By Rhonda Dredge
Standing in a queue for a book signing is one of the hidden pleasures of the Melbourne Writers Festival, a place where you can hang out to pick up tips from great storytellers or just get close to fans.
Near the front of the queue for the clever author of French Exit was Antoni Jach; a well-known academic in the creative writing field.
At the end of the queue was a computer programmer called Oliver who was trying to keep a low profile.
Neither of them had read the book, having been persuaded by the power of the talk at Storey Hall to invest in a copy and have it signed by its Canadian author, Patrick deWitt.
French Exit tells the story of a stylish woman who travels to Paris with her soft son and difficult cat, the latter containing the soul of her dead entrepreneurial husband.
The device of the pet cat could have been cute and overplayed but in the hands of deWitt, the cat’s adventures give the husband a second chance of baring his claws.
“An ancient baseness took hold of him and he became known among the barbarous fraternity of Parisian strays as an animal deranged in its violence,” deWitt wrote in a sentence that summed up his approach to the craft. He doesn’t mind telling the reader a thing or two in appropriate places rather than leaving you to miss the point.
The wife in this comedy of manners is equally arch, an amusing snob hell-bent on having fun according to her own whims and fancies and her copious expenditure drives the novel to its inevitable end. The term “French Exit” means leaving a party without saying goodbye.
Antoni Jach swiftly moved towards the signing, after expressing deference towards the author and the festival, for getting deWitt to Melbourne when there were so many other festivals for an author to choose from.
“Melbourne in early spring is a chilly place and not that attractive to overseas visitors,” he said.
Night was descending by the time the queue of 40 had been satisfied but there were no complaints even though ushers in red t-shirts tried to expedite proceedings by getting readers to write their names on sticky notes. The author politely gave each person in the queue his or her due.
Oliver, the computer programmer, grew a bit nervous as the queue got shorter and he made a confession before his moment of reckoning arrived. It turns out that he hadn’t read a novel for three years.
“Often I don’t get very far into a book,” he admitted. He had once read fiction as a child, then swapped over to non-fiction during his studies but now all he ever does for literary enjoyment is lurk on Twitter looking for the perfect comment.
“I like reading tweets. I like to scroll through and every now and then get an intermittent reward.”
The same could be said for a novel; DeWitt’s treatment of the antagonistic husband to boot.
Mostly it takes about 30 minutes a day for Oliver to get his reward but last weekend, he was taking it easy in bed and after three hours he still hadn’t found anything worthwhile.
“I felt quite drained,” he said, looking pale and far too weak to be carrying something as heavy as an entire book.