A Handful of Dust

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Novel * Evelyn Waugh * Come With Me under This Red Rock * 1934

Synopsis

Evelyn Waugh was fairly late to the Modernism party, but boy did he fit right in. His first novel, Decline and Fall, was a book where everyone is terrible all the time and it is clear that the entire English social order is on the verge of collapse. I’m not sure you can cleanly define the work of Evelyn Waugh as purely satire, although the books I’ve read have all had their moments. That said, these characters have some depth to them, and they’re doing more than simply serving a broader point being made by the author. Generally speaking, satire relies on flat characterization bordering on caricature in order to subvert expectations and create pointed, ridiculous situations. Waugh’s characters are not as well-defined as others in and around Modernism, and there is a surfeit of ridiculous situations, however there is still a tenuous humanity to them. A Handful of Dust is a novel in which silly and awful things happen to silly and awful people, yet there is still a lingering sense of sadness for something which has all but fallen apart.

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It’s Brenda Last, another Modern Woman here to wreck your shit all up!

The story begins with a character named John Beaver, which is a silly name for a silly man. I don’t mean he’s silly in that he’s some wacky goofball pulling pranks, I mean silly in that he’s sort of pointless and is almost aggressively subpar as a person. Pretty much every single other character hates him, including his rather horrid, conniving mother. Where some of the Waugh satire comes in is that despite being pretty much universally despised, Beaver never really does anything egregiously wrong, or mean, or stupid. He just kind of is. He exists in a world of English society that is, between apocalyptic world wars, undergoing a massive shift. More precisely, the horrors of World War I stripped bare the frailties of the European Order and what was left was kind of an empty husk filled with a good deal of disillusioned wealthy idiots trying to paper over the massive failure of society that led to the war. I say that Beaver is a pointless human being because he exists in this world of social parties and intrigue without even being able to engage the other pointless human beings who make up that world in the first place. There’s also the part where A Handful of Dust isn’t actually about John Beaver.

The book is actually about a couple of landed English aristocrats, Tony and Brenda Last. The surname there isn’t particularly subtle. Tony and Brenda live in their ancestral House, one of the massive manors that litter the countryside, with their truly awful little son, John Andrew. This family gets up to the kind of aristocratic nonsense that you’d might expect. They spend entirely too much time trying to maintain the massive house and arguing whether or not it should be updated and modernized. Brenda decides that she doesn’t socialize enough, and eventually goes to London to re-integrate herself with her social peers. John Andrew is learning how to ride horses and how to be a misogynist little shit. The thing is, in their way, they’re every bit as pointless and hollow as John Beaver. To don’t really do anything. They’re emblematic of a larger English society of people from ancient families with enormous houses and lot of inherited wealth but not much else. I won’t discuss plot points above the break, but suffice to say the novel does not go well for these people. Considering the title of the novel, that probably shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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This cover is… quite a bit more whimsical than the story within.

Discussion

Given the type of book this is, and what kind of writer Waugh is, I was fairly sure what to expect from the narrative. That is to say, since this is an English, interwar, Modernist novel and is written by an author known for dark, absurdist humor, I knew things were going to get fucked up. And boy did they! There are three major developments in the story, and you can probably guess what the first two are. First of all, in this disaffected family dramedy, Brenda begins an ill-advised affair with John Beaver, whom she does not respect. The title of this chapter is “Hard Cheese on Tony,” which is almost too British. Still, that’s a pretty common move for these kind of books, and there are more serious examinations of high-society family dynamics and the underlying visceral emotion of infidelity. If that’s what you’re looking for, Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Parade’s End are there for you. In A Handful of Dust, it’s just a thing that happens. Brenda is bored and Tony is clueless and their kid fucking sucks. Brenda ends up with Beaver, despite clearly not liking him, as an arguably unintended consequence of getting an apartment in the city. It goes about as badly as one might expect, because as an upper class Lady of the House, she has absolutely no idea how to live in the real world.

Meanwhile, Tony putters around making pathetic entreaties to his obviously disinterested wife, and continues existing. That’s pretty much what Tony is best at. Then the second big plot point happens, and once again you could see it coming. John Andrew, the shitty little kid, gets his dumb ass killed. And if it sounds like I’m being overly harsh to this young life being snuffed out, well, he’s not real so relax. Also, this is the kind of situation where Waugh’s immensely dark sense of humor shines. This kid gets kicked to death by a horse (okay, parenthetical tangent, but horses are the actual worst and anyone who says otherwise is not to be trusted. Look at these monsters. Why are their heads so enormous and weird? Why do they smell all horsey like that? And those fucking teeth! Gah, they’re awful and I hate them), and the immediate response by everyone present was to reassure each other that it was nobody’s fault, really. Half the people didn’t even know the little idiot’s name, and the only people to really react were his parents. Once again, if you’re looking for a more serious examination of how the death of a child would resonate these kinds of people, check out Point Counter Point. Here, the disaster is more to set up further strange things and the absurd finale.

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A fruitful avenue of analysis would be to examine the role of a new technology, the telephone, in the novel and how it provides another layer of abstraction and feelings of disconnect between characters. Fun!

Once the kid croak-boats, A Handful of Dust gets… strange. Brenda demands a divorce. Okay, well, “demands” is a strong word. Here’s what she actually says:

“You must have realized for some time that things were going wrong.

I am in love with John Beaver and I want to have a divorce and marry him. If John Andrew had not died things might not have happened like this. I can’t tell. As it is, I simply can’t begin over again. Please do not mind too much. I suppose we shan’t be allowed to meet while the case is on but I hope afterwards we shall be great friends. Anyway I shall always look on you as one whatever you think of me.”

That, by the way, is the exact tone of the entire novel and everyone in it. Distant and disengaged in reality, and completely out of touch with raw human emotion. My favorite bit is her politely asking him “not to mind too much.” Anyway, Tony does actually mind, not that you’d really notice. He agrees to the divorce, and there is a bit of a farce making fun of archaic English divorce laws in which Tony has to pretend to be the one having an affair. It’s from this point that A Handful of Dust takes aim at poor Tony Last and just unloads on him. He’s lost his wife, his son, and most of his friends. Eventually, in order to feel alive (I guess) he goes to Brazil with an explorer. Bad things happen to him here, as you might expect from some inexperienced ding-dong muddling about in the jungle. Tony gets sick and his companion gets himself killed and their “Indian guides” abandon him. There’s a swerve, though, one which I was not able to anticipate. Yes, it is true that Tony never escapes the Amazon jungle. No, it is not because he dies of malaria or whatever. In fact, he finds another Englishman, Mr. Todd, deep in the unmapped jungle. If you’re looking for a serious take on this situation, read Heart of Darkness, because what happens here is… goofy. This guy has made a go of it away from civilization, and nurses Tony back to health. For the specific purpose of having a captive Englishman around to read Dickens novels to him. When people come to rescue Tony, Mr. Todd poisons him so that he cannot alert the rescuers to his presence. Once they’re gone, Tony recovers only to find that he is the eternal prisoner of Mr. Todd, and is only being kept alive to continue to read Dickens. The end. I know, right?

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