The Gentleman, by Forrest Leo (Penguin 978-0-399-56263-1, $26.00, 304, hardcover) August 2016
Steampunk comes in many, many flavors. There’s the rigorous, Hard SF kind as found in The Difference Engine. There’s the slapstick fantastical Blaylockian kind. There’s the acid, satirical kind, as from Jeter. There’s the Wild, Wild West variety; the echt British Empire variety; and the decidedly counterfactual, alternate timeline type. (Couldn’t we dare to call Turtledove’s The Guns of the South steampunk?) There’s a Tom-Swiftian strain, as found in Boilerplate. And I could go on and on.
One kind of steampunk almost isn’t. I mean, there’s a type of set-in-the-past novel that’s rather subtle: not particularly steam-ish, not particularly punk-ish, so that it reads almost like a regular old historical novel. But it still trembles on the verge of steampunk. I’m thinking most prominently of Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost. Maybe John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor falls into this category too. An academic or scholar would probably consider them purely mimetic, if exaggeratedly so. An SF fan will in all likelihood, if given any prompting, read them as steampunk.
Forrest Leo’s wonderfully demented and comical debut novel, The Gentleman, lies more towards this hazy end of the steampunk spectrum than elsewhere. You can interpret it as a straight historical novel of a farcical type, along the lines of the Flashman books. (And indeed, our “hero” is a decided cad, like Flashman.) But there’s enough oddness, including ostensibly supernatural incidents and gadgetry riff of unreality, to push it just over the edge and into steampunk territory. It’s rather as if Tom Holt and Oscar Wilde got together and decided to do up a steampunk novelty. (Wilde’s name is particularly apt, given the droll quality of the humor and the fact, as revealed in the author’s afterword, that this book started life as a play.)
Our hero and narrator is one Lionel Savage, a twenty-two-year-old poet of slight but publishable talents. Vain, self-centered, whiny, hyperbolic, Lionel is nonetheless a captivating raconteur, and reading this book, one falls fully under his hilarious tale-telling prowess. When we first encounter him he is full of despair. Needing money, he recently made a strictly commercial marriage to one Vivien Lancaster. The subsequent months have been hellish, as the pair proved unfitted for connubial bliss—at least from Lionel’s point-of-view. Lionel is considering taking “the only way out” one night when he is suddenly interrupted by an odd little fellow creeping into his studio, who intimates that he is Old Scratch—the Gentleman— himself, manifested now in order to thank Lionel for some kind words Lionel once offered on all things infernal. Well, one thing leads to another, as they often do, and Lionel utters the wish that his millstone wife Vivien should be gone from his life. And the next morning she is missing.
Now, I have not yet mentioned a central character, and that is the butler to the Savages, Simmons, who helped raise Lionel. Simmons is the epitome of all canny manservants, out-Jeeves-ing Jeeves himself, with his wide-ranging knowledge, skills and competence, and he threatens to steal every scene in which he appears.
That fateful morning, to complicate matters immensely, two new figures intrude. First is Lizzie, Lionel’s teenaged sister, who is a loose cannon, a potential libertine and rebel. Newly expelled from boarding school, she exhibits a sudden lust to paint nude men. Next is Ashley Lancaster, wife Vivien’s brother, a kind of Doc Savage frontiersman-cum-explorer, freshly arrived back in London, and most upset to find his darling sibling sold to the Devil. Now the cast is fully assembled for a kind of elaborate drawing-room farce, which also involves duels and anarchists and the attentions of the police. Can Lionel survive the social gaffes of his sister, the manly outrage of Ashley, and the tut-tutting of Simmons, to get back his wife—assuming he even wants to? Can the erudite advice from rare-book dealer Tompkins provide assistance? And what of the fabulous flying machine invented by Will Kensington, young paragon of the secretive Hefestaeum Club? And just how does one knock up the Devil on a social call?
In the manner of Jerome K. Jerome or Thorne Smith or Van Reid, the exercise of simple logic leads from one absurdity to another. The compressed timeframe of this book—all the action occurs over just a few days—adds to the compact, head-spinningness of the tale. But one essential and well-done factor of Forrest Leo’s contrivance that I have not yet mentioned is the framing device. We are, you see, reading Savage’s account only as it has been annotated and edited by Hubert Lancaster, a cousin to Ashley and Vivien. Hubert’s wry and sarcastic footnotes, as with Nabokov’s famous Pale Fire or Delany’s Phallos, are essential for a complete understanding of the significance of everything.
By the time the reader arrives at the following scene, he or she should be as pleasantly exhausted by laughter as the characters are flummoxed by absurdity:
A moment later my wife enters the room.
We must look a strange tableau before her. The Gentleman is trying to offer round tea, Lancaster is on the floor like a small child, Hubert and I are still holding our swords, and Lizzie is dressed only in a blanket, absently scratching her nose with the barrel of the duelling pistol.
This novel displays a kind of timeless quality that will ensure a long life for it. It might have appeared in the pages of Punch, circa 1886. Or on an augmented-reality tablet in the year 2086. Whenever you encounter it, you will be guaranteed a robust, riotous romp.