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 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.
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?’
‘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.
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.