Patrick deWitt: Notes on a reading

Patrick deWitt wrote his first novel, Ablutions, in the form of second-person notes-to-self. The subtitle of that book is “Notes on a novel.” I took notes during deWitt’s Macewan Book of the Year appearance and tried to recreate the form. Here are my “Notes on a reading.”

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Discuss the regulars. You arrive just after the #CanLit Crew, comprised of several bloggers and YouTubers who are all ten years younger than you. You discover this in the course of a conversation about what everyone was doing in 2008. Apparently you were the only one getting married and not attending university, or junior high. This special moment was caught on video. Of course you skipped ahead to find your own entrance and it’s around the 4:30 mark.

You finally meet Natalie of The Wandering Bibliophile as well, but sadly this is not captured on video.

Discuss the award. The Sisters Brothers is Macewan’s Book of the Year – Macewan being a University here in Edmonton, for those not in the know. You like this award because it’s kind of random – any books published in the last five years are eligible, and they take nominations from anyone. And rather than a stuffy ceremony, they make the author work for it – they must attend classes, answer student questions, and do a reading/interview for the public.  You attended Macewan back when this award was just getting started but you didn’t go to any of the events, even though one of your favourite authors was there – David Adams Richard – because back then, you just read books, you didn’t talk about them or understand why anyone would want to hang out with authors or other readers. You were unhappy and meeting other people who loved the things you loved probably would have helped. Better late than never.

You wrote about your first Macewan Book of the Year experience here.

Discuss the reading. You are disappointed when an author chooses to read from the very beginning of their book. It seems too obvious. You were not disappointed when deWitt did this, for a couple of reasons. One was the sign language interpreters. You have never seen someone sign a story before. You taught both of your children sign language and can ask for “more milk” or let someone know you have to poop, but that’s about it. You did know that sign language involves more than just the hands. You knew facial expression, posture, and the whole body get involved. Hands can’t move fast enough to convey everything. The interpreters are more like performers. From poor Tub the horse plodding along, to the hilarious description of a drunken Hermann Kermit Warm, the interpreters are very much in contrast to deWitt’s deadpan delivery. The other reason was that in hearing and seeing the first few pages of the book again, you realize the whole of the book is contained in the first five pages. The entire set up of the plot. The tension between the two brothers. The kinda-magical-realism of hearing a horse’s thoughts. And this line: “…and I lay in the dark thinking about the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of a bloodline can be.” That’s some Tolstoy-level, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” shit. It was this first section of the novel that initially made you put it down. After hearing deWitt read it, you think it’s one of the most brilliant opening chapters ever.

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Discuss gender roles. You think Elizabeth Withey of Frock Around the Clock (among other things) brought up the fact that this is a very “male” novel, in the course of her interview. It is. In kind of a DFW way. This is a story about men. Women are around because someone’s gotta be the love interest/prostitute/witch/mother figure. You’re not that bothered. You know exactly where to go for a feminine perspective on the old west.

Discuss luck. Prospecting for gold aside, this is very much a story about luck, as Withey reminds us. Curses and irony and karma – luck sums it up. As they say the word luck again and again, you remember watching hockey with your dad. When the Oilers scored (this was many years ago, mind) on a lucky shot, dad always said “You gotta be good to be lucky.” You always replied, “You gotta be lucky to be good.” That’s the trick with The Sisters Brothers – who’s lucky and who’s good?

Discuss the book signing. You are not one of those “look at me being awkward with authors” people. You are as awkward with authors as you are with everyone else. Which is to say – somewhat. You are not ready. The line moves much faster that you expect. Suddenly, you are standing in front of Patrick deWitt. You hand The Sisters Brothers over and ask him to make it out to Laura and he seems a little hesitant. He does not personalize the second book. You tell him a story about how an American friend who described him as “an author who needs more recognition” and isn’t that funny? Given his fame here in Canada. He acknowledges that things are different in the States. Why not move home, asks Jason, more nervous than you are. If it wasn’t for my son, I might, he says. You swoon. Inwardly.

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You skip the St. Patrick’s Day after party in favour of the grocery store and bed by 10:00 pm.

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2 comments

  1. Naomi

    Loved the way you wrote this! And, now I want to go back and read the first five pages of the book again. The things we miss…
    The video was entertaining.
    Did you read Ablutions? What did you think of it?

  2. ebookclassics

    That #CanLitCrew are way too cool, it makes me sick. It must be so nice to have a book blogging community you can meet face-to-face with at these events. I loved the way your wrote this post too. I’ve had Dewitt on my TBR for ages, so I need to get on it.

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