Helen DeWitt’s great subject is genius, an ambitious undertaking made less so by the fact that she may just be one herself. DeWitt is less concerned with the nature of genius, or if such a thing even exists—in her fiction, it undoubtedly does—than she is with the ways in which capitalism, social conditioning, and gender serve to stifle it at every turn.
Her debut novel, The Last Samurai, follows an impoverished woman named Sibylla as she attempts to educate her precocious son Ludo in the style that John Stuart Mill’s father raised the great philosopher: learning Greek by age 4, Japanese by age 5, then on to high-level statistics. Ludo eventually strikes out on his own to discover the true identity of his father.
It’s a novel unlike any other, a work of tremendous intellectual and emotional depth—genius, really—and as Christian Lorentzen lays out in a 2016 profile for New York Magazine, it was “the toast of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, with rights sold to more than a dozen countries.” The novel was critically acclaimed, sold well, and was nominated for various prizes. But works of genius don’t exist in a vacuum, and a series of misfortunes—among them accounting errors, copyright issues, the subsequent folding of her publisher, and the release of an unrelated Tom Cruise vehicle that shared the novel’s title—cast DeWitt back into obscurity.
Her follow-up novel, Lightning Rods, published in 2011—more than a decade after she finished it—is a scathing satire of the corporate world. As daring as Mel Brooks’ The Producers must have been when it first appeared in 1967, only two decades after World War II—the film is credited in DeWitt’s acknowledgments—the story follows a man named Joe as he implements a crude solution to workplace harassment: hiring undercover sex workers to service male employees who might otherwise take out their sexual frustration on their female colleagues. Joe’s inner monologue is saturated with workplace clichés (“It’s important to give that new job 101%, 25 hours a day, 366 days a year”). DeWitt has a gift for appropriating banal, colloquial language in an effort to make us consider the words that make our world.
DeWitt told Lorentzen in their interview that if The Last Samurai had not been plagued by one publishing disaster after another, it might have risen to the status of Infinite Jest—certainly her style is similar to that of David Foster Wallace. If that’s the case, her new collection, Some Trick: Thirteen Stories, might be her Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Wry, playful, drawing on high-level mathematics and critical theory, these 13 stories read like experiments from a mad scientist’s laboratory.
Once again, DeWitt takes up the idea of genius and the constraints placed upon it by the “real world.” Her style incorporates both the dryness of Lightning Rods and the dexterity of The Last Samurai. In “Brutto,” the standout first story, an artist behind on her rent is asked by a top gallerist to reproduce a piece she made decades ago. He values it for its ugliness. “If you set out to make something ugly,” the artist thinks, “it is like setting out to make something beautiful, you will just end up with kitsch.” She makes a series of compromises at the gallerist’s request—she needs the money—and by the end of the story, she is literally handing over her bodily fluids.
The second story, “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” stages a lunch between a literary agent and an author of children’s books about probability theory. “I don’t really get it at all, but I don’t need to get it,” the agent says. The author seethes. “The fact that Jim could unashamedly admit to finding a perfectly simple explanation of the binomial distribution over his head, that he could unblushingly dismiss it as the province of a genius, only went to show how deep-seated innumeracy actually is in our benighted culture,” he thinks. In other hands, the joke might be on the character of the pretentious author. And certainly, the italics are a tipoff that we’re meant to read his grievances with a degree of irony. But they also serve to signify his genuine frustration, one shared by DeWitt, who has spoken often about her dismay at the philistinism of the publishing world.
It’s hard not to read the trials of her publishing history into stories like this, or “Climbers,” in which a group of industry types attempt to profit off the brilliance of a reclusive author. Many stories directly take up the subject of a beleaguered or impoverished artist who has gone unrecognized. But in DeWitt’s universe, this suffering is hardly noble. It’s infuriating, inconvenient, and unfair.
Gender is tackled in these stories, as it is in DeWitt’s previous books, not as the sole or even primary cause for her characters’ woes but as a significant factor nonetheless. In “Improvisation Is the Heart of Music,” Maria becomes exasperated as her husband Edward keeps telling the same anecdote over and over again. DeWitt takes up the question of authenticity in storytelling—we see the anecdote appear multiple times throughout the story, in different contexts—but the emphasis is on Maria, who feels the burden of reacting in a new way each time she hears it. “It seemed unfair,” she thinks. “She must improvise because he had rehearsed.”
The following story, “Famous Last Words,” dramatizes a seduction between the narrator and a character called X, their conversation moving from Barthes to Boswell to Bob Dylan, when suddenly the narrator thinks:
There is a text which I could insert at this point which begins, “I’m not in the mood,” but the reader who has had occasion to consult it will know that, though open to many variations, there is one form which is, as Voltaire would say, Optandum potius quam probandum, and that is the one which runs “I’m not in the mood,” “Oh, OK.” My own experience has shown this to be a text particularly susceptible to discursive and recursive operations, one which circles back on itself through several iterations and recapitulations, one which ends pretty invariably in “Oh, OK,” but only about half the time as the contribution of my co-scripteur. I think for a moment about giving the thing a whirl, but finally settle on the curtailed version which leaves out “I’m not in the mood” and goes directly to “Oh, OK.” X and I go upstairs.
In the collection’s most arresting moments, DeWitt’s command of intellectual subject matter—statistics, critical theory, the fourteen languages she reads—rubs shoulders with the base, the bodily, the human.
Moments like these do not appear as frequently throughout Some Trick as they might, but DeWitt has made clear her suspicion of people who read for emotional connection. “I don’t know how to deal with a world where there’s this language of infatuation that people use,” she told Lorentzen. “‘Infatuated!’ ‘Besotted!’ ‘Obsessed!’ I’m not sure that has ever been my attitude toward any text. …Look, I sometimes think I have Asperger’s syndrome. I’m really bad at people’s emotional investment in things.” She aims to stimulate the head, not the heart, but her blistering sense of humor, rivaled today only by Paul Beatty and Nell Zink, keeps the stories earthbound.
DeWitt writes as comfortably about musicians as she does painters, writers, and statisticians. “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” contrasts pianists with opposite styles: one precise and affectless and fluid, the other theatrical and showy; the latter dismisses the former, calling her an “automaton,” before coming to see her brilliance later in life. “Stolen Luck” opens on the disgruntled drummer of a rock band watching a novelty musician on the street, Crazy Nick and His Musical Traffic Cones, and finds himself coveting Crazy Nick’s freedom from record labels and marketing. The stories themselves aren’t bitter but rather take bitterness as their subject matter. In DeWitt’s world, there are Mozarts, Salieris, and the many suits whose livelihoods depend on them. No one is spared, the suits least of all.
It’s safe to say that the stories in Some Trick have their rough edges. They are the farthest thing from the model writers’ workshop story, “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew,” to borrow a phrase from Michael Chabon. But for sheer brilliance and humor, Some Trick delivers like nothing else, simply because DeWitt writes like no one else. Readers unfamiliar with her work should begin with The Last Samurai, which remains peerless, but Some Trick further cements Helen DeWitt as one of the smartest writers of fiction today.