It was new Member Mike who won the day in proposing Laughing Gas for our next book discussion, but before posting his notes, I thought I’d mention my little challenge in preparing for our next meeting. I waited too long to order a copy of the book, and like many Wodehouseans, I am very fond of the Overlook Press editions. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a new copy and had to order a used one from Abe Books.
Being a frugal person, I jumped at the free shipping offer for an $8 book, but then felt rather stupid when I realized it would arrive March 11, and our next meeting is March 12. Fortunately I found a YouTube video of an audio recording of the book. It’s been a struggle, however, listening to it as I like to read before going to sleep. With a book, however, I am in less danger of falling asleep as the book falls down and hits me in the face if I do nod off. But I keep my iPad flat on my chest because it’s a little too heavy and cumbersome to keep upright, and so I’ve found myself drifting off. Ah, first-world problems.
Laughing Gas Notes
Or Bertie goes to Hollywood and has a transmigratory experience.
(Transmigration: Transmigration [is] migration from one life (body) to another.)
McCrum’s description of the book is more concise than anything I could think up:
“Laughing Gas, which reflects Wodehouse’s lifelong interest in astral matters, is set in Beverly Hills, and tells the story of an Englishman, Reggie, the 3rd Earl of Havershot, and the Hollywood child star Joey Cooley, who exchange identities while under the ether in a dentist’s chair. The novel is narrated by Havershot, who also provides the ‘love interest’ in his contrasting relationships with the star April June and the studio publiscist Ann Bannister. Havershot is trapped for most of the action in Colley’s pampered, juvenile frame. This gives Wodehouse the opportunity to make several cracks against the absurdities of the Hollywood system”
(pg 235 Robert McCrum, Wodehouse: A Life)
This is really Bertie Wooster, without Jeeves, on a family errand in Hollywood. It is narrated in a first-person style, with many of Wooster’s expressions sprinkled throughout the book. Bertie’s first appearance in the Jeeves stories was not as Bertie Wooster but a Mannering-Phipps (short story: Extracting Gussie). Wodehouse may have recycled that name for this story. Eggy’s name after all is Mannering. Jeeves must have been at Bognor Regis.
Set in America, written and published in 1936, this comes at the end of Wodehouse’s second foray into Hollywood. The nice thing that his publishers were doing to assist with the way Wodehouse was taxed, was to publish once in the US and the second edition in France. Both publications garnered him $20K each in 1936 dollars or $347K in current dollars. Meanwhile during his stays in Hollywood he picked up over $1M (current dollars) for negligible work for the studios.
Wodehouse’s brother Ernest Armine Wodehouse. Armie, was a poet, theosophist and editor of the Theosophical Society Magazine, The Herald of the Star. Occultism was a popular topic in the 20s. It was of interest to PG as he attended at least three seances in the mid to late 20s. When PG died, some sixty titles relating to the occult were found in his possession. In my opinion, while Laughing Gas deals with the “migration of one body to another,” I’m not sure this is “occult” related. Perhaps in the 30s such things were considered to be occult, today it seems that the title of the book is more appropriate when discussing such topics. Maybe PG was giving his brother a gentle poke.
Casual Racism: No Blackface! However we get some 1930s expressions: Jap, Negroid Train Attendant, untutored savage, and Coloured Brother, (which is just a curious choice of words).
We have a full-fledged “souse” in the form of Eggremont “Eggy” Mannering, whose mannerisms are pure stereotypical drunkenness that would set a standard for “educated” drunks for decades (Arthur with Dudley Moore is the last of the sympathetic comic “drunken” characters).
Wodehouse’s writing has a sense of timelessness. Oh sure, there are things that don’t exist anymore: titles and clubs. But this book is a snapshot of 30s Hollywood, with the mention of several movie stars, (Jimmy Cagney, Ronald Coleman, Fred Astaire, Clark Gable) and a brief passing of Hitler and Mussolini as they compared to studio heads (with the German and Italian placing favorably in the lineup).
We welcome the return of the that time-honored card game, known for parting a fool and his money … Persian Monarchs.
We meet Joey Cooley, who as a child star has to maintain a facade of golden curls and short pants. The “idol” of today’s American Motherhood, he longs to go home to Ma, in Chillicothe, Ohio. Not necessarily a sympathetic character, especially when he does start bopping people on their noses. On the other hand, we see from today’s perspective he was being exploited. Havershot’s life as Joey Cooley and his interactions with the other boys, probably gave Plum a chance to revisit some his “boys” books from 30 years earlier.
Reggie Havershot, (Bertie in an Earl’s clothing), is the adult in Joey’s body. As the two switch bodies, we learn little of Joey’s perspective during the novel and his visits are like apparitions, fleeting and ominous. His foray into bodily assault earns him the title of “fiend,” one that he relishes.
Two love interests—April June and Ann Bannister. Two ends of the Wodehouse female spectrum. One a gorgeous, phony movie star and the other an earnest, likable best friend female with a heart of gold. Guess who our hero will end up with?
If Plum’s defense of being “non-political” or politically naive was a stretch after his pre-War broadcasts, his interview that brought the wrath of the movie studios down on him was possibly met with the same innocent response. In the scene at April June’s where Havershot/Joey is interviewed and where he fixes himself a scotch and smokes a cigarette, he does get to mock the studios. Then to my thought, HE plays out the idea that it was the young child being preyed upon by the press. This may have been his response to the war time broadcasts. While not a child, he was naive.
The number of people impersonating other people in this book staggering. From the main characters to the three kidnappers at the end, there have rarely been this many characters representing them selves as other people, or in disguise.