Thursday, June 27, 2013

Reading Challenge Redux - Ablutions by Patrick deWitt

It's hard to know where to start with this post, the latest in my Reading Challenge Redux, in which I'm finally getting around to reading another book by an author who I have previously only read one book by. (Have I mentioned how difficult it is to articulate that premise every post? Next reading challenge I need to come up a concept that is a little more pithy.)

My selection this time? The 2009 novel Ablutions: notes for a novel (M) by Canadian writer Patrick deWitt. You likely know Patrick deWitt's name as the author of The Sisters Brothers (M), his 2011 western novel that took Canadian literature by storm and was nominated for all three major Canadian literary prizes (winning two—The Governor General's and the Writer's Trust awards) as well as being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. My recollection at that time is that many thought the book was a first novel—deWitt seemed to burst on to the scene out of nowhere—but it was in fact his second effort, following Ablutions.

So, why is this a difficult post? Largely, I guess, because it was a difficult book. Or maybe difficult is the wrong word. It's not a complicated book, it's not the sort of book that on an sentence-by-sentence level is difficult, but it is dark and the scenes depicted—the lives of the narrator and characters—are vividly dark, vividly difficult.

Here's the jacket blurb from the edition I read:

"In a famous but declining Hollywood bar works a barman. Morbidly amused by the decadent decay of his surroundings, he establishes tentative friendships with variously pathological and darkly comical regulars, watching them stumble into nightly oblivion as he makes notes for his novel. But as his tenure at the bar continues, he begins to serve himself more often than his customers. His damaged life starts to unravel completely: he loses his wife, his way, himself. Trapped by his habits and his loneliness, he hatches a terrible plan of escape, his only chance for redemption."

US cover
As jacket blurbs go, I think it is a highly successful one. It sets the scene and the style of a book filled with "decadent decay", of people both "pathological and darkly comical" that is very much a picture of a "damaged life". It focuses on ambience, rather than plot: feelings rather than action. A slim volume at 164 pages, Ablutions carries the subtitle "notes for a novel" which is appropriate. It is of course what the narrator is doing—writing notes for his novel—but it is descriptive of the writing style as well. Ablutions feels like an outline in some ways, a character sketch and peek into the head of the author (by which I mean not deWitt himself but the narrator as a writer, and in a sense authors universally). The book—told in the second person, heightening the sense of the universal—unfolds as a series of scenes rather than as a linear story arc: there is a beginning, a middle and an end, but not in a way that you might be accustomed to, as the importance of the overall story seems to fall behind the importance of the impact of individual moments.

I liked Ablutions. I liked it quite a bit, really. I found it dark and depressing, which is probably what keeps me from saying that I loved it. Here's a quote from the New York times review that seems to speak very well to that fact: “Ablutions” is not meant to be an enjoyable book, or a loving book, or even a beautiful book (although it has moments of beauty). It is ugly on purpose. It flays open its ugliness as if to say: I’m here too. Look at me. See me." Generally, I don't like this kind of darkness in a book, but with a thoughtfulness to accompany the darkness—and the occasional burst of the darkly comic—deWitt made it work for me.

Back to The Sisters Brothers: there will be many who loved that book who will despise this one, I think. Although deWitt's style and craftmanship are fully on view here, this is a very different book and one with probably a very specific audience. If you loved the The Sisters Brothers for its plot, its western flare, its adventure, Ablutions is probably not the book for you. If you liked The Sisters Brothers for its darkness, its peek into the mind of an antihero, its introspection: Ablutions is probably worth a read.

Similar books? Charles Bukowski's (M) name gets mentioned a lot in terms of an author that deWitt owes something to with this book. Under the Volcano (M) by Malcolm Lowry, another difficult novel that looks at alcoholism and decline may also be a good match.

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