What a terrible mess we've gotten in

Laughing Gas

Earl Reginald "Reggie" Havershot, dispatched to America against his will in order to save his dypsomaniac cousin from the clutches of both liquor and the woman to which he wishes to become engaged, finds himself in the same dentist's waiting room as child star Joey Cooley. Both are to have a tooth out, and both find themselves under general anaesthetic in adjoining surgeries. But Reggie wakes up horrified to find that he and young Cooley have somehow swapped bodies during the otherwise routine clinical process of tooth extraction. Cooley, he soon finds out, is bolting around the place in the bulky body of the aristocrat bopping the noses of people he hates, and the police are gradually forming a pattern, while the Earl is prisoner to Joey's curls, his miserable schedule of pranks and public appearances, and the curtailment of his adult activities by the formidable Miss Brinkmeyer and the surprisingly sinister aspect of his fiancée, April June. As the scales fall from his eyes he soon realises: he needs to get out, get his body, and get back to England.

Wodehouse spends much of the brazenly hackneyed Laughing Gas perversely turning his own techniques inside out: a rescue attempt aided by the apparently friendly butler ends in a failure that Jeeves could never conscience; the lead character ends up (apologies for spoiling what plot there is) engaged, albeit not to the quite obvious disaster he sets out to court. Moreover, he happily shatters some of the golden rules of farces. To keep up the pace, they ought to resort to high-speed, physical dynamics. Characters hare around, fall over, drop into the shrubbery, are chased by thundering, brachiating Spodes. However, Wodehouse has prevented himself from resorting to such literal speed increases, as the Earl is frequently trapped against his adult will by Cooley's guardians. The result is a very stationary novel, compared to Jeeves & Wooster, or even to the Blandings series.

In places this static method works: the tension of the Earl bouncing off the walls, as Cooley in the Earl's body bounces his fist off his erstwhile oppressors with gleeful, childish and increasingly illegal abandon, coils and uncoils like a spring, keeping the story moving even when the Earl does not. But frequently it feels as though Wodehouse's usually powerful stroke of farce is treading water. The great strength of Wodehousian fiction lies in the author's ability to tell a cracking story, with sparkling characters, in which nothing actually very much happens; that the lack of plot is almost the point, or that the plot has a lack of a point. But plot is not the same as activity, any more than steel girders or a network of lead counterweights are like popping, fizzing champagne. The moral behind the relative flatness of Laughing Gas is: if you're not accomplishing anything, it's best to look busy.