Nominative determinism is the term for that pleasing accord you occasionally find between name and profession: the immigration minister named Brokenshire, the sprinter named Bolt, and so on. Apparently, there was once a Republican candidate for the California state assembly called Rich White. And how wonderful for there to be a comic novelist called Patrick deWitt.
Booker-shortlisted for his western pastiche, The Sisters Brothers, and praised as a latter-day P.G. Wodehouse, the Canadian author certainly seems sure of his calling. My copy of French Exit opens with a letter explaining that each character in his fourth novel ‘deliver[ed] on his or her promise, or beyond his or her promise’. Is it ever a good idea for an author to preface their review copies with such hubristic assertions? For just as there’s no reason to think that Dr Hartt is a better cardiologist than Dr Butter, there’s no guarantee that a deWitt will deliver the comic goods.
Billed as a ‘Tragedy of Manners’, French Exit follows a wealthy widow and her adult son as they face financial ruin. Frances Price is a 65-year-old socialite infamous among Manhattan’s elite for her ‘fearful beauty’, snobbery and scandalous behaviour: 20 years ago, she discovered the dead body of her ruthless lawyer husband and promptly went skiing. ‘It’s fun to run from one brightly burning disaster to the next,’ she tells her only child, Malcolm, by way of an explanation.
Malcolm is a 32-year-old ‘lugubrious toddler of a man’, large, unkempt and still residing with his waspy mother in what his frustrated fiancée, Susan, refers to as ‘that mausoleum you call a life’. But now they’ve frittered away (almost) all of her husband Franklin’s money and find themselves reliant on the goodwill of Frances’s only friend, Joan, who owns a pokey apartment in Paris, where the pair flee with their cat, Small Frank, and €170,000 cash.
French Exit is the sort of novel wherein the spirit of a dead husband possesses a live feline, people travel from New York to Paris by cruise ship even though it’s the 21st century, and characters are less than the sum of their affectations. The themes (inadequate parents, broken dreams) and mise-en-scène (fading grandeur) owe a lot to the American indie cinema of Wes Anderson — but for all its arch dialogue and kooky anachronisms the book never hits that vein of melancholy and pain. And after whetting the appetite for wit, deWitt merely serves a few half-baked hors-d’oeuvres. People say things like: ‘I don’t think that there’s anything so comforting as quite a lot of money, wouldn’t you agree?’ and ‘Everything I’ve ever lost in my life has always wound up being under the bed’, which sound like they may come from some kind of Noël Coward line generator.
Worse, the characters are incessantly remarking on Frances’s wit. At one point, she and her hanger-on Mme Reynard watch a riot in Paris as it gathers momentum. ‘It’s becoming itself,’ remarks Frances. DeWitt writes: ‘Mme Reynard experienced an envy at these words; she knew she would never have been able to come up with something so wonderful. Hers was a mixed fate, she thought: to know brilliance on sight, but never to command it.’
But what’s so wonderful about ‘It’s becoming itself’? If you are going to have one of your characters reflecting on the brilliance of another of your characters — i.e. if you are going to reflect on your own brilliance — it’s advised to be absolutely sure that brilliance has indeed been attained.