> Zed Book Club / A Bibliophile’s Delight: Patrick deWitt’s ‘The Librarianist’ Is a Remembrance of Things Past

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A Bibliophile’s Delight: Patrick deWitt’s ‘The Librarianist’ Is a Remembrance of Things Past

The Canadian writer's latest novel will appeal to the book lover — and maybe the introvert — that exists inside all of us / BY Nathalie Atkinson / June 30th, 2023

Patrick deWitt is something of a genre chameleon. The Canadian author’s breakout novel, The Sisters Brothers, bends the western toward absurdist comedy until it twangs, while Undermajordomo Minor is a twist on gothic adventure. In his pitch-black comedy of manners French Exit, a broke Upper East Side widow (played by Michelle Pfeiffer in the recent film adaptation) blows the last of her money in Paris in what feels like an existential caper. His fifth novel, The Librarianist (out July 4) is something else again — a page-turner about an unassuming introvert living a small, quiet life.

DeWitt says he’s wanted to write that type of character — cloistered in his or her interests — for a long time. Bob Comet is a 71-year-old retired librarian who has been alone for decades, and lives his life through reading while ensconced in his mint-green Portland, Ore., home.  “(This) is something I can relate to,” deWitt says with a laugh, as he chats over Zoom from his home in Portland, where the dual citizen has lived for more than a decade. The novel covers just a handful of days in Bob’s life, broken up into three timelines: Present day, flashbacks to early adulthood and a short but memorable escapade in 1945, when, at the age of 11, he ran away from home to a dilapidated coastal hotel. Each of which helped set him on a path that would end with him living removed from people. 



Bob’s journey of discovery begins when he cultivates connection outside his world of books. That happens after he comes across a catatonic elderly woman at a 7-Eleven and returns her to the Gambell-Reid Senior Centre care facility where she lives. Something compels him to begin volunteering and interacting with residents like flirty Brighty, for example, or Linus, a corpulent id of bottomless appetites. Soon Bob begins thinking about his past and examining the joy and disappointment of his two closest relationships: his wife, Connie, and best friend, Ethan, that set him on his path. Patiently following his progress, the reader becomes attuned to the tiny modulations of change in Bob’s life.

Among other things, The Librarianist is a novel that’s interested in happiness. It’s also an exceedingly bookish book, one that understands how important books can be in shaping a person. (The North American edition has an old-fashioned check-out card on the cover; a throwback to library borrowing systems of yore — pure catnip to bibliophiles.) Anyone looking at Bob’s life might think his earnest dedication to reading was extreme. “Most people have either a very casual relationship with literature and books or no relationship at all,” deWitt says. “So it’s almost becoming sort of an eccentricity. I think somebody who really devotes a lot of time [to reading], it’s niche. And it didn’t used to be.” For example, Bob eschews television except for a brief, demerol-induced moment of enthusiasm for the medium. Connie, Bob’s former wife, voices her misgivings of his choices — suggesting that Bob was, “reading beyond the accepted level of personal pleasure and wondered if it wasn’t symptomatic of a spiritual or emotional deformity.”

After reading deWitt’s description of the many spines and “tidy towers of books in the halls,” I thought wistfully of two of filmmaker and avid reader John Waters’ book aphorisms, the family-friendly one being: “Collect books, even if you don’t plan on reading them right away. Nothing is more important than an unread library.” (You’ll have to Google the other.)

I tell deWitt that I appreciated the delicate but emphatic distinction, made early on as Bob is slowly introduced, that the solitary life is not necessarily a lonely life. (Or a misanthropic one.) Certainly Bob’s life is melancholic in some areas because things hadn’t always gone the way he hoped. “But you know, a career reader is not lonely to me. I get so much out of it and it is very much like socializing,” deWitt observes. He’s pleased I noticed because Bob’s character arc isn’t the cliché that he’s secretly been lonely the whole time — although others have found Bob’s choice to live life for and through books quite sad. “Oftentimes, I’m lonelier in a room filled with people then in a room filled with books,” deWitt adds.

The dramatis personae at the Gambell-Reid Senior Centre are a motley crew so, between the novel’s quirky ensemble and poignant chord, it’s also being likened to Fredrik Backman’s style (and there are worse things than the internationally bestselling Swedish novelist, of A Man Called Ove and other feel-good novels).

Early readers of The Librarianist have also likened it to Stoner, John Williams’ obscure 1965 novel recently revived to much acclaim, about the very quiet life of a very quiet man. DeWitt says he really likes that comparison (with the caveat that Stoner is more long-suffering than Bob) but wasn’t actively channeling Williams — though he admits the two books do perhaps belong on a shelf together. Frank Conroy’s 1967 candid memoir Stop-Time was an influence, he says, and also in his mind — always — is the personality of the great Jane Bowles. Bowles wrote Two Serious Ladies, a caustic comic masterpiece that deWitt has praised before (including in our previous chat, about French Exit) and in Bob’s childhood flashback, madcap double vaudeville act June and Ida are an homage to the writer. “It just seems to improve every time I pick it up,” he says of the modernist cult classic, “more beguiling and strange and funny.”

Bob’s 1945 timeline features a chaotic set piece with June and Ida, their 23 pieces of luggage, dog and a train car that not only reveals deWitt’s childhood diet of Monty Python but seems to be channelling Hollywood screwball genius Preston Sturges — in particular the Ale and Quail Club scenes from The Palm Beach Story.

Like Sturges, deWitt is also a screenwriter — he wrote the adaptation of The Sisters Brothers made by French director Jacques Audiard as well as Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit; the project he’s working on now is on hold because of the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike.

As we’re discussing past attempts to bring his Undermajordomo Minor to the screen, deWitt mentions Kelly Reichardt, a filmmaker friend who’s based in Portland much of the year. They’re close enough that they show each other rough drafts, like her latest feature Showing Up. “I loved that script so much,” he enthuses, “I was really enamoured of it, to the point of envy.” He laughs. “It just reminded me of all my favourite things, the humour is a bit more subdued in the film but it read as a sort of screwball.” Showing Up is about an introverted artist trying to create silences and space for her work by closing herself off from others, but who is also — like our librarian Bob — selectively trying to let life in. (As it also happens, deWitt’s 18-year-old son Gustavo appears briefly as a background player watch for the long-haired skateboarder gliding past Michelle Williams as she’s digging through trash).

Because The Librarianist is a deWitt novel, there are elements to be savoured in the nuance of particulars on the page: his obvious delight in selecting apt proper names for characters (like Bob Comet, an ironic misnomer for a protagonist who rather than hurtle towards anything at all more or less watches his life happen to him) to the peculiarities of speech patterns and vocabulary. And there are frequently lilting, evocative turns of phrase (as with Bob sensing the “evidence of an odd-shaped fate running through the day”). DeWitt’s people love to talk and he has an ear for the rhythm of how character is expressed through conversational energy. (That may be down to his own penchant for loquacious mid-century British fiction writers, like Barbara Comyns or Ivy Compton-Burnett.)

So I had to know: what does deWitt intend by the librarianist of the title? The word has the whiff of vocation about it, but is actually a turn of phrase invented by a character in the novel. “The library science world is a sort of emotional home that delivers on its promise to Bob, he’s pleased all the way through to the end of his career,” deWitt explains. But that’s not the case for Bob’s early mentor, a glib librarian named Sandy who lobs the term pejoratively. “It’s cynical wordplay — like he’s intentionally elevating the word, but he is doing it in a sort of mocking, sneering kind of way.”

Laced with a complicated ribbon of sorrow and hope, the melancholic edge is probably owing to deWitt’s general mood working on the novel through the pandemic. Like all his work, it’s humorous — to wit, Eileen, who “was not charming but had contemplated charm and could perform a version of it that was convincing so long as you didn’t inspect it very closely” — and made me chortle aloud, many times, but when I finally turned the last page, my heart was full.

Patrick deWitt will be at Indigo Robson in Vancouver July 6, 3pm, and Winnipeg’s McNally Robinson on Aug. 31, 7pm with simultaneous YouTube stream


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