The thing about book hangovers, I find, is that they can hang around for days! And I wanted to get on with another book after “The Hopkins Manuscript”, but couldn’t decide what, so in the end settled for a slim Waugh – hopefully a funny one! I haven’t read enough Waugh – and it’s not as if Mount TBR isn’t well supplied with his works – so hopefully this will redress the balance a little!

Wikipedia says of The Loved One: “The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (1948) is a short satirical novel by British novelist Evelyn Waugh about the funeral business in Los Angeles, the British expatriate community in Hollywood, and the film industry.” That’s putting it in a nutshell, because for a short novel it has an awful lot to say!

evelynwaugh
Our hero is one Dennis Lawson, a poet famous in his own country who has survived the second world war and relocated to Hollywood to work there. But his contract has expired (the great fear of all his fellow ex-pats) and he has taken to working in a pets’ funeral parlour. Needless to say, this job puts him beyond the pale as far as his countrymen are concerned, but Dennis seems to care little about what people think. His housemate, Sir Francis Hinsley, has been a successful novelist and then scriptwriter, but he is struggling to cope with the studio’s demands and when they let him go, he takes rather drastic action. It is left to Dennis to arrange his funeral which is how he comes into direct contact with the Whispering Glades funeral service. Here he meets Aimee Thanatogenos, one of the cosmeticians employed there, and life takes an unexpected turn for both of them. Aimee is the favourite of Mr. Joyboy, the senior mortician, and soon a love triangle develops as she is torn between the two men. Meanwhile, Dennis wrestles with writer’s block and tries to hide the nature of his real job from Aimee, who is driven to consult the local agony uncle. Which man will she choose, will Dennis begin to write again and will the characters survive the Hollywood machine?

Waugh was obviously disenchanted with Hollywood and its fakeness after his visit there in 1947 to negotiate a possible film of Brideshead. TLO attacks not only the odd interment habits of the Californians, but also their culture in general – the reliance on image, the uniformity and also the cut-throat nature of the film industry. No-one is immune from his vitriolic pen – not the ex-pat Brits hanging onto their traditions, nor the pathetic Mr. Joyboy, an idol in his workplace but completely different at home, where he is a henpecked mummy’s boy. Even the heroine Aimee is portrayed as incapable of making a single decision on her own and unable to discern what her real feelings are.

Aimee is also a misfit – Dennis recognises her non-conformity and the fact she stands out from the other girls who seem to have come off some kind of production line. This is what attracts him, but it is also what ultimately destroys them: Aimee is unable to deal with the conflicts she perceives between how she thinks things should be and how they are. She is failed by Dennis, Mr. Joyboy and her agony uncle the Guru Brahmin (who is actually two men – the alcoholic Mr. Slump, and another unnamed gloomy man). When these all conspire to let her down, her fate is sealed. Despite her differences she has a need to conform which is why she cannot understand Dennis, who is unlike American men; or deal with the dual personality presented by Mr. Joyboy and his dependence on her mother.

“The mothers of great men often disconcert their son’s admirers. Mrs. Joyboy had small angry eyes, frizzy hair, pince-nez on a very thick nose, a shapeless body and positively insulting clothes.”

“With a steady hand Aimee fulfilled the prescribed rites of an American girl preparing to meet her lover – dabbed herself under the arms with a preparation designed to seal the sweat glands, gargled another designed to sweeten the breath, and brushed into her hair some odorous drops from a bottle labelled: Jungle Venom”

The book features a wonderful cast of supporting characters – the ex-pat Lords, clinging to their traditions (the Cricket Club!) and desperate to maintain their standing in the community; the cold studio staff, only thinking of finances and the success of the next film, moulding the actors to fit into the role regardless of what they are really like; the unbelievable Kenworthy, “The Dreamer”, who sees himself as some kind of leader, when in fact he is simply someone who runs a funeral service – truly Hollywood is the land of dreams.

Whispering Glades itself was apparently based on the Forest Lawns cemetery and TLO paints a devastating picture of the horrors of the Hollywood burial business, which aims to remove death as far away from reality as possible by dressing it up in mumbo-jumbo and making the corpses (The Loved Ones) look like waxworks. The whole business itself is bizarre enough, but Waugh then parodies the place itself in his presentation of The Happy Hunting Ground, the pet funeral service for which Dennis secretly works.

Of course, it is possible to read dual meaning in the title also, as “The Loved One” is how the staff at Whispering Glades insist on referring to the deceased; but it could also be applied to Aimee, loved by two men and eventually making the transition from one definition of the title to the other!

This is a black and funny portrait of a world of make-believe – in more than one sense, ranging from the fantasy of the film-makers to the unreality of the funeral business – and the humour is as dry as a matzo. What’s terrifying is that the unreality is probably still the same, and you can see traces of the behaviour displayed here in modern celebrity culture. This was a wonderful, dark read and makes me determined to read more Waugh!