Shadow Giller: Patrick DeWitt’s French Exit (2018)

Shadow Giller review contents: In Short, a 300-word and spoiler-free summary, intended to have a broad appeal; In Detail, elaborating on one aspect of the book which I found remarkable (perhaps only interesting for others who have read the book or who have an interest more mechanical aspects of writing); Giller-bility (musings on the likelihood of a proper win); In Other Words, containing links to other Shadow Jury members’ thoughts.

In short

In Patrick deWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers (2011), one character observes the potential for two people to connect: “He did not understand about my laughing. But we were very different kinds of people, and many of the things I had come to find humor in would make your honest man swoon.”

In turn, if a reader does not understand about Patrick deWitt’s laughing, and they are an honest reader, there is a risk of swooning. Which is nothing, compared to the risks that some characters face at the hands of other characters in French Exit.

Consider Price, for instance:

“It was difficult to speak with Price because if you bored him, he told you you did; and if you bothered him, there was in his carriage and language a hostility that one could not help but equate with actual bloodshed. Price was never recognized for physical mayhem, but his dismissals were just the same as a wallop in the face.”

If words and gazes can be violent, imagine how devastating episodes of physical violence might be: the scale of discomfort in this novel matters.

Everything about French Exit is extreme, even its succinctness. Chapters only a few pages long can be overwhelmingly melancholic and sharply hilarious: deWitt’s style seems made for the screen, dialogue script-ready and short descriptions like set directions.*

His characters are aspirational and despairing, reaching and plummeting with aplomb. “Malcolm was wondering what the meanest thing he could say might be. There were so many mean things, but which was the absolute, the incontrovertible?” But they, too, suffer. “I’m comfortable not talking about it,” Malcolm often says.

Ludicrous and lugubrious, sorrow-soaked and snort-worthy: Patrick deWitt’s novel packs a wallop. You might bite your lip to hold in your laughter, but then consider chewing through it, just to taste the blood, the life beneath the surface of it all.

*In detail

This is one of those books from which you catch yourself spontaneously reading lines to a companion seated nearby. Lines like these:

Frances lit a cigarette. ‘Do you regret not having children?’
‘Never once. Never for a day. Do you regret having one?’
Frances laughed.
‘I’m being serious,’ said Joan.
‘Oh, Well, sometimes I do, to be honest.’
‘But you wouldn’t change him.’
‘Yes, I would.’
‘But you wouldn’t change him much.’
‘I’d change him quite a bit.’
‘But you love him.’
‘So much that it pains me.’

It’s also one of those books from which you read lines to your companion and, then, discover, when you look up at them, that the thing that you are feeling is not the thing they are feeling. And, when it comes to describing what you are feeling, that’s when you realise that you’re not even sure what that is. But something you wanted to share.

And that? That’s where I think it lives, that thing that sharpens a Patrick deWitt story to a point. Each of these characters is struggling, but not in a way which is easy to describe.

One of them loses a fortune, but that’s not quite true, because there is luxury, still, so this is not like Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the World. One of them loses a lover, but that’s not quite true, because the lover is still hanging around, just not part of the everyday in the same way anymore, so this is not like Gail Godwin’s Evenings at Five. One of them is alone in Paris, but that’s not quite true either, because being alone simply creates the opportunity for that person to invite company, so this is not like a Mavis Gallant short story.

They are pained. Whether because of the love they feel (as expressed in the exchange above) or the love they do not feel.

That kind of distinction should make a difference. It should be the hinge upon which a story swings.

But a Patrick deWitt’s story is the hinge itself: all about the mechanism of connection with none of the pleasure of connecting.

Characters talk and talk and talk (sometimes at a distance, other times in close quarters) but their worlds are increasingly silent and barren.

“Mr. Baker was a mouselike man, which isn’t to say he behaved as one, but that he truly did look very much like a mouse. Sometimes he looked like an angry mouse, sometimes wise; on this day, as he sat waiting for Frances to arrive, he resembled a mouse who wished he were another mouse.”

Undoubtedly some deWitt readers will wish that they were other readers. I did, at times. But, then there is a passage like this one. Wait, I have it right here. Just give me a minute. Because I’m sure there was a bit about yearning, where, at last, we catch a glimpse of humanity. No, that was just a passage that resembled a passage that wished it knew what to yearn for. Never mind. Just never mind.

Giller-bility

In 2011, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers was shortlisted for the Giller Prize alongside Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, (juried by Howard Norman, Annabel Lyon and Andrew O’Hagan). Seven years later, the two authors appear, once more, side by side on the shortlist, but this time courtesy of a larger and more diverse jury. (In between, in 2015, deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor was longlisted when 2018-jury-member Heather O’Neill had her Daydreams of Angels shortlisted.) That’s a whole lot of connection. One of these years, he’s bound to win. Even if only because someone misreads the contents of an envelope just to be mean.

This is one of the twelve books chosen for the longlist for the 2018 Giller Prize, which was announced on September 17, 2018 and selected by the 2018 jury which includes Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey, John Freeman, Philip Hensher and Heather O’Neill. On October 1st, it and four other books were advanced to the shortlist and one of those will be chosen to win the prize on November 19th. This year I am reading with the shadow jury, with Alison and Kim and Naomi, who have committed to reading this shortlist in its entirety.

In other words

Links to reviews from the other Giller Prize 2018 shadow jury members: Alison, Kim and Naomi (links live when available).

2018-11-16T21:10:05+00:00

19 Comments

  1. […] Conclusion: Visit Marcie’s blog, Buried in Print, for the full […]

  2. roughghosts October 26, 2018 at 6:03 pm - Reply

    This the first one his books that I have seriously considered picking up and I don’t know if it’s simply because I had the opportunity to spend about 40 minutes with him this year when I picked him up at the airport for Wordfest. I was unable to go to his event because I was volunteering elsewhere, but in person he was so genuine and terrific to talk to that I am now curious to sample his work. Funny how that happens!

    • Buried In Print October 28, 2018 at 11:06 am - Reply

      That’s something I’ve noticed too. Quite often when I attend an event with one or two authors, whose works I’ve enjoyed or admired, I’m neutral about the third author or actually disinterested, but, then, after their contributions to the discussion I am, at least, curious and interested, if not actually excited about it. I think you might enjoy the film that I referenced above (I borrowed it from the local library) which he wrote; it’s quiet, reflective and strangely sad-and-inspiring.

  3. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis October 25, 2018 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    What a brilliant review, Marcie! Thank you.

    “You might bite your lip to hold in your laughter, but then consider chewing through it, just to taste the blood, the life beneath the surface of it all.” You should write books, too. 😉

    I’ve read (& loved & recommended) The Sisters Brothers and I’m waiting eagerly for my turn with this one.

    • Buried In Print October 26, 2018 at 3:03 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Debbie. I’m glad you enjoyed my review! And I hope you enjoy French Exit; I’ll be curious to hear what you think when your turn finally comes around.

  4. Naomi October 24, 2018 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    I hadn’t noticed before that DeWitt and Edugyan have been on the shortlist together before! I wonder what DeWitt thinks of that…

    I love this review – so clever!
    This sounds wonderful to me: “Ludicrous and lugubrious, sorrow-soaked and snort-worthy” — I guess I will soon find out!
    And I imagine that this would be a hard thing to feel: “‘I’d change him quite a bit.’
    ‘But you love him.’
    ‘So much that it pains me.’”
    And this is perfect: “It’s also one of those books from which you read lines to your companion and, then, discover, when you look up at them, that the thing that you are feeling is not the thing they are feeling. And, when it comes to describing what you are feeling, that’s when you realise that you’re not even sure what that is. But something you wanted to share.”

    • Buried In Print October 25, 2018 at 10:20 am - Reply

      That’s what I was wondering, too. If she were to win against him twice, I can imagine that would create quite a sizable inferiority complex!
      Thanks, Naomi. And I could totally imagine you snorty-laughing along with me here and there.
      I stopped reading out the lines pretty quickly. And although Mr. BIP did read and adore The Sisters Brothers, it was the western setting that appealed to him there.

  5. Annabel (AnnaBookBel) October 24, 2018 at 4:46 am - Reply

    Wonderful review, great book — The Sisters Brothers is still my fave of his so far, but this one is quite exquisite in its satire

    • Buried In Print October 25, 2018 at 10:05 am - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Annabel. And for complimenting the review. It would be hard to beat that pair of cowboys, wouldn’t it!

  6. annelogan17 October 23, 2018 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Are you going to the “Between the Pages” giller event in Toronto when it happens? I went to the one in Calgary (obviously!) and really enjoyed Patrick’s reading. I haven’t read French Exit but the section he did read was really funny, and he reads in such a dry voice, it amped the humour up I think. And I love the cat element too!

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 4:22 pm - Reply

      I feel like there are similarities between his reading tone and Margaret Atwood’s: suddenly everything funny is hilarious. Although I’m hoping to attend, that’s a tricky weekend, so I’m not sure yet. crosses fingers This year I see their schedule is international: very cool.

  7. Rebecca Foster October 22, 2018 at 2:10 pm - Reply

    Huh, I don’t think the UK copy has that subtitle. Which is a shame, as I think it’s actually helpful advice on how to gauge the tone. (I wish I still had my library loan to check, but it was requested.)

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 4:20 pm - Reply

      Then again, if you’re like me, you’re usually rushing past the titlepage, so you might have missed it. It might help to set expectations for sure: I wonder why it doesn’t appear on the cover?

  8. Kat October 22, 2018 at 1:21 pm - Reply

    I’m so glad I read your witty review becausew I I need to read something modern! And I’ve been thinking about Canadian books: I used to find out about them from Booker longlists but now everything has gone awry with that. (Haven’t read the Irish winner, and no offense meant to her.) And I love your anaphora and rhetorical repetition. A fun review to read!

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 4:18 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Kat! I’m not sure where you’d fall on this one, hard one way or the other I’m guessing! The Booker has been disappointing you for so long, I’d say you should try the Giller for a year just to see if it’s more your cuppa.

  9. kaggsysbookishramblings October 22, 2018 at 11:32 am - Reply

    Although I rarely read modern novels, I confess to being intrigued by deWitt – maybe I should make an exception….

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 4:17 pm - Reply

      You can have a peek at the author’s voice, process and presentation with this short (3-minute) video which was assembled by CBC when his second novel was nominated for the Giller: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3Ccvow4Tnw If what he has to say appeals to you, maybe it’s worth taking a chance with the 21st century!

  10. Laila October 22, 2018 at 10:38 am - Reply

    I’m on the list for this at the library. I’ve never read him before. I think I’m going to enjoy this book very much, but your review has introduced a bit of doubt into my projection… “the mechanism of connection with none of the pleasure of connecting.” That gives me pause. But perhaps I am in just the right reading mood to appreciate the mechanism enough to overlook the disconnection. We shall see! I loved your review.

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 4:12 pm - Reply

      In the wrong mood for this book, I think the very provocation for hilarity could make you weep. I’m glad my review appeals to you and I hope the book does too. But, if not, you will know within the first few pages!

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