French Exit by Patrick de Witt

Patrick Dewitt’s fourth novel, in my opinion, ventures deeper into the genre of the literary absurd than his best-known work, The Sisters Brothers. In some ways it reminds me of P.G. Woodhouse, famous for lampooning the idle, rich among the British aristocracy. This novel is several shades darker but just as funny. I listened to a YouTube presentation the author made for Waterstones and he credits Evelyn Waugh as one of the inspirations for this novel and certainly the caustic wit that characterizes Waugh’s writing in such works as A Handful of Dust resonated with me although, it is Waugh’s novel, The Loved Ones that Patrick DeWitt mentioned as being of particular influence.

The novel’s principal character and propelling force is Frances Price, an elegant beauty, well past her prime at age sixty-five surrounded by wealthy acquaintances living vacuous lives steeped in money and alcohol all of whom she despises though her life follows a similar pattern. Frances awoke one morning in her New York apartment to find her husband had died of a massive heart attack. Scandal even outrage ensued when the tabloids reported she ignored him lying dead on the floor, packed her bags and went off on a planned weekend of skiing without even calling the first responders. After his funeral, she set about spending the fortune he had accumulated as if money flowed in an endless stream. The novel begins as this stream is drying up so that Frances is forced to make a plan to escape impending destitution. Her financial advisor had been telling her for years she needed to employ a little common sense in her spending. In a final interview he asks what she was thinking when she bought houses she never intended to live in and contributed to random charities that didn’t interest her. Her reply was that she had planned to die before the money ran out but it was her bad luck that she kept on living.

The plan Frances comes up with is to escape New York and move to Paris. She has one true friend, a wealthy woman named Joan who she met in boarding school. Joan offers her Paris apartment as a refuge. Frances gathers up her clothes, the last remaining cash  and her misanthropic thirty-something son Malcolm and boards an ocean liner headed for France. She smuggles aboard her cat, Small Frank, named after her late husband and oddly, she has come to believe there has been a transmigration of dead Frank’s soul into the body of the old cat. On board she meets up with a medium who confirms her morbid suspicions.

Once settled in Paris, Frances attracts one strange, displaced character after another. They all end up moving into Joan’s tiny apartment forming a sort of madcap collection of oddballs who spend their days drinking wine and playing word games.  Joan shows up because she fears Frances might attempt suicide. Frances has had, in fact, suicidal thoughts but first she wants to organize the death of Small Frank. At this point, the author has the cat contributing his own story to the novel. Small Frank learns of Frances’s intentions and escapes to the backstreets of Paris where he suffers an alley cat’s hungry, cold existence. As his misery accumulates Small Frank entertains the idea of suicide but discovers that he cannot end his life at will but must live out all of his nine lives in a purrfect feline Purr-gatory. (I figure I can indulge in these terrible puns as nobody reads this blog anyway)

French Exit is a term used to describe someone who leaves a party abruptly without so much as thanking the host for the invitation. I suppose in France it’s called an English Exit. The novel ends with just such a French Exit so the author cannot be blamed for not warning us of what is going to happen. When all the money is spent and nothing is left Frances manages to successfully do away with herself leaving Malcolm, Joan and the motley collection of hangers-on behind without so much as a wave of her hand.  Patrick DeWitt’s achievement is that we as readers come to have sympathy for all his characters including Small Frank. This evolves despite the fact that most of them and in particular Frances, have no redeeming qualities. Frances is neither charitable or empathetic and although her son is her companion and she once rescued him from being bullied in boarding school by his teachers, she shows no regret in leaving him without the resources to look after himself besides his ability to steal small objects from other people’s houses. In the end, this is the ultimate absurdity of this novel: we feel sorry for people who do not deserve sympathy. They exist to spend money, scorn their friends and humanity in general and leave behind the clutter of their cast-off possessions. 

So how did Patrick DeWitt take a simple short plot and create a novel? He obviously enjoyed the details. This I intuited from the joy that comes through in his choice of words and use of language. The starting point of every good novel must begin with a writer’s pleasure in its creation. This author began with shaping the principal character and then surrounding her with one quirky individual after another and as each character was introduced he revealed bits and pieces of their lives… but not too much, the idea being that to fit the story the secondary characters had to serve as meaningful decorations hung about the narrative forming a sort of literary solar system.

Absurdity as a literary art is largely regarded as a twentieth century invention with the appearance of the novels of Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett… (I’ll add the playwright Ionesco whom I haven’t thought of or read in twenty years) and of course Jean Paul Sartre. However, there are elements of the absurd in the work of much earlier novelists such as Jonathan Swift because the absurd and satire are close relatives. Patrick DeWitt is in good company. What he has done in French Exit, without moralizing, is to point out the disproportionate fascination within the popular culture of individuals who have not much to offer the world except to show off their ability to spend money. This is a very funny book.