Patrick deWitt is a master of disguise. Each of his four books is set in a completely different time and place, each has a completely different tone and character, and each is in a completely different genre. What ties his work together is his peerless ear for dialogue and an ability to locate humour in both the quotidian and the absurd. His novels are all a supreme pleasure to read.
DeWitt’s first novel, Ablutions, is the story of an aspiring writer who works in a decrepit Hollywood bar, written brilliantly and unsettlingly in the second person. His second and best-known novel, The Sisters Brothers, is a nuanced, darkly funny, picaresque Western, set in Oregon and California in the eighteen-fifties, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and was was recently made into a film starring John C Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal. The understated, intricate Undermajordomo Minor, his third novel, is a kind of gothic folk romance set in Central Europe in the late nineteenth century. His new novel, French Exit, is a deft portrait of a caustic, aging socialite, Frances Price, and her wastrel son, Malcolm, set in New York at some indefinite time after the introduction of the euro.
French Exit marks DeWitt’s return to a contemporary setting, although the novel contains almost no indication that we are in the modern day. Admittedly, near the beginning of the book there is a reference to how much a gallon jug of cheap wine would cost—eight dollars—which would perhaps signal to someone familiar with that currency, and the going rate of cheap wine, roughly what year we are in. The only other clues, for those looking extremely hard for them, are a passing reference to the vilification of Julia Child, and the mention that someone in a childhood memory of Malcolm’s is a wearing a ‘Nike half shirt’ of the sort that were popular in the nineteen-eighties. Apart from these oblique allusions, and the fact that they take euros with them to France, Frances and Malcolm defy any attempt to place them in a particular year. Theirs is the timeless existence of the very rich.
As the book opens the pair are leaving a cocktail party, Frances ‘easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone in New York City’s Upper East Side’. There are no cellphones in evidence; Frances and Malcolm telephone each other from their beds in opposite ends of their apartment on an internal line. When they are forced to move out of their apartment, they stay in twin suites at the Four Seasons. When they travel to France, they do so on a passenger ship, first class. In Paris, from his bedroom window, Malcolm observes the comings and goings of a group of immigrants living in a park, but if these scenes contain any menace it is not of the geopolitical kind we have come to expect. Rather, this changeable community manifests the visceral camaraderie and violence of life on the street that, depressingly, seems to belong to a more simple time.
We learn early on that Frances is a widow; her husband, Franklin, was an infamous litigator who focused on ‘defending only the indefensible’—his clients were major tobacco and pharmaceutical companies—and as a result became one of the highest paid lawyers in the United States. Franklin’s renown was so formidable that when he died unexpectedly, ‘at his zenith’, it was no ordinary departure:
The coroner who performed the autopsy said he’d never seen so powerful a heart attack in his long years at practice, and his line, often repeated by Price’s cronies and enemies, was that the overtaxed organ had exploded like a goddamned hand grenade.
Frances is the one to discover Franklin’s body, in their apartment, but she leaves for a pre-planned skiing trip without alerting anyone of his death. When the scandal breaks, the tabloids run photographs of her at a lavish party at the ski lodge, unfairly, as it turn out, as the pictures had actually been taken five years earlier. In the years that follow, she gains a reputation as a ‘witty, fearful beauty’, ‘gone quietly mad’, who has taken to addressing her aged cat by her husband’s name: ‘Franklin’, or ‘Small Frank’. Why this is becomes clear later, as the book takes the pragmatic supernatural turn DeWitt enjoys.
It’s a strange time to be writing a comedy of manners about moneyed New Yorkers, but DeWitt has never been one to be influenced by literary fashion. He has mentioned Evelyn Waugh as a major influence for this book, specifically his ability to write portrayals of the wealthy that manage to be simultaneously scathing and sympathetic. In Waugh, the rich have nothing to do but spend the money they have inherited. In French Exit, DeWitt takes this further, as we discover that Frances has made it her secret mission to spend every last cent she has. It has taken her a good number of years, but she is approaching her goal:
One evening, Malcolm was sitting on the sofa eating a carrot and wearing for unnamed reasons a suit. Frances was yet in her robe, and at that late hour, namely seven o’clock. She had not left the apartment in several consecutive days and had not taken the robe off during this time. There was a phase of each day through which she felt conspicuous to be so attired, specifically from when she sat down to eat her lunch and to the moment she took her first cocktail, just preceding her dinner. During this time she felt shabby, naked, a victim of drafts, untoward, and she combatted such unpleasantnesses with blasts of perfume and makeup. She knew she was living improperly but hadn’t the strength to correct herself. She had twenty thousand euros left; she’d taken to flushing hundreds down the toilet each morning.
Whereas Franklin had seen the purpose of life as the ruthless pursuit of wealth—’I loved being angry. […] I loved my work. I loved the game of it. I loved money. I loved getting away with everything’—Frances believes the opposite. ‘You’re supposed to spend it all,’ she says. ‘That’s the object of the game.’ The manner in which Frances flagrantly spends her dwindling fortune is horrifying at first, but develops into a kind of parable, causing those of us outside the moneyed classes to ask ourselves (very quietly) the thrilling question: What would happen if the super-rich spent all their money? Would it be so bad?
Ultimately, French Exit is the chronicle of an unusual relationship between a mother and son. Frances is sardonic, and Malcolm aimless, from the first. After they leave the party that opens the novel, using the false excuse of a gravely ill cat, they sit on a bench on the pavement and discuss the evening’s events, and the photograph frame that Malcolm has stolen:
‘It’s very beautiful,’ she said, and handed it back to Malcolm. He opened the frame and removed the photo, folding it in crisp quarters and dropping it into a trash can beside their bench. He returned the frame to his coat pocket and resumed his study of the party, pointing out a late-middle-aged man with a cummerbund encasing a markedly round stomach. ‘That man’s some type of ambassador.’
‘Yes, and if those epaulets could talk.’
‘Did you speak to his wife?’
Frances nodded. ‘Men’s teeth in a child’s mouth. I had to look away.’ She flicked her cigarette into the street.
‘Now what,’ Malcolm said.
As the novel progresses, the crisp dialogue cements these characteristics, and Frances and Malcolm are enchanting to observe. One of DeWitt’s most impressive skills is his ability to create complex personalities without literary exposition: we get to know his characters exclusively through their conversations. The book’s heft, however, comes from a series of vignettes of the past, through which we discover the poignant and unhappy circumstances that have brought our main characters to their present circumstances.
After an extended period during which Malcolm and Frances have only each other for company, their borrowed apartment in Paris rapidly begins to fill up with an incongruous assortment of characters, who visit and end up staying: Mme Reynard, a needy American expat desperate for excitement; Madeleine, a medium tasked with locating Small Frank; Julius, a private detective hired to find Madeleine; Susan, Malcolm’s one-time fiancee who has flown over to see him; Tom, Susan’s handsome, normal current beau; and Joan, Frances’s oldest friend and the owner of the apartment. The situation culminates in a party, during which the book reaches farcical fever pitch—the assembled cast all get quite drunk and play to type, if not to stereotype:
Mme Reynard took hold of Tom by his shoulders. ‘Tom, I speak for the group when I say that I’ve enjoyed, so very much, meeting and talking with you. Couldn’t you please find it in your heart to like us just a little bit?’
Mme Reynard sat on the sofa. ‘I tried and failed—but tried.’
Now Julius faced Tom. Swaying, he opened, then closed his mouth. He stood breathing from his nose awhile. ‘I’m not used to drinking this much,’ he said, and also sat down on the sofa.
Malcolm stood before Tom. ‘Tom,’ he said, and Tom drew back and punched him in the nose. Malcolm fell-sat back down, hand covering his face and nodding, as though the violence against him was just, even commonsensible.
Frances slapped Tom in the face, then sat down herself.
Tom stood there looking woebegone. ‘I’m leaving,’ he told Susan. ‘Are you coming with me or not?’
‘I’m not,’ she said, smiling at Malcolm, who wore a jaunty mustache of blood.
Although DeWitt parodies the conventions of the genres he adopts, there is a tenderness in his experiments too. French Exit is perhaps best summed up by Frances, who when her friend accuses her of predictability replies: ‘yes, my life is riddled by clichés, but do you know what a cliché is? It’s a story so fine and thrilling that it’s grown old in its hopeful retelling.’