What. A. Delight. Not in recent memory has a novel so tickled my enjoyment synapses (I’m not interested in knowing if such synapses actually exist. Spare me.). From page one, Patrick de Witt’s French Exit offers up the sardonic, the cheeky, the down right funny, and hits the reader with a full force of fun and playful, while also (probably) (definitely) exploring themes of …
Wait. What is this book actually about? If not about the fun and funny? It follows the fallen fortunes of Frances and Malcolm, tumbled from great wealth and esteem to a sort of poverty (I say sort of because they still manage to be in a fancy French apartment while faced with penury). Frances is a character in all the sense of the word, a sort of force of unflappable brilliance, and in watching her reconcile her vision of herself and her life with her newly arrived circumstances, I suppose we are meant to think through questions or morality and what makes for a good life. Maybe, too, whether it is the connections and relationships we foster that make any of it worthwhile. The founding of her friendship with Joan is one of the more delightful moments in an already incredibly charming book.
I’ll admit that where the book falls down is in its point, but on that I’m not particularly bothered. Like, I don’t mind that it skirts around big questions and instead lets Morality be morality, and Mortality, be mortality. Which is a way of saying there are ‘themes’ and ‘questions’ but the point of the book seems more to let the reader just. enjoy. reading. Through the whimsy and playfulness and fun of what Frances and Malcolm do, we’re allowed to appreciate with them the absurd and fanciful without always being bogged down with weighty questions. Ah. Perhaps there’s the rub. That as Frances and Malcolm too, have spent a lifetime avoiding anything Serious or Committed, we are given the luxury – not necessarily the wealth required for this particular luxury – of not thinking about very much, until we must think about it all.
Terrific writing – really: surprising, specific, not-showy-but-still-smart – and such. fun. Don’t come bickering with me later that it wasn’t about very much. I don’t care if you’ve forgotten how to just read because it feels good.
I read a book in a day! I read a book in a day! Granted I’m on holiday, and there are no distractions and all the coffee, and this was a particularly compelling book. But putting those points aside, it’s still worth celebrating: I read a book in a day! It’s been so long.
ANYWAY. You’d likely read this one in a couple of sittings, too. Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things gets described on the book jacket as ‘cerebral thriller’ and ‘dark twisting suspense’ and ‘horror.’ I’m not sure what a ‘cerebral’ thriller is – I guess there’s very little actual blood in this book? or most of the suspense is achieved by confusing narration and an aggressive present tense. I was feeling edgy while I was reading it. Doesn’t help that, S., on learning it was a ‘thriller’ decided to make whooshing whistling noises and occasional leaps from behind doors. #charming
The book has two ‘modes’ I’d say: one, the hyper-present tense description of a road trip with our unnamed female narrator and her boyfriend Jake, to visit Jake’s parents; two, these stilted strange conversations between the two characters (and then the characters and the parents and some other assorted supporting roles) that stray between the philosophical and the menacing. Most of the questioning centres around whether and how we can navigate the world alone – that is, what is lost/gained by eschewing relationships, or not being able to be in relation-to: what do we need from one another? what are the limits of self-sufficiency? Sometimes these questions are explored head-on in a bizzare-wouldn’t-likely-happen car conversations between the two, and then the questions also get explored in these strange little stories the two tell one another from childhood where extended metaphors are meant to do some kind of instruction on the same theme.
At its best there is a propulsive uncertainty about what will happen to our protagonist. At its worst I didn’t care enough about her – or the snow storm (which read as if someone had said ‘don’t forget setting! and pathetic fallacy!’) or her headaches or the Caller – to be invested in whether everything works out or whether things will be… ended.
Anyway. I’m curious if you’ve read it, what you make of the ending. And if you haven’t, I’m not convinced I’d recommend it. Unless you like ‘cerebral thrillers’ which – if the cover is to be believed – this is of that genre. Not like it was bad, just that there were too many things that irritated me. But still. I read a book in a day!
I started, and gave substantial effort (enough that I feel okay reviewing them), to two Can lit novels in the last couple of weeks. Both are books that I ought to have really liked but didn’t. I’ll take the blame. It’s summer. There are patios. And BBQs. (And work, family and responsibilities. Whatever.) Continue reading
David Chariandry’s Brother follows two brothers – Michael and Francis – and their experiences growing up in Toronto as young, black men. The story weaves two time lines: the present in which Michael and his mother grieve the death of Francis, and the years and then weeks leading up to his death. The effect of the woven time is to have the reader at once certain of the outcome and effect, and unsure about the cause. That’s not true. The cause of Francis’s death is as much about context and systematic racism (through education, housing, transit and policing) as it is about the single act that kills him. The reader feels certain – well before knowing what exactly killed him – that if Francis was born white he wouldn’t have died.
It’s an exquisitely written novel. Quotidian scenes speak for whole years; individual examples gesture to shared experiences. With precise language and sharp detail, the writing evokes setting and atmosphere without straying into distracting description or belabored scene-setting.
While it is a novel principally interested in masculinity, in its characterization of their mother the story proves capacious in its exploration of the intersection of gender and class and race.
I’ve made it sound like a bleak read. And in some ways it is, and that’s a good reason to read it, too. But through the distress and grief and anger there are also scenes and moments of connection, community and great care. And other alliterative ‘c’ words. Not that a story needs to balance sadness with hope. Just that this novel does. And I hope you read it.