MAY 29, 2018
IT’S NOT HARD to see why critics have labeled Helen DeWitt “brilliant.” After all, she has a PhD in Classics from Oxford, and her fiction spans languages and subjects with apparent ease: she slips from English to Japanese, French, German, and the programming language R as deftly as she displays a thorough understanding of computer science, mathematics, literary theory, economics, and philosophy. Fiction hardly seems the most straightforward tool to explore these topics. But in Some Trick, her new collection of 13 short stories, DeWitt uses fiction to elucidate the conditions that allow people to create brilliant and beautiful things. Sometimes her characters make literature, but they also make suits, compromises, money, music, businesses, deals, and love. DeWitt’s keen insights provide the reader with a distinctive glimpse at how these moments of creation blossom.
DeWitt addresses her use of fiction in an author’s note that clarifies Some Trick’s second story, “My Heart Belongs to Bertie”: “Many years ago a friend commented that we rarely see fiction that shows the way mathematicians think.” She then quotes Peter L. Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk:
The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.
DeWitt claims that “[a]nalysis of probability seem[s] more compelling than ever for fiction,” and in reading her work we may ask, what risks does fiction challenge us to master? Bernstein studies the factual world, but DeWitt’s fiction creates its own risks.
“My Heart Belongs to Bertie” features lengthy discussions about probability, but DeWitt also demonstrates her intention with the story’s narrative form. The protagonist, Peter, wrote a popular book of robot tales that explained probability to a general audience, and now he is shopping a sequel. Attempting to explain his ideas to a potential agent, Peter uses the example of the probability of a child being raised by a parent addicted to heroin: even if there’s only a “1 in 100,000” chance of a child being born to an addict parent, that child is then forced to spend its whole life with that parent until adulthood. Peter concludes, “The point is simply, […] that the family is a barbarous institution. One is, for the most part, stuck with the luck of a single draw.”
But the agent isn’t getting it. As Peter explicates the way rational decision-making can affect pure chance, he comes to understand the benefits of working on the publication of his next book with a similarly rational thinker who shares his interests (rather than the agent he has been talking to). Instead of subjecting himself to the whims of someone randomly encountered (as a child with addict parents), Peter can reduce risk by making a rational decision.
DeWitt throws a narrative wrench in the story, however: Peter discusses the issue with the five imaginary robots that helped him write his books, and they encourage him to exercise reason by ditching the agent. The reader is left in an interpretive limbo, uncertain whether these robots are the embodiment of rationality, as Peter perceives them, or irrational hallucinations. What’s more, DeWitt ends the story before the reader gets to see whether Peter’s decision works out for the best. As one robot says, “We are unhappily not in the position of being able to run randomized blind trials. We can only proceed, with the utmost caution, on the evidence available.”
In this way, the reader’s limited knowledge illustrates both the affordances and constraints of probability’s explanation of the world.
Some Trick feels at once strange and familiar following DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (2000), the story of a single mother raising a brilliant young boy who reads and speaks multiple languages, and Lightning Rods (2011), the twisted tale of a man who combats sexual harassment in the workplace by supplying women (“lightning rods”) with whom high-performing male employees can have anonymous sex in the office bathroom. Both novels explore interests that also preoccupy DeWitt in Some Trick — raising children, education, probability, polyglots, inventive approaches to social ills, sexual harassment of women — but in the previous works she employed a single narrative with a limited number of perspectives. Some Trick features a plurality of voices that often conflict with each other.
For example, in the opening story, “Bruto,” DeWitt’s narrator claims, “If you set out to make something ugly it is like setting out to make something beautiful, you will just end up with kitsch.”
Later in the book, the story “Trevor” involves two characters debating this same idea, with one saying,
Does that mean, then, that any unsuccessful painting of a beautiful subject must be kitsch? Isn’t there more to it than that? Aren’t there all kinds of mediocre paintings of beautiful things that aren’t, I don’t know, in bad taste?
In Some Trick, for every absolutist declaration, another voice protests, “Isn’t there more to it than that?” as DeWitt unspools a story from the divergent perspectives.
The length of each of DeWitt’s novels formalizes its thematic concern. At almost 500 pages, The Last Samurai shows the endurance required to raise and educate a child, while Lightning Rods reads like one story that’s gone on far too long — the formal equivalent of the culture of sexual harassment. As a collection, Some Trick proceeds with a different rhythm. DeWitt constellates her stories around ideas and explanations that only come into full view through accumulation, the individual fictions unified by the book’s end.
For example, many of these stories illustrate blockages to artistic and intellectual creation. These can be economic, as in “Bruto,” which depicts the anxiety of an unnamed working artist who, unable to make rent, must forgo the work that interests her to satisfy the whims of a capricious gallery owner. Or creative production can be stopped by mere inconvenience. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” Peter is stymied trying to explain probability in a New York diner because his PDF printouts are blocked by ketchup bottles, coffee cups, and other paraphernalia. These blockages also come in the form of mental health issues. In “Climbers,” writer Peter Dijkstra struggles to avoid relapsing into insanity while attempting to publish work that will provide the money he needs to live.
In contrast to these impediments, DeWitt also fills her stories with an array of happy accidents that facilitate her characters’ creative energies. For example, “Entourage” begins, “He went to Krakow for no particular reason.” From this chance decision, the protagonist begins to travel around with a growing entourage of native speakers carrying suitcases full of books in their respective languages (a person must accompany each suitcase in travel, of course). In “Improvisation is the Heart of Music,” a shipwrecked man becomes stranded with the infamous Sinbad the Sailor, and this happenstance becomes the basis of a story that the man repeats for the rest of his life (much to his wife’s chagrin).
Similar flukes of fate keep “On the Town” moving. The hilarious story follows Gil, a Midwestern transplant to New York who becomes roommates with Benny Bergsma, the son of a very popular children’s book author. Because of his strained relationship with his father, Benny will only live with someone who has never encountered the books, and Gil meets that criterion. But through drunken conversations, Gil learns all about how the movie-deal contract negotiation got gummed up because of Mr. Bergsma’s odd insistence on a “crap free deal” (even tickets to the movie premiere waste precious bargaining points). A dizzying series of fortunate meetings (which are nearly impossible to summarize) lead Gil to a woman on the board of the Met who is in a unique position to fill all the holes in Mr. Bergsma’s desired arrangement. Through this unpredictable string of events, Gil does everything that Benny could have done for his father and becomes “the son he never had.”
DeWitt’s narratives explore how material conditions can facilitate or hinder creative production, but the point is that within these conditions (which can be understood in terms of probability) humans have agency to influence the outcome of their situation. For example, in “Bruto” the struggling artist’s poverty forces her to accept an offer from a rich Italian gallery owner to produce a series of thick, woolen suits, an expertise she gained through an apprenticeship while growing up in postwar Germany. Despite her initial trepidation, the suits are lauded by the art world. Conversely, in “On the Town” all the connections that Gil facilitates can only occur because his love of New York brought him to a place where “the candid friendliness of the native Iowan” fills an unmet need.
Despite the range of subjects taken up in Some Trick, DeWitt’s perspective remains distinctively literary. All of her explorers, software developers, and visual artists are voracious readers, and DeWitt’s work exemplifies something ineffable that only literature can do. Language’s malleability and nuance give her the space to experiment, as she weaves a rich fabric of narrative trickery, wordplay, imagery, and intertextuality. By blending accounts of subjects as disparate as painting and contract negotiation, she somehow illuminates both in ways that couldn’t be achieved if treated individually. In doing so, DeWitt uses fiction as a brilliantly expansive approach to exploding, dissecting, and reconstructing aspects of life that too often go unexamined in literature.
Adam Fales is a PhD student at the University of Chicago. His work has appeared in the American Antiquarian Society’s Past is Present, the Journal of the History of Ideas blog Full-Stop, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.