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The main plot concerns a group of young people from London's "bright young generation." They have monied parents and spend most of their time searching for the next party and amusing fad. The protagonist is Adam Fenwick-Symes, a poor writer who manages to live the highlife by being a hanger-on. He is in love with Nina Blount, but cannot marry her because of his economic status. The book chronicles his attempts at making enough money to marry Nina. As with other Waugh books, the characters are passive and do not really do anything, but they manage to have some terrible things happen to them!
The supporting characters are extremely funny, including the modern Agatha Runcible, the revolving line of Prime Ministers, and the various people who become the columnist Mr. Chatterbox. Of course, as with all of the Back Bay Books editions of Waugh's books, the cover and style are lovely. If you love Waugh, you'll love this book. Highly recommended.
"Vile Bodies," one his earlier novels, is prototypical of his career, featuring a protagonist who is beleaguered by misfortunes but manages to rise to certain challenges. Adam Fenwyck-Symes is a young author who would like to marry his girlfriend Nina Blount but doesn't have enough money to support her, and he has to write twelve books before he can get a decent advance from his publisher. For the time being, he rents a room at a boarding house run by a woman named Lottie Crump and inhabited by a disparate group of idiots including the deposed king of Ruritania.
Adam petitions Nina's father, a retired colonel who is either senile or eccentric or both, a wealthy man who's too cheap to buy a car or pay for bus fare but enthusiastic enough about the cinema to blow all his money on the production of a film about Methodism founder John Wesley, for some financial aid, but the old man's strings can't be pulled so easily. A ray of hope is offered in the form of the suicide of a local rag gossip columnist named Simon Balcairn who assumes the nom de plume of Mr. Chatterbox. Adam fills in for the deceased hack, documenting the antics of the partying crowd, nonchalantly embellishing and inventing items to make the proceedings more interesting to his readers and himself.
Waugh is brilliant in the way he constructs an episodic novel within the context of an overarching plot, each of his characters usually having one distinct idiosyncrasy that contributes something significant to the story. One episode consists of a drunken Major who bets Adam's money on a sure horse but never makes it clear whether Adam will ever get his money back. Another memorable scene is an automobile race attended by Adam and a few of his friends, including Agatha Runcible, a young lady who nearly immolates herself by carelessness with her discarded cigarettes. And perhaps the most salient extraneous character is Mrs. Melrose Ape, an American evangelist who travels with a chorus of winged "angels," each named after a Virtue. (Chastity's persistent misconduct with strange men is troublesome to the troupe.) Virtue or not, Discontent could never be as Divine as one of Waugh's novels.
I sensed a slight touch of sarcasm in the title of the ultimate chapter, 'a happy ending', as it is not so much an ending, as another day in their hollow lives, and as for it being 'happy', we see them slowly try to piece together the remains of their lonely lives as the jazz fades out, the champagne runs dry and the war comes as a harsh reality check to the Bright Young People of 1920's party scene.
Beautifully written and quite captivating to read, 'Vile Bodies' is an intriguing masterpiece that should be in everyone's library, if not their top 10 favourites.
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