Stephen Fry is better known to American audiences as an actor, particularly his portrayal of Wodehouse’s ineffable valet Jeeves in the Jeeves and Wooster series shown on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater. He also has appeared as an actor in Kenneth Branagh’s too-little-seen Peter’s Friends and as Lord Melchior in Rowan Atkinson’s inspired BBC series Blackadder 2. Fry’s acting is only part of the hefty parcel of talent that he has been dealt–he also has written a musical, a regular column for the London Telegraph, a play and two novels. I’ve only recently been able to partake of his novels, and I can gladly recommend them to people who don’t mind in their comedy a strange brew of both the profane and the sacred (or, in clearer terms, both vulgar and sophisticated).
Fry’s first novel, The Liar, is a more-than-promising debut, a novel of magnificent flights-of-fanciful wordplay within a complex structure of shifting time and points-of-view. It’s not perfect, by all means, but it more than makes up for its little faux pas with the sheer audacity of its style and scope. The book centers around the life of one Adrian Healey, a boy-man who is an incontrovertible prevaricator. We meet Adrian at English public school, and instantly we are charmed. While he is no role-model, his is the type of quick wit that most of us would like to have. And since the point-of-view is Adrian’s, we also come to understand some of the seedier aspects of his soul. The delivery is similar to Tom Brown’s Schooldays or the “boy’s school” novels that P.G. Wodehouse wrote before he started righting the record of valets and aunts.
To this plebeian plot Fry overlays a post-Cold War bit of skullduggery, full of code names and mysterious packages, sudden deaths and people described simply by the type of clothing they are wearing. There is a definite link between the two plots from the beginning, but the ties that bind are less than apparent. It is in this Ian Fleming/John le Carre subplot where the novel slacks off a bit, but even when the novel seems to have finally turned a predictable corner, you discover that Fry’s quite the sly one. Like a lie repeated over time, everything seems to make sense until it all adds up and doesn’t. Let me assure you, you will not be able to predict where this novel is going.
Fry’s second novel, The Hippopotamus, isn’t quite the romp of the first. Some of this is due to the linearity of the plot, the third-personness of its many epistolary sections, but even more, I think that Fry had spent his wild oats in the first, and took a more leisurely approach to this second. Again, the title refers to the main point-of-view character, in this case a failed poet cum editor cum reviewer named Ted Wallace. The story opens with Wallace being sacked from his most recent post of drama columnist, and we soon learn Wallace’s views on both drama, newspapers, and the power of alcohol. While wallowing in self-pity, Wallace finds himself drawn into being a different sort of cynic by the machinations of both of his godchildren.
Like The Liar, the plot of The Hippopotamus has its sharp right angles. There is no direct subplot here, but there are many tales within other tales and background that is necessary to fill in before we achieve the climax.
A previous reviewer compared Fry’s novels to Monty Python, and the comparison is entirely appropriate. While nothing like the actual content of the Pythons, Fry has assumed the mantle of their irreverent and, at times, illogical way of approaching traditional media. In these novels, Fry commits most every sin that the pedantical English Lit clergy have made canonical. The fact that the books are still enjoyable indicates to me that he had malice aforethought. Given the strength of these works, I sincerely hope that Fry never achieves Hollywood stardom, thus depriving us of any more of these wonderful bits of crime.
[Finished 26 July 1996]