DeWitt’s 2000 debut, The Last Samurai, is a fat novel about the brilliant Sibylla scraping by in London as a copyeditor while caring for her prodigy child. A single mom, she homeschools her son despite the financial and logistical difficulties it involves. Because her son is fatherless — and because she is who she is — she rears him on repeated viewings of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai, and also manages to teach him (or teach him to teach himself) Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Old Norse, and Japanese.
The novel is full of great minds, not the least of which is Japanese pianist Kenzo Yamamoto, an artist worshipped by Sibylla. Though once a widely acclaimed musical sensation, Yamamoto had turned notorious — most recently for a concert that didn’t end until almost three in the morning. People missed their trains and were pissed.
When Yamamoto comes to perform in London, Sibylla eagerly buys tickets. That night, after a few hours of hyper-minimalist music, Yamamoto digs into the longest stretch of his performance. For seven-and-a-half hours, he plays the same Anton Webern piece: “[S]ometimes he seemed to play it exactly the same five times running but next to the sound of a bell or an electric drill or once even a bagpipe.” Many people gradually leave, but Sibylla is enthralled. Yamamoto finishes off the concert with a few songs in quick succession, and then takes his hands from the keys. He patiently walks to the center of the stage, picks up the microphone, and says: “I think the trains will be running by now. I hope you all get home safely.”
This elaborate performance by Yamamoto — playing until the trains start running again — is one way to think about the startling effect of a Helen DeWitt story. DeWitt can take an unlikely premise and walk it out to its extreme conclusion, inverting the reader’s mind as she makes it work.
DeWitt’s second novel, Lightning Rods — she calls it a “Mel Brooksian satire on sexual harassment, inspired by The Producers” — features a salesman who figures out a way to provide sexual release for alpha-male employees. DeWitt says she wrote it because she felt like she was getting “fucked from behind through a hole in the wall” by the publishing industry. From her autobiographical frustration, passed through the mind of a down-on-his-luck salesman, Lightning Rods explores the idea to its absurd realization.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, DeWitt says Lightning Rods was one of the 10 books she wrote in the year after she quit her job (in the mid-’90s) to dedicate her attention to writing — after she decided she needed to do something about the 100 novels in fragments she had written. It’s largely due to chance and peculiarities of the publishing industry that The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods were the two DeWitt novels we had as readers. But now with Some Trick, DeWitt’s third book and first story collection, we have been given access to 13 more of her mad performances.
In the story “Entourage,” a linguaphile travels to Poland, Denmark, Germany, Turkey, and more, collecting suitcases full of books in their original languages. With each cache of books, he hires employees to carry the additional suitcases. He requires in employees certain aesthetic properties: most notably, their nationality should match those of the writers of the books that they’re carrying, and also their names should sound right. “If one is going to do things properly, one wants Borges read by an Argentinian, Vargas Llosa by a Peruvian, García Márquez by a Colombian. And so on,” DeWitt writes.
Another writer might use a setup like this to spiral out of control, and to delightful effect. But in a Helen DeWitt story, logic is the game: realizations of all absurd outcomes are preceded by a set of rational measures. And step by step, this story results in the linguaphile starting an educational restaurant chain, run by incentive-driven children, that unites the best features of Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, and YO! Sushi. “What one wants, surely, is to encourage industry by tapping into the longing for immediate rewards,” DeWitt writes. “One wants to offer the child the opportunity to win one chocolate after another. One wants, perhaps, to determine which sorts of chocolate are most efficacious.” Instead of spinning toward disaster, DeWitt’s stories tend to stabilize toward bizarre organized systems.
DeWitt’s obsessions often involve business, and many of the stories in Some Trick feature the financial pressure that drives music, art, publishing, and more. The story “Climbers,” for example, is about an elusive Dutch writer named Peter Dijkstra and the many people looking to monetize his art, including Dijkstra himself. It seems romantic for a writer to retreat from celebrity and hide out in Venice, but in the story Dijkstra is doing just that, anxious about how to sustain his life and work. “[P]artly to take the most direct route to keeping his credit cards afloat, he was writing in English,” DeWitt writes.
Though the phrase “cult classic” had come to his ears it did not buy many Marlboros. This is what you get if you are dependent on an editor whose wife happens to know some Dutch. But if you write in English you can send the thing anywhere, you can send it to the big boys, people who wouldn't touch a novella with a bargepole.
Much of the joy in “Climbers” comes from the anxious fun of watching a Dutch writer and the New York publishing machine toil to consummate their work together while living on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The story opens with American publishers discussing the known difficulties of working with Dijkstra. One of them gives an anecdote in which some folks met up with him for drinks in Amsterdam; he spent the whole night talking to the bartender’s dog, and then he walked off with one of their moleskin notebooks. But Gil, the publisher telling this story, is undeterred. Gil says that if Peter Dijkstra comes to New York and needs a place to stay, he can have his apartment for as long as he wants, and Gil will couch surf. He says he wouldn’t be bothered if Dijkstra rented a van and stole all of his stuff: books, CDs, DVDs, TV, computer, and baseball cards, personal papers, diaries, notebooks, and photo albums. Gil imagines a moment of standing in his empty apartment: “I’m ecstatic,” he says. “Peter Dijkstra — Peter Dijkstra!!!! — has appropriated this stuff, in some mysterious way my stuff is going to contribute to a book by Peter Dijkstra! I feel honored. I mean, the stuff is not contributing to a work of genius just sitting there in my apartment.”
At one point, the publishers seize on the idea that one of Dijkstra’s books will be the next 2666, the massive Roberto Bolaño novel. The title is tossed around rooms and telephone calls, initiating swelling reactions from all, even though maybe none of them have read 2666. Based on the two pages he once sampled, Dijkstra is not a fan.
No one much cares about the substance of Dijkstra’s writing, or even reading it. Most of them don’t speak Dutch so can’t have yet read this Dijkstra novel that they’re comparing to Bolaño’s book, which they probably have also not read. “[T]he thing he could do was build castles in the air and get people to buy them,” DeWitt writes about one character pitching the writer to his peers. “If he could build a castle in the air for Peter Dijkstra the genius would fly on a magic carpet.”
To keep the wolves at bay, Dijkstra uses the magical phrase “protective of my work” in an email to his eager publishers. He finally dumps a bunch of incomprehensible notes written on index cards into an envelope and mails it to them. All of it just makes them swoon harder. Meanwhile, Dijkstra alternates between lying on his bed and going out to the street to smoke Marlboros. His concerns with making money are shared with his American publishers, but beyond that he’s mostly obsessed with the unmarketable minutiae of his work. Dijkstra discovers a fact he likes: there is a German word, getigert, for a cat with striped fur. He proceeds to discover that tigern corresponds to the English words mooch, loiter, and the French word flâner, all from the Dutch word lanterfanten. He writes it all down on file cards. The story charmingly and cynically traces the ways in which the capitalization of art is a process of separating the art object from its inceptive impulse. It doesn’t much matter what the book is; it matters how it’s sold.
A recurring fixation in DeWitt’s work is how quickly commerce can destroy the creative spirit. As the painter and textile designer in the opening story observes, “[T]he thing about being an artist 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.” In another story, an English band gains the exposure they need to go on their first American tour, a life event they have all dreamed of. But on this tour, they play 100 gigs in 110 days, seeing only hotel rooms, stages, and the inside of their bus, while their agents and managers all push to make the music more palatable for a wider audience. While DeWitt’s characters often bombastically lack a certain self-awareness, one exploited musician poignantly observes,
They turned my life into something worse than nothing, into this torture, for the sake of extra sales, well couldn't we just have had enough sales and something in it for me? And how could they decide like that my life didn’t matter, it didn’t matter if I was in, like, agony. But the thing is they didn’t know they were doing it. They didn't know what they were taking away because they never had anything real to know what it was like when everything was a fake.
DeWitt’s struggle and frustrations with the publishing industry are no secret. In 2011, with her second book Lighting Rods she switched to the American publishing house New Directions, whose dazzling and inventive aesthetic likely has the best hope of matching her own. New Directions is the publisher of writers like Bolaño, Clarice Lispector, César Aira, Fleur Jaeggy, W. G. Sebald, and plenty of other visionaries. In “Climbers,” one adoring fan imagines getting Dijkstra and his writing to New York. “There would be an inner circle of admirers. Some kind of dinner, maybe, conferring over what could be done for the genius,” DeWitt writes. “Sontag had introduced Sebald to New Directions.” DeWitt has experience with what she writes, the thrill and despair that publishing involves.
The DeWitt stories we have (there is also a piece of another novel, Your Name Here, published by n+1. DeWitt writes on her website that this book “was under contract to Noemi Press, but both permissions and technical challenges presented greater obstacles than they had expected. The rights have reverted, and there is no immediate prospect of publication”) present a uniquely brilliant and obsessive mind at work, the sort of performance that happens infrequently at the intersection of business and art. “There’s a debate, a conflict, a dilemma, that everyone faces,” DeWitt says in her interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “As soon as you start school you are in a credentialed world. In America, especially, everything you do has to be convertible, ultimately, into a credential […] Of course, the process of conversion, of presentation, sometimes interferes with the thing you liked doing in the first place.” She has at least 85 other manuscripts in progress — though probably many more at this point — and I hope she keeps liking this process and keeps finishing them. DeWitt is the sort of artist that doesn’t back away from her vision, and she takes the reader with her. Before you know it, the trains are running again.
Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes to Literary Hub, The Atlantic, The Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more.