Monday, July 15, 2013


Comic novels often reach their heights in party scenes. It's the perfect situation, after all, bringing together drunkenness, awkward conversation, and shifting groups of characters. (And did I mention drunkenness?) To my mind, they're second only to hangover scenes as a chance for a comic novelist to really cut loose and have fun.

While Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People Is Wrong is sadly devoid of hangover scenes, it is rife with parties, all quite funny. The best is held by the protagonist, Treece, for some of the students he works with, and the funniest part of that party is built around the breach of social etiquette that opens it: Louis Bates, an awkward student, arrives far too early.
[Treece] was straightaway presented with a major social quandary: could one fairly ask the too-early guest to wander about the cold winter streets and return in an hour, when the sandwiches would be made and the preparations completed, the old pair of working trousers and the frilly apron replaced by a suit--or must one invite him in and perhaps even entertain him? Louis, on the other hand, had no such social doubts, and politely and firmly indicated what he considered appropriate:

"I'm afraid I'm a little early," he said, "but that's because I didn't want to be late. I have no sense of time."

"I think we said four o'clock, didn't we?" asked Treece, opening the door no wider. "It's now not quite three."

"I know," said Louis, and at that point it dawned on Treece that Louis actually intended to stay, for some abstruse purpose.

"None of your colleagues has arrived yet," Treece said.

The remark did not perturb Louis at all. "Apres moi, le deluge," he said.

Treece saw that he had no alternative and gave way, and Louis stepped confidently into the hall, unbuttoning his coat and looking with interest about him at the decoration. "I thought we might have a little chat about how I was getting on, you know," said Louis.

"I think we might try and preserve this as a social occasion," said Treece.
Leading Louis into the drawing room and helping him out of his huge overcoat, "which he had somehow contrived to wind about him like a shroud," Treece apologizes:
"You must excuse me if I leave you here, but I haven't finished getting things ready yet, and I have to change," said Treece. Louis appeared at first hurt, and then baffled, by this news. He was well awared that if he was left alone in an empty room he would quickly be nibbled by misfortune; he would pull over a bookcase while trying to take out a book, or be discovered by an unwarned housekeeper and accused of burglary. He knew himself and he knew his gods; he knew the rotation of his misfortunes. "This is a nice room," he said quick-wittedly.

Treece looked around, surprised; it had not changed, it was as it was, and that was patently the last thing that could be said of it. If he was the sort of person who liked nice rooms, he was damned if this was the sort of room he would be living in.
As Treece attempts to flee to the kitchen, it gets no better:
"Isn't there anything I can be doing?" [Louis] suggested. "I'm afraid there isn't," said Treece, nervous of Louis's desire to please. He made hastily for the door and Louis planned an even more desperate move. "Do you think I could have a bath?"

But Treece had gone. He had withdrawn to the kitchen and, up to his elbows in pastry (Mrs. Watson had taught him how to make cakes), was wondering what Louis was doing and what would have happened to the room when he got back. In fact, Louis passed through all the stages of privation in a strange house--he examined the ornaments on the mantel, looked at the pictures on the walls, noticed the books in the bookcase and read the spicier pages of the medical directory, peered at his teeth in the mirror, made sure his fly buttons were fastened--and he was cutting his hair at the back with a pair of scissors found in an open drawer of the bureau when Treece returned, nearly an hour later, to start the fire. "I ought to have done this before I came," said Louis Bates.
And all of the before anyone's had a drop to drink!

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