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 In the intervening years, her agent rescinded his offer of representation, and she responded by threatening to jump off a cliff.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.