While Great Britain’s stature as an international power has declined over recent decades with the collapse of their colonial empire, no other country in the world can challenge them when it comes to humor. Britain has a long-standing tradition of delivering clever and consistently funny content, ranging from surrealism and class warfare to expert wordplay and everyday absurdity. P.G. Wodehouse novels, Oscar Wilde plays, Monty Python sketch comedy, Eddie Izzard stand-up comedy, the original “Office” – even a brief scan turns up material that makes our Yankee content seem grossly inferior.
In recent years, the most recognizable ambassadors of British humor to American audiences have been its most famous comic duo: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Shooting to fame through their sketch show “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” the two have been mainstays of British television through programs such as “Blackadder” and “Jeeves and Wooster,” capturing that perfect blend of social commentary and absurdity. Both men have also secured a place in American culture through FOX television shows, starred in feature films and contributed distinctive voice acting performances.
As such clever and versatile performers, it should also come as no surprise that both Fry and Laurie are also adept writers. In the same vein as their performances they pay homage to the British traditions, but create a more modern story that updates the conventions for a new audience. For an example, one need look no further than their debut novels, Fry’s 1991 “The Liar” and Laurie’s 1996 “The Gun Seller” – a pair of well-written, entertaining books with clear ties to British literary greats.
Fry’s “The Liar” is a portrait of Adrian Healey, a young man growing up in British public schools and going onto Cambridge chiefly on the strength of his wit and lies. After a series of youthful dalliances, ranging from seducing half the students in his class to falsifying an undiscovered Charles Dickens erotic novel, he meets his verbal match in the eccentric professor Donald Trefusis. Brought along as a research assistant, he soon learns Trefusis’s misleading speeches may well be hiding a genuine government conspiracy.
From Adrian’s very first appearance – bursting into a boy’s locker room with a top hat, orchid in the buttonhole, ebony cane and lavender gloves – comparisons to Oscar Wilde are inevitable. Fry, a known Wilde fan who portrayed the playwright in a 1997 film, has a perfect grip on that sardonic, foppish style of speech and the dialogue manages to emulate it without being derivative. Fry’s narrative is a bit more direct and raunchy, mentioning a variety of underage sex acts or scatological humor directly whereas Wilde would cloud it with sexual innuendo.
But it’s the interior dialogue that really makes it stand out. When not entertaining or lying Adrian is adrift – unable to feel a sense of connection to reality, pining for another boy’s love and frustrated with boredom, he has gone the Jay Gatsby route and lives exactly the sort of persona a fifteen-year-old boy would be likely to invent. When circumstances challenge him he breaks, or falls on even more lies to keep things going. Adrian reaches a far more humanizing role than any of Wilde’s characters reach, glaringly aware of how his “Ernest” persona is all he really has.
The disjoint Adrian feels in life is expressed also in Fry’s writing style, where chapters are presented out of chronological order going between public school, college and student reaching. It can be a frustrating makeup, particularly due to cryptic interludes between chapters that relate to the later conspiracy angle, but Fry uses the format cunningly to dismiss large parts of the previous section as Adrian’s exaggerations. He presents Adrian as an unreliable narrator without even needing first-person, pulling a prank on the reader themselves.
While Fry’s style emulates the classic absurdist British humor, Laurie’s book – fittingly for the straight man in their routine – is more conventional in both subject and format. “The Gun Seller” is presented as straight-up first-person spy novel, following the adventures of unemployed ex-military vagabond Thomas Lang. Approached to kill an American factory owner, he decides to do the right thing and warn him of an attempt on his life. After a series of assaults and gunshots, he finds himself an unwilling pawn in a CIA-level conspiracy to boost arms sales at the expense of innocent lives.
:“The Gun Seller” is also a character study, but the character Laurie is exploring follows a different British tradition, this one in the vein of Douglas Adams and Bill Bryson: the befuddled Englishman who finds himself in a series of circumstances beyond his control. Lang isn’t presented as anything even approaching a dramatic hero but rather a “literary loser,” trying to find enough money to keep in alcohol and rent rather than achieve the greater good at first. Laurie uses this to create an almost redemptive story, and as such manages to make Lang more complex than other spy protagonists.
Lang’s other perk over James Bond is the fact that he actually feels like a real human being. Laurie claimed in an interview he was inspired to write the novel based on “the banality of his own life,” and certainly Lang’s concerns reflect a more civilian worldview. One scene will have him rambling into a tape recorder he has never used and comment on how tax-efficient it is, and then a few hours later walk through the perks of a Glock handgun and how to use it in clearing a hostile building.
This mix of topics often makes classifying the book a curious task. At some points the book can be seen as a parody of the spy genre, but in the second half of the book things become much more serious, with Lang’s circumstances putting him straight in the middle of terrorist plots and hostage situations. Laurie manages to introduce a plot twist almost every chapter in a way that approaches absurd, and but the wit behind the dialogue is so sharp you can’t help but think he planned it that way. You can read it as serious satire or Robert Ludlum with a sense of humor, and it translates well in both forms.
While Fry and Laurie have not collaborated on any major projects in the last few years, both men have expressed a desire to work together again – and I would suggest writing a book together would be the best use of their time. Both men have an uncanny gift with words and an appreciation of the finest English humor, and enough new ideas to keep its traditions fresh. “Liar” and “Gun Seller” are stellar first novels, and worthy heirs to the British tradition.