Taking the Mickey Bliss out of a Loved One

Coffin shop, Warsaw, Poland. Photo: FastilyClone [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia.

The Loved OneThe Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am on a journey to read all of Evelyn Waugh's work and The Loved One is regarded as one of his best. Reviewing the book for the New York Times on 23rd June 1948, Orville Prescott wrote that:
Mr Waugh has never written more brilliantly.
I was surprised that an American reviewer found the work so witty because it is a critique of all the worst of Hollywood's excess. (Apparently, it was written after Waugh had been in Hollywood, trying to adapt his most famous work, Brideshead Revisited, for the screen.) 

The term "the loved one" refers to the dead, and the story takes place between the Whispering Glades Memorial Park (a mortuary and cemetery) and the Happier Hunting Ground (a pet cemetery which mimics its well-regarded neighbour). 

The mimicry of great monuments in Whispering Glades (built in modern materials with modern "improvements" to the originals) reminded me of The Venetian casino in Macau, where the inside is a wonderful replica of Venice, including canals, gondolas, singing gondoliers and random arias sung from the fake buildings that line the canals. (It is so good it is obviously fake, much like modern movies that use so much CGI they are more like cartoons than motion pictures.) 

The dark satire follows a bizarre love triangle and the various tragedies that occur are oddly humorous. Prescott suggests that Waugh's novella is short, but thankfully so, because:
At times the joke wears thin, the continued attack seems a little too much like beating a demonstrably dead dog.
The joke is not just on American excess, but on the British in Hollywood and their bizarre attempts to maintain a sense of empire, despite their empire all-but having fallen apart by the time the novella was written. Waugh's satire is very sharp. It isn't so much tongue in cheek or deadpan, but rather so real that you can tell it is false. Hemingway may well have approved. 

That Waugh was an admirer of Hemingway is evident in an interview with The Paris Review in 1963:
I think that Hemingway made real discoveries about the use of language in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I admired the way he made drunk people talk.
But the thing with Waugh is that one can never be sure. Is he taking the mickey or is he serious? The point is that he is taking the mickey, but from what I can gather of Waugh's work so far, there are some serious themes underlying the dark humour. As Hemingway wrote in Esquire in October 1935 (By-Line, p. 221):
Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that when he makes something up it is as it would truly be.
I now see echoes of Waugh in Colson White's Underground Railway: you know it is fake but it is so well written it is entirely believable. Not like CGI, which is clearly fake, but in a way that one can suspend reality long enough to truly believe the story. Even if I do still shudder a little when I think of the goings on at the mortuary, the idea of fake presented as real is a key theme. 

Take, for instance, Waugh's protagonist, the failed poet Dennis Barlow, whose plagiarism is so good that it is largely undetected. Unless, of course, the target of his plagiarised poetry is too stupid to notice. Of Barlow's "girlfriend", Prescott wrote:
Her IQ was little above idiocy.
Perhaps this is closer to the point. The fakery is so real that we blindly accept stupidity as truth, yet we are too vain to notice the difference. Waugh was indeed brilliant, and that I am unable to tell when he is taking the mickey is probably more a case of him telling me that we are taking the mickey out of ourselves.

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