Nothing much seems to happen in this comic novel of semibohemian London social life in the 1920’s; rather than a novel of action, it is a novel of talk. The book is a novelized comedy of manners which focuses on the "bright young people" of the London Soho district and often seems more appropriate to drawing-room stage comedy than to the novel form. The talk is not very stimulating but rather flat and tedious chitchat of bored young people who are bright but brittle and filled with self-conscious ennui. The action, what there is of it, focuses primarily on parties and the exchange of various sexual partners, although sex has no real vitality. Anthony Powell’s satiric purpose seems clear from his title, taken from a passage in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy
(1621), which refers to a "company of giddyheads, afternoon men."
The social comedy aspect of the novel can be seen in its dependence on several dramatic staged scenes, the most developed being the opening party, which begins the action, and the trip to the painter Raymond Pringle’s beach cottage, which climaxes it (or more appropriately, anticlimaxes it). Minor staged scenes in between focus on William Atwater, the protagonist and on Susan Nunnery, whom Atwater desires, at a boxing match or Atwater at his museum job. The novel does not flow like an seamless narrative but rather creates an effect of being indifferently stitched together with little or no connections between the various scenes—a technique which Powell, by calling the first section of the novel "Montage," relates to a cinematic device of linking scenes together without obvious interlinking transitions. The title of the second section of the novel, "Perihelion," refers to a term of astronomy which designates that point when a planet is closest to the sun. Since this section deals primarily with Atwater’s attempted relationship with Susan, it suggests that Susan is indeed his "sun." The title of the final section, "Palindrome," is a literary term which refers to a language game in which a line, word, or verse reads the same backward or forward. Indeed, the novel ends with Atwater and Pringle preparing for another party, just like the one which opened the work.
has no real plot direction but rather seems a comic, ironic version of the lassitude of T. S. Eliot’s "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or the meaninglessness of his The Waste Land
(1922), both predominant poetic images of the time; the closest thing to a single line of development is Atwater’s pursuit of Susan Nunnery, whom he first meets at the opening party. Although he is attracted to her, however, she is too busy to see him, and thus, out of indifference, he begins a sexual liaison with the model Lola, which comes to a climax in her apartment in a scene of sexual boredom and ennui which Powell describes in his usual ironic fashion as "a brooding edifice of seduction, creaking and incongruous."
When Atwater finally gets a date with Susan in a fashionable restaurant, his attempts at intimacy with her are constantly broken up by friends who drop by his table with idle chatter about reducing salons; the result of the interruptions is a fragmented set of non sequiturs in which his lassitude and her indifference are both exposed in a comic fashion. The next attempt Atwater makes with Susan is when he takes her to a boxing match in the slums, but this effort is also ruined, first by Susan’s comment that she likes Jews because of their romanticism, which presages her running off with the wealthy Jew Verelst, and then the meeting with an acquaintance which leads back to the social crowd Atwater has been trying to avoid.
The climactic scene in the novel occurs at Pringle’s rented ocean cottage, where Atwater joins Pringle’s other guests: Pringle’s mistress Harriet, Naomi Race (a patroness of the arts) and artist Hector Barlow and his mistress, Sophy. When Pringle discovers Harriet in a sexual encounter onthe sofa with Barlow, he is outraged and thrown into complete despair, although once again Powell treats this with ironic detachment. The next day, Harriet and Atwater go for a walk on the beach and see Pringle undress to go into the water. Thinking only that he is going for a swim, they fall into a rather indifferent sexual seduction scene, unsatisfying to Atwater and somewhat comic to Harriet. When Pringle does not come back, the guests find a suicide note and expect the worst, although they do not seem overly concerned. Yet, in a comic scene that borders on pure farce, Pringle shows up in fisherman’s clothes, saying he decided against suicide after going into the water.
In the last scene, appropriate to the notion of palindrome, Atwater and Pringle are back where they started. Harriet has taken up with another man and Susan has gone to America with Verelst. Undershaft, a young man who has never appeared in the novel but who is frequently referred to because he went to America and thus has escaped the Soho social circle, has returned and is now sleeping with the model Lola. Thus, the social circle has come full circle, and the novel ends with plans for attending another party, which is sure to be like the one that opened the book in the first place.