Adam Fenwick-Symes, the protagonist of Vile Bodies, is, in a sense, a man of the world: a novelist, recently returned from Paris, and one of the “bright young people.” Yet he is passive, an antihero like so many other Waugh protagonists. Things simply happen to him as he drifts through the novel.
When the young novelist disembarks following a perfectly awful Channel crossing, an overzealous British customs officer leafs through the just-completed manuscript of his autobiography, determines it is too lubricious for native consumption, and seizes it on the spot. His action causes Adam to breach his contract with his publisher. Adam is then forced to sign a new one that commits him to virtual bondage. Because he has no money, he is unable to marry his fiancé, Nina Blount. The remainder of the novel is highly episodic; what plot movement there is emanates from two rather mild conflicts: establishment disapproval of the younger generation and Adam’s desultory quest for the means to marry Nina.
In Vile Bodies the narrator frequently becomes a sort of camera’s eye that cuts from scene to scene, revealing dialogue and external behavior only. Since the narrator, during these montage passages, does not go inside the minds of any of the characters, he appears more distant than does the narrator of Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall. Two themes that appeared in the first novel—and which would be addressed with increasing seriousness in the novels to follow—are treated in a broadly comic fashion. These are the modern perversion of Christianity and the destruction of the stately homes of England.
(The entire section is 682 words.)