BY Andrew Durbin in Opinion | 12 MAR 18
Featured in
Issue 194

Helen DeWitt's Short Stories Seek Truth in Information

Andrew Durbin on Some Trick, an experimental collection steeped in the author's knowledge of classics and mathematics

BY Andrew Durbin in Opinion | 12 MAR 18

Fifty years ago, the writer John Barth developed three categories of the contemporary novelist in his seminal essay ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’ (1967). The first he defines as ‘a technically old-fashioned artist’; the second, ‘a technically up-to-date non-artist’. Helen DeWitt, whose first collection of short stories, Some Trick, is published this May by New Directions, belongs to the third and best: ‘the technically up-to-date artist’ – essentially, those writers for whom ‘virtuosity is a virtue’ and who innovate based on the ‘feeling’ (Barth’s word) the world gives them. In this new collection, DeWitt maps a rangy and verbose urban landscape populated by couch surfers, VC bros, underpaid artists, a guitarist on a walkabout, mathematicians, two seemingly different guys named Gil, obscure European novelists and an itinerant heiress fluent in the tinkering grammars of probability, risk and global finance, all of whom behave with a certain whimsical ephemerality, ‘like imposters in a witness protection programme’. We are never quite sure who or what they flee, but we know to which hill they run. ‘The thing that matters is not, ultimately, an understanding of number theory’, DeWitt writes of one character, ‘or the structure of the atom, or the semantic tradition,but an unswerving commitment to the pursuit of truth.’ It is seldom an easy truth.

Best known for her long experimental novel, The Last Samurai (2000), DeWitt’s fiction is marked by her irrepressible interest in mathematics, statistics, the organization of information (graphs, charts, punctuation) and languages, particularly Ancient Greek and Japanese. The success of The Last Samurai was complicated. Following a fervour over the manuscript at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, the novel was picked up by Miramax’s short-lived publishing division, Talk Miramax Books. The release came after much wrangling over permissions for its extensive use of copyrighted material and its demanding layout, which prompted a copy editor to impose hundreds of standardizing changes on the book. DeWitt characterized these edits as an attempt to ‘kill the mind that wrote the book’. In 2005, Talk Miramax Books shuttered, and DeWitt’s book remained out of print until 2016, when a reprint edition was published by New Directions. This followed the US publisher’s release of her second novel, Lightning Rods (2011), a wicked comedy concerning a man who develops a service in which female sex workers (‘lightning rods’) are deployed to offices across the US to have anonymous sex with male employees in an effort to curb harassment.

Helen DeWitt on the cover of Writer's Forum magazine, 2000. Courtesy: Writer's Forum

With Some Trick, DeWitt has produced a volume of telescoped brilliance, steeped in her knowledge of classics and mathematics (populist lit this is not), with characters who spring up like tiny ideas about how to live one’s life, or how to delude oneself into living. In ‘On the Town’, Gil arrives in New York to sublet a room in DUMBO, only to fail upwards in business after impressing three men ‘trying to do an IPO’. He’s read Edward Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (2003) and he knows how to make numbers look good. DeWitt quotes the book: ‘As information gets passed up an organizational hierarchy […] key explanations and supporting information are filtered out.’ We might filch Tufte’s theory of PowerPoint to read DeWitt’s writing, which likewise leaves out or degrades information as it is passed up and between characters.

In ‘Remember Me’, a character named K states that ‘art should concern itself with the operation of the machine. The operation of the social machinery.’ DeWitt attends to the same, particularly to the ways that individual lives become entangled in those operations. The collection opens with ‘Brutto’, a story that follows a British painter with a background in dressmaking. Her Italian gallerist stumbles upon one of her earlier works – ‘a suit in scratchy woollen cloth’ – and orders 20 for an exhibition in Milan. Her heart belongs to the paintings, but the money is with the garments; they fly out of the gallery, and an international career begins for a woman anxious about the (recently lifted) cut-off age for the Turner Prize. She is baffled by her unexpected success, as artists tend to be, and experiences her new life as a failure of timing. ‘If you are going to do something properly,’ she observes in a German haberdasher’s, ‘you have to plan ahead or you will end up cutting the moment wrong. Then events will be all wrinkled and puckered.’ Such is anyone’s moment. In fact, as many of DeWitt’s protagonists discover, having a plan rarely gets you where you’re going. ‘If you have been insane there are so many things you can’t do,’ DeWitt quips. The problem for most in Some Trick is that they can’t stop going out of their minds.

The collection draws up characters like struck matches. There is a flare – two people arguing over la mort de l’auteur; a children’s author in psychic communion with unseen robots; a European novelist doodling English words on notecards (many stories concern writers or the writing process) – and then the moment is gone. A sentence or paragraph later, this is replaced with another brief flame: an idea, a bit of non-English, stray historical data, graphs, a gnomic line from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal (1882): ‘The wound must be healed by the spear that made it.’ In this, many of the stories concern themselves with their own narrativity: ‘What a marvellous story!’ one character exclaims in ‘Improvisation is the Heart of Music’, as she boats about the Mediterranean with her fiancé. ‘There’s a wonderful Dumasian quality about this, isn’t there, the European swept suddenly from the midst of the working day technological world into the fantastic improbabilities of the Orient!’ From fantasy, characters derive a non-reality that begins to supplant the real world, though we are left to wonder if it was ever real in the first place. Having recently tied the knot, Edward and Maria zip across the Aegean. Mahmet, who signs his letters Sinbad the Sailor, entertains them with stories that are ‘pure Arabian Nights’. It is romantic and wonderful and absurd, but then the honeymoon ends and, quite suddenly, they are home on Leckford Road in North Oxford, where Maria tidies the dishes, singing: ‘OWHENTHESAINTS.OWHENTHESAINTS. O WHEN THE SAINTS COME MARCHING IN!’

‘An undeniable whiff of tragedy lingers around these stories, as each character discovers the presence of too many truths, too many lies’

DeWitt delights in her own technical wizardry, but every wizard must eventually grow disappointed with magic’s limits – it is easy to trick the world, much harder to change it. ‘I have mastered subjects and failed to love them,’ one narrator tells us. ‘I have looked at the sun and not been blinded; I have dimmed the sun. I will be a lover of the moon.’ An undeniable whiff of tragedy lingers around these stories, as each character discovers in their respective pursuits of truth the presence of too many truths, too many lies, or simply too little difference between the two, to keep a firm grasp of either reality or fantasy. We are left, instead, with flits and bursts of self-awareness that end or implode as soon as they begin – a situation mirrored in DeWitt’s language, as sentences trail off with no concluding punctuation or, instead, with six or more exclamation points. Sentences approach coherence then dissipate, much as characters rise to consciousness only to recede back into the text, into words. It is with feeling that DeWitt makes something of the world but, sometimes, she concludes, it is feeling alone. It is then that we realize: feeling is seldom enough.

This article appears in the issue 194 April 2018 print edition, with the title The Cognitive Style.

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.