Evelyn Waugh’s second novel, published in 1930, is a wickedly funny satire of England’s “bright young things”, the offspring of the rich and the titled who seemingly can’t be bothered to care about anything at all. In Waugh’s masterful hands these idle, endlessly stupid creatures are rendered hilarious as he subjects them to a host of punishments and catastrophes, all the while displaying the impenetrability of their privileged worldview.
Vile Bodies is slightly formless, but a plurality of the action concerns itself with a young writer named Adam Fenwick-Symes who half-heartedly tries to acquire enough money to marry his aloof girlfriend Nina Blount. Adam’s troubles are legion, though the most vexing are of his own creation. His complete disinterest in hard work and practicality makes saving money or establishing a career impossible.
Waugh also introduces a bevy of memorable supporting characters, while also reviving some characters previously mentioned in Decline and Fall. These entertaining young twits are always looking for the next party, the next drink, the next chance to cause a scene and maybe get mentioned in the gossip columns.
The genius in Vile Bodies lies in Waugh’s offhand narration, a style that smartly emphasizes the indifference of the generation that Waugh is lampooning. The style also helps sell the novel’s darkly comic conclusion, in which the casual attitudes of the “bright young things” is put to the ultimate test and for the most part remains standing.