The Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh splits nearly into two parts: the first is spent in an all-boys school, the second in a prison. The two parts side-by-side give the impression that the settings are not as entirely different as one suspects. The first half of the book spends a long time introducing each of the characters and the second half of the book takes its time killing each of them off. Characters have silly names, such as Lady Circumference.
A problem with funny writing is that the joke might not make sense after a couple years, or in the case of Decline and Fall, after 90 years. I felt like I was out of the joke for the entire first half, if only because I know so little about the English (or Welsh) school system. (This was something that made the first half of Brideshead Revisited a puzzle to me, though I eventually caught on.) Even when I started to follow things, the humor was often so dry that it put only the smallest smile on my face as I kept reading. The central character, Paul Pennyfeather, was also quite dull (as I thought Charles Ryder in Brideshead was), so I was rarely eager to continue.
I’m not done reading Waugh altogether. I loved his historical novel Helena, set in a far more familiar Roman antiquity. Others have told me try to some of Waugh’s other humorous works, such as Scoop and Vile Bodies, but I will wait until his fans can explain why they like him so much. Any thoughts?