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Helen DeWitt’s uncompromising fictions

Discussed in this essay:
Some Trick: Thirteen Stories, by Helen DeWitt. New Directions. 224 pages. $22.95.

In “On the Town,” one of the stories in Helen DeWitt’s eagerly awaited collection Some Trick, a young man named Benny Bergsma tells this story about his famous-author father, to illustrate why, after a fantastic early success, he never managed to publish another book:

Jake Rabinowitz, a top entertainment lawyer, had negotiated a movie deal which included the right to two first-class tickets to the premiere….
Mr. Bergsma: “What is this. What the fuck is this.”
JR: “I got them to agree to first-class tickets to the premiere.”
Mr. Bergsma: “Look. I don’t want this. I never asked for this. I don’t want to clutter up my head with this crap.”
JR: “The contract does not require you to attend the premiere.”
Mr. Bergsma: “I don’t want to get into all this crap about what I want or do not want. I am trying to write a fucking book. You have now used up bargaining space, you piece of shit, you have squandered leverage, for something about which I do not give a fuck. I want this out of the fucking contract. I want a Crap. Free. Deal.”

When Rabinowitz suggests that it would constitute a loss of face for him to go back and demand the removal of this perk after previously demanding its inclusion, Mr. Bergsma fires him. Thus no movie, no new book deal, and no money, only a semi-indigent alcoholic son who lives in Brooklyn and wonders bitterly why his father has to control everything to the point of self-sabotage.

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

“On the Town” is actually a kind of fable about someone else entirely—a guileless Iowa boy named Gil, whose good cheer and effectiveness with a toolbox propel him to success in the Big Apple—but if there is a through-line to the stories in this book, its points are the artists like Mr. Bergsma, who pop up over and over again: unicornlike, huge-brained, eccentric geniuses whom the world of commerce—the culture industry in particular—pursues and then irritates to the point of paralysis and/or madness.

They’re not all writers. In another story, a British band called the Breaks is blithely victimized by their manager, who commits behind their backs such artistic crimes as retitling their second album Groovin on Down. He has made this and other unilateral changes, he says remorselessly, for the fans, who, by buying so many copies of the Breaks’ first album, have demonstrated what they want and are entitled to get it. The response of the front man, Pete, is to begin signing all his autographs on their ensuing American tour “Willy the Wanker,” an act of subversion that backfires when those autographs become expensive collector’s items, making Groovin on Down more popular than ever. Eventually, Pete just jumps off the tour bus somewhere near Route 66, buys a harmonica, and learns to play it.

The plot of “Stolen Luck,” about various figures who get caught up in a rock-and-roll copyright dispute (not in court but in a poker game), features a street “musician” who sits on the pavement and, blowing trumpetlike through the small end of an orange traffic cone, plays “My Way.” He may be annoying, like a flatulent earworm, but his relationship to his art, and to his audience, is enviably uncontaminated.

“Brutto,” the collection’s opening story, is a tale for the Age of Hirst about a painter who doesn’t sell out so much as give in to a commercial whirlwind she doesn’t understand. A famous collector sees hanging in the painter’s closet a magnificently ugly suit—the remnant of a kind of final exam she took many years earlier, when her father was pushing her to forget about art and get into the dressmaking trade—and demands that she sew nineteen more. (It is typical of the polymath DeWitt that this story should revolve around the German word Gesellenstück—meaning, approximately, “apprentice piece”—archaic and magnificently ugly in its own right.) He predicts, correctly, that hanging twenty of these horrifying garments in a gallery and calling it a show will create a sensation. The painter has no idea what is happening or why. But she is too old to win the Turner Prize, her all-white paintings are tough to sell because she insists on painting in such thick gobs that they can never properly dry, and, as she keeps saying defensively, as much to herself as to us, “People think it would be easy to walk away.”

The resemblance between these artist figures and their author is, though it wasn’t always, a matter of record, and DeWitt did walk away, or try to, on several occasions, in ways that were sometimes amusing (canceling her contract after reading one publisher’s first round of editorial notes) and other times not funny at all. Eighteen years ago she published The Last Samurai, one of the most distinctive first novels in recent memory, to impressive sales and critical kudos. She then disappeared from print for quite a long time. When her second novel, Lightning Rods, was finally released in 2011, the story of her hiatus began to emerge.

Lightning Rods had gotten stuck in contractual limbo when its presumptive American publisher, Talk Miramax Books, was restructured. (A literary partnership between Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein? What could go wrong?) Before that, DeWitt had suffered epic battles with arrogant copy editors who “corrected” aspects of the very complicated text of Last Samurai without asking her. She hired and fired numerous agents. She got into legal and financial straits over the cancellation of various contracts. The collapse of at least one self-negotiated publishing deal proved so traumatic that she literally went missing. Reuters reported her disappearance; a policeman eventually picked her up on a street in Niagara Falls, New York, and took her to a hospital.

It got worse. She was stalked for months by a neighbor who was ultimately convicted for breaking into her home and sent to prison. When the manuscript of Lightning Rods was finally liberated, sixteen publishers turned it down; she emailed her agent a suicide note. “One reason all of these years have been lost,” she told a Canadian blogger a few years later, “is that I was trying to get something that the industry is just not built for. It’s a sort of machine for disempowerment. It’s horrific.”

So it is happy news that there is new fiction from DeWitt at all. And one is even happier to discover that the stories have managed to turn the author’s struggle to live the life of the mind unhassled by the predations, well-meaning and otherwise, of the late-capitalist culture industry and its minions to boisterously comic account.

It seems safe to say that DeWitt, who knows fourteen languages and is conversant in advanced math and computer code, etc., possesses an unusually capacious and powerful brain. The voice of these stories—compulsive, overstuffed, highfalutin and colloquial in equal measure, unafraid of exclamation points that would make Tom Wolfe blush—is like a record of the speed at which such a brain works, and the concomitant difficulty of slowing it down in order to deal with what we regular people would call “regular people.” That voice’s resting pulse, so to speak, is a kind of deadpan logical progression. “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” a story about the efforts of an American literary agent, Jim, to get a British writer named Peter to write a follow-up to his best-selling collection of tales about robots (there are a whole lot of references in Some Trick to robots), incorporates twenty-three diagrams demonstrating the Gaussian curve, sixteen lines of programming code, and exchanges such as this one:

[Peter] said, It would mean a lot to me to work with someone who admired Bertrand Russell….

The statement seemed, if not meaningless, then uselessly imprecise.

(The first book had made all this money. Why could he not use that money to buy what he wanted? Was that not the general point of having money in the first place?)

He said, I’d be happy to switch the percentages around if that would help. You’d be very welcome to take an 85% commission.

This was undoubtedly precise but was perhaps not the sort of thing Americans say.

At other times—moments of crisis, usually, or of catharsis, which for a high-functioning brain might as well be the same thing—the narration hits a more manic register. “Stream of consciousness” doesn’t always seem an adequate term—it’s more like a kind of fire hydrant of consciousness:

Ought he, perhaps, to go rushing back to, oh God, the other

But no, Jim (he was pretty sure it was Jim) would have gone back to his office. Ought he, in all decency, to drop off the correctly labeled chart at the office? Or call, perhaps he should

There was the matter of the briefcase, but it had only contained print-outs of PDFs which were on the laptop, so there was no particular need to retrieve, but

Wait. Wait wait wait wait wait wait wait.

If I were to compare this voice and its densely allusive, high-low dynamic—a voice that spits out probability theory one moment and name-checks Thom Yorke or J. K. Rowling the next—to that employed by other living writers, Mark Leyner would come to mind, or Stephen Dixon, or maybe a really over-caffeinated Richard Powers, even though those may all be writers of whom the classically educated DeWitt has never heard. She might even be angry at me for mentioning them. That’s the thing about reviewing work by someone so demanding of exactitude in others: it makes you self-conscious about your own role in a process that has functioned in her life more or less like Prometheus’ vulture.

But why shouldn’t one be more self-conscious about it? It’s all she asks of us. And it makes no sense to expect, or even to want, an artist of her intellect to produce work that is less than hypercritical, even of itself. She is puckish about the enterprise of fiction itself: for no good reason at all, there are characters in multiple stories named Peter and Gil and Rachel, and at one point, she compares the traditional literary process of building a character to the witness protection program. Many of the stories end on a note more of fragmentation than of resolution; one concludes with its two main characters singing, for three quarters of a page, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

It shouldn’t work, really, none of it. It should seem too self-pitying, too inside baseball. Even armed with the knowledge of all that the author’s struggles have cost her, reading tales about geniuses suffering the indignity of exposure to nongeniuses might well cause a reader’s eyes to roll: I mean, tell it to James Joyce, you know? He had a pretty bad time with copy editors, too, and managed to soldier on. What saves Some Trick in the end is not only that DeWitt is so very funny but that she has harnessed her coder’s brain to negative capability. Which is to say, while she is firmly on the side of the intellectual unicorns, she is also capable of doing full and hilarious justice to their bizarre, frustrating, alien, occasionally tiresome aspect. And she does treat the plight of these artists as a comedy rather than a tragedy, even if, as in any serious comedy, there are casualties.

Perhaps the most nakedly DeWitt-like of Some Trick’s characters is a Dutch writer named Peter Dijk­stra in “Climbers,” which first appeared in this magazine. After five years in an asylum, he is leading a humble existence in Vienna (which he finds comforting because in Vienna “they speak German like robots”), trying to write a new book. But the world of agents and editors—not cynics who want to capitalize on him so much as people who worship him, think he’s a genius, and want only to help him—will not leave him alone. They would really love, they say, to “see some pages.” They think he will produce the next 2666, a book he dislikes on the basis of the two pages he has read. One agent says imploringly to him, “I need to know what you care about,” and, after a moment’s consideration, Dijkstra responds:

Actually, you know, there’s one thing. I really like the fact that “front seat” is a spondee. And it’s reflected in the spelling, the two separate words. And one thing I really hate is the way they try to make you agree to “backseat,” which is trochaic. I don’t agree.

Perplexed but undeterred, the agent asks again for pages, whatever he’s got, so that a deal might be made while the timing is perfect. Finally, Dijkstra just dumps all his incomprehensible notes, most of which are written on index cards, into a padded envelope and mails it to New York. When it arrives, the agents and editors stare at this uncommodifiable pile of junk in bemusement and awe. For one of them, it brings back memories of visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam: “You definitely got the feeling, holding these objects, that they had been in a room with a crazy guy, or rather a guy with the potential to be crazy who was trying to keep madness at bay.”

Meanwhile, Dijkstra—back to square one, his notes gone, his nascent project turned into a mental Superfund site by well-meaning strangers—asks a bartender for a pen and a napkin, on which he begins making notes for “a book in which people did not destroy the thing they loved.”

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