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Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh's second novel, is a series of vignettes connected by little more than their grotesque improbability and the fact that they happen to people from the same social set: the "bright young things" of 1920s England. The novel opens with a rough channel crossing in which almost everyone becomes sick except Mrs. Melrose Ape, an American evangelist who is on tour with her "singing angels." Adam Fenwick-Symes, the protagonist, insofar as the book has one, is a young author who going home to get married. The novel he wrote in Paris is confiscated by customs agents at Dover, and he is forced into a new contract with his publisher: it includes no advance and stipulates that he produce novels at an alarmingly fast rate.

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Lottie Crump, the owner of the hotel where Adam is staying, is forgiving about his inability to pay the bill and invites him to a party where he wins a thousand pounds in a bet—and promptly loses it again when he gives it to a drunken major to put on a horse. A little later, a girl who has been swinging on a chandelier falls and dies. This is one of several such meaningless and unregretted deaths in the book.

One of the guests invites Adam's friend Agatha Runcible and a group of other young people to her house. In the morning, it turns out that the house is at 10 Downing Street, and her father is the Prime Minister. Subsequent rumors of orgies cause the collapse of his government.

Adam receives a cheque for a thousand pounds from Colonel Blount, the father of his fiancée, but it turns out that he has signed the cheque "Charlie Chaplin" and it is worthless. Meanwhile, Lord Balcairn, a gossip columnist who writes the "Mr. Chatterbox" column in the Daily Excess, has committed suicide, and Adam becomes the new Mr. Chatterbox. He invents fictitious figures for the gossip column to avoid being sued and is highly perturbed when he finds that one of them, Ginger Littlejohn, actually exists. While he is away talking to Colonel Blount again, Nina Blount, his fiancée, writes the column and gets Adam fired by mentioning green bowler hats, against which the paper has a prejudice. The Honorable Miles Malpractice, another bright young thing who was on the initial channel crossing, becomes the new Mr. Chatterbox.

At a motor race, Adam encounters the major to whom he gave a thousand pounds to bet on a horse. The major assures him that his winnings are safe, borrows five pounds, and disappears. Agatha Runcible crashes her car and dies in a cottage hospital. Completely without funds, Adam promises Ginger Littlejohn that the latter can marry Nina Blount if he pays Adam's hotel bill. Littlejohn marries Nina but is immediately called up for military service.

After spending Christmas with Nina and her father, Adam also goes to the war and meets the drunken major, who now claims to be a general and offers to pay the money he owes to Adam. Adam thinks the money will be useless in the circumstances, but they eventually find the general's car, in which are a case of champagne and a girl called Chastity, one of Mrs. Melrose Ape's singers. Adam drinks some champagne and falls asleep. The ending, in which nothing is resolved, is fitting in view of the fragmented, episodic narrative.

Summary

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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...

(The entire section contains 2439 words.)

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