Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Relentless City

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1903
Approx. 100,000 words
(First read 12/06/2013)

I came to this one completely blind, with no idea what it was about or what to expect.  I'd put it in the 'romantic melodrama' category, though obviously, EFB being EFB, the melodrama is pretty low-key, and the romance is ... well, it's the EFB version of romance.  But this is too dismissive: there's actually a surprising amount of content in it.  What it contains is quite a lot of social commentary on life as it was led by the super-rich of England and the United States at the turn of the 20th century. 
Benson is particularly scathing about the latter, with their vulgarity, their lack of any kind of home-grown culture, their ostentation, and their relentless pursuit of wealth at any cost.  (The relentless city of the title is, presumably, New York, though little of the action actually takes place there.)  But their English counterparts scarcely fare much better: EFB's assassination of them is less blatant ~ and perhaps just a shade involuntary ~ but nonetheless he makes a very thorough job of depicting them as vacuous, shiftless, incredibly snobbish and complacent and, it has to be said, downright decadent
While the Americans career about at breakneck speed in their pursuit of amusement, the English merely drift about in their maze of country houses and croquet trying their utmost not to die of boredom.  Come to think of it, that's really the only content there is ~ but there's a goodly portion of it.  On the whole I think the Americans come out of it best in the final analysis: Mr & Mrs Palmer, and the charming villain Bilton are undoubtedly grotesques, but they are at least characters; Palmer fille is a failure for the usual EFB reason.  The main English characters, by contrast, are stock cardboard-cutout paragons of virtue and/or chinlessness, with the exception of Mrs Emsworth (who is, after all, an actress so understandably thespoid and wicked), and the minor character Judy who, unless I was reading it wrong, actually has a sense of humour.
Oh but the plot! ~ this, as always, is best left not too closely examined.  Suffice it to say here that The Relentless City contains what must surely be the silliest, flimsiest, and most inexplicably motiveless exercise in blackmail ever put to print.  Of course, this being E. F. Benson, the perpetrator (Bilton: American; well, blackmail is so un-British) receives his comeuppance for such a dastardly crime.  "Social ostracism, is it, Ewie?"  No, not that.  "Business failure, then?"  No, not that either.  "A crippling illness, maybe?"  No, but you're getting warmer.  Oh I'll just tell you, shall I? ~ the 'justice' handed out to the blackmailer is a horrible, violent, untimely death.
"Ah right ... okayyyy."
Verdict: Quite good fun, in a masochistic kind of way.  It's a lot less ploddy than the usual fare: hardly 'action-packed' but still with a fair bit of stuff happening.  And a bit of comedy.

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