The Magic of Helen DeWitt

Look at This!

The art of Helen DeWitt.


If anyone is entitled to misgivings about the pernicious world of publishing, it’s Helen DeWitt, the long-suffering veteran of a by-now-well-known bevy of artistic successes and commercial failures. The Last Samurai, an exuberantly experimental novel about a child prodigy and his brilliant but depressive mother, made a triumphant debut at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, but its publication was fraught. DeWitt fought to retain her idiosyncratic typesetting, faced off with a belligerent copy editor, and saw few profits in the wake of financial disputes with her publisher. Worse still, the imprint responsible for The Last Samurai folded in 2005. Though the book commanded a dedicated cult following, it went out of print until New Directions reissued it 11 years later.

DeWitt’s second book, Lightning Rods, must have seemed like an easier sell. A trenchant, ever-timely satire about sexual politics in the office, it follows an opportunistic entrepreneur who supplies companies with prostitutes, supposedly as a means of alleviating tensions in the workplace. But Lightning Rods proved surprisingly difficult to place. DeWitt completed it in 1999—yet did not find a home for it until 2010. In the intervening years, her agent rescinded his offer of representation, and she responded by threatening to jump off a cliff. It wasn’t the only time the vicissitudes of publishing drove DeWitt to desperate measures: When one of her many attempts at negotiating a deal on her own fell through, she took a sedative and stuck her head into a plastic bag.

The 13 darkly comic stories that comprise Some Trick, her latest book, are primarily about artists and intellectuals as despairing as DeWitt herself. Over and over again, she pits her characters against the callous apparatus of artistic bureaucracy: Authors are jilted by greasy agents, painters are exploited by greasy gallerists, and musicians are manipulated by greasy managers.

In “Climbers,” the centerpiece and highlight of the book, a reclusive Dutch author named Peter Dijkstra recoils from literary fame. He balks at sending his writing to agents, who demote prose to “pages,” and dreads the transformation of his handwritten manuscript into a digital document. “Once the thing was typed,” he reflects, “it was up for grabs,” apt for mangling and misinterpretation. He wonders if there is any way of exposing his words to the world without warping them in the process.

I think we have reason to hope so. Despite Dijkstra’s qualms, he goes on writing—and his acolytes go on reading him with care and compassion. Perhaps DeWitt will enjoy a similar reception. Some Trick, at least, is more than mere “pages.”

DeWitt is famous for her ebulliently multilingual prose—which is unsurprising, given her itinerant childhood and rigorous schooling. She was born in Maryland in 1957, but her father was a member of the Foreign Service who would be posted to Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador. Later, first as an undergraduate at Smith College and then as a DPhil candidate in classics at Oxford, DeWitt had the opportunity to hone her Latin and Greek.

Her perfervid eclecticism drives The Last Samurai, which contains excerpts from grammar textbooks, snippets of Japanese and Greek, and outbursts in the idioms of math and music. A work of breathless erudition, the novel whirls from art history to aerodynamics without braking or breaking stride. It follows Sibylla, a fanatically cerebral single mother struggling to educate her son Ludo, a genius who devoured the Odyssey in the ancient Greek at the age of 4. Because Sibylla detests Ludo’s father, a slick travel writer with an unctuously overwrought style, she conscripts Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to serve as a male role model for the child. After all, she reasons, the film features seven honorable men and even, implicitly, Kurosawa himself—enough father figures for a small village.

Sibylla suffers from a terrible, choking depression, which is alleviated not by the platitudes of counseling but by grammatical quirks and complexities, strange tense constructions, and demanding declensions. One glance at a textbook about the Semitic languages revives her: “Just the three words ‘excepting the Phoenician’ were better than hours of the kind of help you can get on a helpline,” she reports.

But if language is Sibylla’s salvation, it’s also the source of her sorrow. Any single passage, any single book, any single expression in any single language, serves only to remind her of every other passage, book, and language—of the whole heap of human knowledge that continues to tantalize and elude her. Her hopelessness is only compounded by her dull slog of a day job: She works as a typist, transcribing magazines with names like Carpworld and The Poodle Breeder for a digital archive. While she types, she worries that “once you start explaining there is no end to it.” Meanwhile, Ludo interrupts incessantly, barging in to ask how much more of the Odyssey he has to read before he can start studying Japanese: “HOW MUCH MORE? HOW MUCH MORE? HOW, MUCH, MORE?” We could pose the same explosive question to Sibylla, who is both sustained and imperiled by her exhaustive and exhausting curiosity. Better, perhaps, complete muteness than such painfully partial speech.

Many of DeWitt’s characters in Some Trick remain unable to accept inapt locutions or imperfect representations; they cannot reconcile themselves to the limitations of the glib language imposed on them by the publishing industry. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” Peter, a mathematics professor and the author of a successful book of “robot tales,” has trouble communicating with his “hotshot literary agent.” The success of Peter’s first book is not enough to console him when his agent and editor force him to remove references to eiπ, a constant in the famously elegant formula used to efficiently represent the movement around a circle, from his new manuscript. “He said, It would mean a lot to me to work with someone who admired Bertrand Russell. He said, It would really mean a lot to me.” But Jim, the hot-shot agent in question, isn’t interested in Peter’s fervent attempts to explain binomial distribution. “I don’t really get it all,” he explains, “but I don’t need to get it.”

The only people who do get it are Peter’s best friends, a group of imaginary robots that have been visiting him since his youth. Their visits ceased “somewhere during the protracted battles over eiπ,” and Peter misses them acutely: He finds it “a comfort to talk to a robot, in which rationality carries no stigma.”

Peter faces pressures that recur throughout Some Trick. In “Brutto,” we meet an unnamed artist struggling to sell her difficult, experimental paintings. When a well-known Italian gallerist visits her studio, he fixates not on the work that matters to her but on a suit she made as an apprentice at a dressmaker’s. He finds the garment fascinatingly ugly—“brutto”—and invites her to show 20 such suits in an exhibition devoted to the “hatred of the body.” The artist tries to explain that she no longer sews, but the gallerist replies that her paintings “don’t interest me.”

So the artist makes more suits. She submits again when the gallerist insists that she display canisters of her piss, shit, sweat, and menstrual blood alongside the suits. “The thing about being an artist,” she grimly reflects, “is that from the minute you go to art school you realize there is this need to be canny. There is this need to make a name for yourself. There is this need to deal with the people who have the power.” At the end of the story, she adopts the gallerist’s approach of her own volition: Her entry for the prestigious Turner Prize consists of a suit and a jar of spermicidal jelly, an homage to her spiritual sterilization.

One of the few fonts of purity in the corrupt world of Some Trick is the aforementioned Peter Dijkstra. In “Climbers,” two New York writers visiting Amsterdam buy Dutch editions of Dijkstra’s books and gape at the words they cannot understand. “Neither of them,” DeWitt writes, “was stupid enough to tell anyone, even close friends, because you never know who will say something to someone and then it is out in the world.”

Later, when they receive Dijkstra’s work-in-progress by mail, they want to savor its aftertaste before they revert to talking—but their agent, Ralph, hovers over them, anxious to hear their opinions. “If Ralph had not been there they would have gone on passing the notebook and file cards back and forth in silent wonder,” DeWitt laments. “Or maybe one would have said, ‘Look at this,’ and the other would have said, ‘Look at this.’” But “Ralph went on being there,” and the writers are wrenched into speech. Yet from Dijkstra himself, we hear nothing. He is another writer who remains stubbornly silent: Nowhere in Some Trick do we learn what his writing is like.

Almost all of the writers in the dejected world of “Climbers” harbor fantasies of integrity that they lack the courage to realize. One of Ralph’s clients, confronted with the prospect of using authors’ blurbs in praise her book, shudders to think that people Ralph knew “had read her book and sent quotable quotes and now her book would be plastered with names of people whose work she despised”—but she “knew she had to be in New York, and she knew Ralph had to do the things he was doing for her.” Another reflects that if she’d only remained in the Istanbul airport after missing her flight, she could have written a book “as unencumbered and directionless as a room of white plastic tables”; a third, whose book Ralph also plasters with breezy blurbs, should have stayed in Berlin, where she could have eaten “breakfast at Daimler’s every day among the gleaming classic cars until she had written a book as fast and sleek and gleaming as a Daimler.” And a fourth

had found a place in Cappadocia where the people lived in caves, and later, beached in New York, found it independently singled out in the PD [Peter Dijkstra] novel. Why had he left? He would go to Cappadocia and live in a room in a hotel in a cave until he had written a book of cavedwellers in a windwashed land.

Reading this implausible end to the story, we already know we should doubt it. Far likelier our novelist, like many of his peers, will remain beached in embattled New York. Some Trick is understandably despondent and often crisply acerbic, but it rarely tips over into bitterness. DeWitt is a hot-blooded intellectual, and her contagious passion for the life of the mind can redeem even the bleakest lamentations. Many of the characters in her collection sell out, but many more would rather consign themselves to poverty than compromise their work. The upshot is idealistic, even if the message is far from uplifting.

The collection’s twinned Peters—Peter Dijkstra and Peter of robot fame—both reject the promise of cheap celebrity. Robot Peter quite literally walks out on his meeting with Jim. He goes out for a cigarette, finds himself able to commune with his beloved robots again, and wanders off, forgetting all about his book deal. Peter Dijkstra, who also feels “comfortable among the robots,” leaves a barrage of e-mails from New York unanswered. He steps into a parallel street, lights a parallel cigarette, and goes off “in search of a beer or maybe a Sachertorte or a schnitzel.”

In another story in the book, “In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16K Having Once Been Young,” yet a third Pete comes into focus, and he too opts for integrity. Pete the famous musician resents his manager, who encourages him to play the same uninspired songs over and over again, as well as his fans, who don’t even notice that his music has become safe and anodyne. So he abandons his band mid-tour and finds that “there was still that quietness in the world,” still an unsullied silence for him to return to.

DeWitt’s characters often opt for quietness over the deadening distortions of sound. But when they do speak, they do so with an intensity so pronounced that it embarrasses us. One of Dijkstra’s biggest fans effuses for an uncomfortably long time at a too-cool publishing party, insisting that, if the author took off with all his belongings, all his furniture and clothing, all his diaries and personal memorabilia, he would be more than happy to cede them. The fan gushes:

So the thing of it is, that Peter Dijsktra does not have it in his power to betray me, if he thinks something of mine can help with his new book he can just have it. Not only is he not letting me down, this has been a fantasy ever since I was a kid. I don’t care about the things, it just makes me happy to be a part of this. So when I say a writer is a genius, what I mean is, there is nothing I won’t do for him. It’s really simple.

In the world of Some Trick, the best words are so acute they lacerate: They do not pander, and they make no concessions to facile legibility. The best words, that is, are arduous. They hurt, but they elevate. Reading them, we feel as Dijkstra’s fans do: that there is nothing we wouldn’t do for their author.

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