THE LITTLE WHITE CAR
By Danuta de Rhodes
Canongate U.S. 262 pp. $21
Danuta de Rhodes has got it all. She's barely past adolescence, yet she has published a first novel in England and now in the United States. She writes smoothly, she's funny, she has obviously been around, and she has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things pop-cultural. Into the bargain, she's got a curriculum vitae that would make Wonder Woman weep in envy. Her publisher tells the tale:
"Danuta de Rhodes was born in 1980 and spent much of her childhood in Paris, Milan and Rio de Janeiro. She started writing features for fashion magazines at the age of 12 and her first screenplay, the romantic comedy 'Le Cochon d'Inde,' was produced when she was just 14. . . . In 1998, after a year of composing music for the Jerusalem Ballet, she moved to London, where she studied modern and medieval literature and designed shoes. She currently lives in New York City and works in the fashion industry."
She's scheduled for a six-city American tour, Washington included, and it certainly will be interesting to see what she looks like, because reliable evidence indicates that she doesn't exist. Instead, she is a pseudonym for Dan Rhodes, a much admired English short-story writer and novelist. Danuta de Rhodes, according to her publisher, was included in Granta magazine's Best of Young British Novelists 2003, but the only Rhodes on that list is Dan. Case closed.
Dan Rhodes, after publishing two story collections ("Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love" and "Anthropology") and one novel ("Timoleon Vieta Come Home"), declared that he was through with writing fiction but apparently couldn't resist the temptation to take a stab at the latest sensation in pop publishing, chick lit. The difficulty is that to write chick lit you have to be, well, a chick, and judging by his photographs Rhodes most definitely is not. So, voila! Danuta de Rhodes, the babe novelist to end all babe novelists, who in her mid-twenties bids fair to put all mid-twenties chick literati to shame.
"The Little White Car" is in almost every sense a piece of fluff, which scarcely distinguishes it from everything else in the chick-lit genre, but it reads smoothly and in spots is a fair amount of fun. One senses that Danuta has her tongue firmly in cheek from first page to last, but then maintaining that pose for so long a stretch is, in and of itself, something of an accomplishment.
The chick who is its anti-heroic heroine is Veronique, a 22-year-old Parisian who, as the novel opens, is breaking up with her lover, Jean-Pierre, a musician and composer who is infatuated with the Sofia Experimental Breadboard Octet, the latest composition of which is called "Where Soundwaves Turn to Sound." He eschews (or so he says) all things commercial, aspires to "arrange a series of unique avant-garde music evenings in spectacular venues" and hopes to be a "celebrated Bohemian." He plays a recording of the octet's new composition for Veronique, who immediately recognizes something familiar and points it out to Jean-Pierre:
"It was with horror that he realized that the Sofia Experimental Breadboard Octet had included the tune of the chorus of Vanessa Paradis's 'Joe Le Taxi' as a recurring flourish in track three of 'Where Soundwaves Turn to Sound'. . . . He shivered, hoping that it was a coincidence on the octet's part, that they wouldn't cite early Paradis as a primary influence alongside Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Coltrane and Holger Czukay. He started to wonder whether arranging a concert for them would be such a good idea after all."
With that deft dig at artsy pretension, Dan/Danuta gets things off to an amusing start. Veronique, deciding that Jean-Pierre now bores her, takes a hike. Their first night had been great, but "since then it had been like watching the same film over and over again." Fueled with wine and pot, she gets into her parents' white Fiat Uno and drives toward their house. Her route takes her along the Right Bank of the Seine and into the tunnel at the Pont L'Alma: "Not wanting to hit the sides she drove carefully, and slowly."
The next morning, profoundly hung over, she vaguely remembers an accident and goes out to inspect the car; it is dented, and the brake light is broken. Back in the house she turns on the TV, which is showing pictures of "the horribly mangled wreckage of a big black car" and a "still photograph of Princess Diana," and as she listens it dawns on her. "Oh [expletive]," she says. "I killed the princess."
That's just the beginning. She's off on a toot that involves "having sex with strangers, stealing high-class audio equipment and killing princesses." For much of the way she's accompanied by her best friend, Estelle, who "had always been ahead of Veronique and their other friends when it came to knowing how to go about her business."
It's Estelle who comes up with "the idea of dismantling the car piece by piece, and gradually dropping the bits all over Paris -- in litter bins in parks and on streets." That process acquires additional urgency once Veronique learns from radio news that "scientists, the police and the automobile industry had been working around the clock, and between them had established by rigorous tests and a process of elimination that the traces of paint found at the scene of the crash were almost certainly from a white Fiat Uno made between 1983 and 1987. She listened, numb, as a spokesman for the police . . . announced that they had already begun combing Paris, and that they would continue combing Paris, and if necessary the whole of France, until they found this dented car. She pictured herself in shackles."
It's a clever (and more than slightly irreverent) conceit upon which to construct a novel, but Dan/Danuta brings it off, in the process sending up chick lit and just about anything else that crosses the screen. That staple of chick lit -- the big, goofy, lovable dog the chick can hug whenever men lose their allure -- is present here as a Saint Bernard named Cesar. There's a sad, strange older man -- Jean-Pierre's Uncle Thierry -- who elicits more love from his nephew than Veronique gets. There's a doctor in Britain who falls for her and introduces her to his mother, who "had been somewhat crestfallen when he told her it was a beautiful girl from Paris called Veronique" because "she had spent years rehearsing for the day when he would introduce her to a Jose, a Michael or a Roy, and announce that they were very much in love."
There's a moment of truth when, on her fifth bottle of beer, Veronique announces to Estelle, "I don't care any more. I can't keep it to myself a moment longer." No, she doesn't go to the cops and confess. She's "going to play my favourite record, and I don't care if you make fun of me. . . . I've never told anyone about this. Except Cesar, of course." The album is "The Roxette Collection: Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus!" by the Swedish soft-rockers Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson, bubble-gum to the max.
The novel, like Roxette's music, isn't even as heavy as a feather, but it's fun and it's funny. Younger readers and chick-lit aficionados doubtless will be its most appreciative readers, but this old crock enjoyed it, too, albeit somewhat to his surprise.