The Librarianist 
by Patrick deWitt.
Bloomsbury, 342 pp., £9.99, April, 978 1 5266 4692 7
Show More
Show More

Patrick deWitt​ is the sort of writer you imagine checking his emails on an old desktop computer in the library. His five deceptively simple novels suggest pleasant, old-fashioned things. They hinge on traditional plot devices – misunderstandings, a letter delivered or undelivered, a chance meeting. There is no modern technology here. In deWitt’s first novel, Ablutions (2009), the narrator repeatedly takes a telephone off the wall and throws it in the bin. His characters are daydreamers, fantasists, drunks on suicidal benders – they’re not people interested in contemporary or historical events. Their worlds are dioramas, enclosed, contained.

The premise of deWitt’s fiction is simple: it takes a long time to get over what has happened to you. Some defining incident is replayed in the minds of his characters; a story must be told and retold until it spreads out like a stain into every part of your life. You can try to bend it, make it comic, force it into anecdote, but it will continue to haunt you. In deWitt’s latest novel, The Librarianist, a minor character on a trip to the cinema is asked how many times she is going to see the same film. ‘However many times it takes,’ she replies. There are prophecies, visions, séances, reincarnations. DeWitt has expressed admiration for Ivy Compton-Burnett and his characters, like hers, often speak in cutting aphorisms. Like good theatre, his fiction is full of dialogue, quick, eventful, nimble. Then there is the life-altering incident, which is always a monologue delivered centre-stage and projected to the cheap seats in the back. His books are often described as funny, which is an achievement for novels that are mostly about people who want to kill themselves.

The Librarianist follows the uneventful life of a retired librarian called Bob Comet. After helping a lost elderly woman find her way, he begins volunteering at a nursing home in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. Bob is a man of routine; he spends his time walking, cooking and cleaning. His love of reading and scholarship is a balm but also an affliction, a way of avoiding intimacy and the unexpected. This lonely realisation occasionally catches up with him (‘Bob sometimes had the sense there was a well inside him, a long, bricked column of cold air with still water at the bottom’). Connie, his ex-wife, ‘believed Bob was reading beyond the accepted level of personal pleasure and wondered if it wasn’t symptomatic of a spiritual or emotional deformity. Bob thought her true question was, Why do you read rather than live?’ DeWitt has set himself a challenge in writing about a character who is inert and passive. What would Bob do if he had a choice? Nothing. Unlike deWitt’s other novels, there is very little momentum or adventure in The Librarianist. There is simply a man ruminating, waiting: ‘What wound up happening was that nothing happened.’

The first section of the novel is set in 2005-6 and is populated by deWitt’s usual cast of well-spoken misfits and loners. There’s Linus, a vulgar sex-pest who watches tennis for the grunts of the female players. When Bob tells him he has only ever slept with one woman, Linus replies: ‘What’s the German word for pity, scorn and awe happening all at the same time?’ There’s Brighty, whose explanation for her five abortive marriages is that she likes a big party. There’s Jill, ‘a sincerely negative human being with unwavering bad luck and an attitude of ceaseless headlong indignation’. And there’s Chip, the woman Bob encounters at the beginning of the novel, who keeps running away. Bob feels at home among this merry band; the pace of the nursing home suits him. He reads Gogol to the patients, hoping they can ‘identify the cultural throughlines and buried political opinion’. But Bob’s tragic flaw – and deWitt believes in tragic flaws – is that he can’t read people.

The second section of the novel is set between 1942 and 1960 (though this framing hardly seems to matter) and deals with Bob’s marriage to Connie. He first encounters her with her father, a raving puritanical lunatic feared by the neighbourhood, when they come to pick up some American literature from the library (‘Europe is in the past, is deceased, and so is not my concern’). The second time he sees Connie they make eye contact and ‘he understood when their eyes met that he was very seriously sickened by an ancient and terrorific affliction.’ The arrival of Connie coincides with that of Bob’s first male friend, the handsome, swaggering Ethan. Bob is in awe of Ethan’s sexual prowess; Ethan is comforted by Bob’s goodness, solidity and intuitive taste in novels. For reasons of jealousy, Bob tries to keep Ethan and Connie apart but they meet serendipitously on the bus and fall in love. Bob discovers this much too late, and then all at once: ‘Here was the very beginning of his realisation that there was something dangerous moving in his direction, and that he wouldn’t be allowed to escape it, no matter what clever manoeuvre he might invent or employ.’ He had the measure of Ethan – fickle but romantic, waiting for the right woman to save him from himself – but he had misunderstood Connie. She never had any desire to move from one inflexible, zealous male figure to another. ‘My aspiration is to become a completely normal human being,’ she tells Bob early in their relationship. If Connie is lying to herself (and she is) we shouldn’t be surprised: deWitt has made self-delusion his stock in trade.

Ablutions, like many books in which people are depicted as disgusting, dangerous, self-serving and beyond redemption, didn’t sell well. In an interview with the Guardian, deWitt expressed his disappointment at the commercial failure of this short novel about a barback. Rereading it, I wondered where he felt he lost the book clubs. Was it the scene where the drunk screams in the face of a horse? The scene where a drug addict snorts cocaine from a dead man’s shrine? The pride and delight the drunk takes in what he considers his only skill, the ability to vomit silently? Or was it the trysts, which range from outlandish and debased to just sad and empty:

The shammy is shaped like a television set (her head is shaped like a toaster oven) but one night she draws you into the storage room with the aid of fishnet stockings and lipstick and whiskey and dim lighting and her sweet, truthful smile. Now she comes by every evening in hopes that the stars will once more shine in her favour, and this is very sad because she lives an hour away and takes public transportation to visit you, and because you are looking sickly and do not smell good and have not once said anything of consequence to her, and the idea that you are an inspiration in this girl’s existence is a true life’s tragedy.

Then there is the description of an orgy: ‘Everyone is on cocaine and cannot ejaculate and the prostitutes can’t get a word in edgewise and are being worked like plough horses.’ If I had to guess, I’d say this is where deWitt sacrificed his appeal to a mass audience. Ablutions is set in a place where people often lie to themselves: a bar. Several paragraphs begin with the command ‘Discuss’ (‘Discuss Sam, the bar’s principal cocaine dealer, discuss the child actor, now grown, who frequents the bar’). This is a vain and hopeful exercise – behold these wild characters with their self-destructive habits. You’re not one of them (the novel is written in the second person). You’re not falling apart due to daily consumption of mind-altering substances, you’re note-taking and cataloguing. You’re the bar’s historian.

The Los Angeles bar in Ablutions functions like the dark inverse of the library for Bob in The Librarianist (‘the northwest branch of the public library was where Bob Comet became himself’). The bar is where the unnamed narrator becomes himself, too, but that self is a liar, a cheat and a thief. In the course of Ablutions, the narrator’s wife leaves him (‘on the pillow, a note’); he has a series of one-night stands with women he seems to dislike, though he dislikes himself much more (‘you do not know her or like her very much and you do not respect yourself and so the most you can offer this girl is time out of her life’); but he doesn’t improve, he doesn’t have an epiphany, he doesn’t get sober.

Ablutions differs from deWitt’s other novels in being largely plotless. It’s also jaded, hateful, absolutely filthy and, for all these reasons, his funniest book. DeWitt was willing to get his hands dirtier here than he ever has since. His follow-up, The Sisters Brothers (2011), was a bestseller, shortlisted for the Booker Prize and adapted for film by the French director Jacques Audiard in 2018. The novel, set in Gold Rush California, has plenty of violence, but it’s tamer than Ablutions. DeWitt dialled down the self-loathing and upped the cherry pie. The Sisters Brothers is about two brothers, Eli and Charlie, who work as hitmen for a sinister figure called the Commodore. (Two cowboys on the loose is a nicer prospect than a whiskey-lover with a death wish.) Eli, like the barback in Ablutions, has let his job define him for too long. After the brothers quit the Commodore and resume their lives as simple, non-psychopathic men, Eli watches Charlie and thinks: ‘I believe he was wondering who he might be for the rest of his life; and in a way I was wondering the same thing about myself.’ Before this, the brothers encounter Hermann Warm, who has invented a process for retrieving gold from the rivers of San Francisco. This leads to a scene which proves the almost fairy-tale logic that runs through deWitt’s work. You want gold? Fine, you will stand in rivers of it but it will burn your skin off.

Like many comic writers, deWitt has an instinct for cruelty. His characters are usually punished by getting exactly what they want. Eli and Charlie become feared assassins, giving the brutality of their childhoods a professional outlet, but it makes them disposable too. Bob in The Librarianist wishes for a quiet life and gets more than he bargained for. Ethan gets the dream girl – and almost immediately afterwards is hit by a car and dies. Bob understands destiny, though he could hardly care for something so mystic or nebulous: ‘He didn’t believe in God or fate or karma or luck, even, but he couldn’t help feeling Ethan’s death was in reply to his, Ethan’s, betrayal; and he couldn’t pretend that he wished Ethan was still alive.’ Bob is questioned by police – the driver of the car is never found – but it would take a lot of mental contortion to believe him capable of murder. He has Hollywood visions of Connie returning to him, ringing his doorbell in the rain, regretful and contrite. These passages, on the hyper-vigilance of a broken heart, contain some of deWitt’s strongest writing:

After he understood she was not going to visit the library, then came a period of ten or more years where he believed fate would intervene on his behalf. He would see her in the market, in the park, somewhere. He would pick out her set, cold expression in a crowd and she would sense his attentions and turn to meet him, and when she saw him the coldness would come away from her face and she would change back to the way she was before, a sort of lighting-up, the way she used to look at him when she came through the doors of the library, and she loved him.

Bob is devoted to one woman, and that makes him an outlier in deWitt’s work. Most of his men commit crimes or, at the very least, make big mistakes. His women are punished in a more traditional way – by falling in love with men dedicated to their own ruin. A girl watching Malcolm, Frances’s spoiled and confused son in French Exit, thinks: ‘He was a pile of American garbage and she feared she would love him forever.’ In Ablutions, the narrator’s ex-wife is mostly off-stage and appears only to engage in ex-wife behaviour: screaming down the phone; collecting her things in a melodramatic fashion. He does, however, offer an attempt at an apology: ‘Time is more important to young women than men, she explains; this makes sense and you agree that it makes sense and you excuse yourself to vomit.’ DeWitt’s female characters are often silent, but he understands their silence and the disappointments it contains. What happens when this patience runs out? When Frances finds her husband lying dead from a massive heart attack, she doesn’t call an ambulance. She goes skiing instead, and is later seen at the resort, drink in hand, looking chirpy. Connie in The Librarianist refuses to have anything to do with the remains of her megalomaniac father. These women don’t weep or mourn; they step cleanly over the corpses. It’s a sad and impotent revenge, but revenge all the same.

DeWitt’s work is characterised by a lack of moral judgment – he will forgive everything except humourlessness. Characters often reveal information about themselves unprompted. One of the best moments in The Librarianist involves Mr Baker-Bailey, Bob’s mother’s boss, whom Bob once saw slow-dancing with his mother in the kitchen. Now his mother is dead and Mr Baker-Bailey cries openly, and without interruption, in a restaurant. In a single scene, deWitt manages to convey the whole course of a solitary life. When deWitt is less controlled, he sometimes veers towards whimsy, as he does in the third section of The Librarianist, a flashback to Bob’s childhood attempt to run away, which saw him end up at a strange hotel with two elderly actresses. (He is a fan of Jane Bowles’s 1943 novel Two Serious Ladies and it shows here.) If deWitt has one failing, it’s his quirkiness. There are several, unforgivable instances of zaniness in his work: a dead husband reincarnated as a cat, vaudeville acts, a mention of a ‘hot-air balloonist’. These scenes come on like a sudden chill: someone has taken out a banjo at a party and they are seconds away from playing it. Still, deWitt uses these moments to mask the unremitting bleakness of his work. He’s not self-important enough to sell himself as a satirist of American life, but he has a sustained hatred of many of its ideals. With the cool, dispassionate eye of the Canadian, he knows the American story is one of self-destruction. Look at his landscapes: Gold Rush California, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon. (‘There is too much of the Earth missing here,’ the narrator thinks in Ablutions, ‘and I just don’t want to know about it.’) Frances in French Exit decides to get rid of all her husband’s ill-gotten money, even stuffing some of it down the toilet, then slits her wrists in the bath. Strip away the jokes and all that remains is despair.

If The Librarianist is more restrained than some of deWitt’s previous novels, it’s not by accident. ‘I wish authors would write less about the innate nobility of the indomitable human spirit,’ he said in an interview with the New York Times, ‘and more about failure without redemption, or the murky zone between failure and getting by, where many of us live in real life.’ Bob’s life goes on as expected, faltering, with books and without love, and the accumulated effect is to draw us in. In the same interview, deWitt was asked if he’d rather his books were read intellectually or emotionally. ‘Emotionally!’ he replied. The Librarianist has the least cynical ending of any of his novels. On closer inspection it appears to be partly cribbed from the movie The Notebook (2004). Regardless of where it came from I will admit – and I wish I was joking – that I wept.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences