many more I wanted to include, so don’t worry that I’ve pulled all the best ones). The humor, however, is not the only thing this novel has going for it. This novel, which takes apart a society based on veneer and superfluity, itself has a serious and genuinely tragic narrative underneath its humorour cover. It’s subtitle is “An Anglo-American Tragedy,” and while that is a satirical title, it is also quite literal. Underneath it all, the novel deals with exactly what these people can’t: loneliness, cynicism, aura, and death. And Waugh’s prose isn’t entirely sardonic:
There was silence still. Dennis had made an impression far beyond his expectation.
‘Here you are,’ he said at length, stopping at Aimée’s apartment house. This was not the moment he realized for soft advances. ‘Jump out.’
Aimée said nothing and for a moment did not move. Then in a whisper she said: ‘You could release me.’
‘Ah, but I won’t.’
‘Not when you know I’ve quite forgotten you?’
‘But you haven’t.’
‘Yes. When I turn away I can’t even remember what you look like. When you are not there I don’t think of you at all.’