Getting Tricked by Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt’s hectic, disruptive style reflects the content of her stories: the difficulty of living an authentic life, or telling anything like a “story,” in a ruthlessly disruptive world.

Brittany Allen | Longreads | July 2018 | 7 minutes (1,809 words)

Different writers call for different verbs. With Mary Karr, I go galloping. E.M. Forster wants to waltz. I hopscotch with George Saunders and craft, as in beaded amulets, with Helen Oyeyemi. Elena Ferrante is usually trying to slap me, and Denis Johnson is plummeting: out of windows, out of planes. Reading Helen DeWitt is puzzling, but not the kind of puzzling that will eventually resolve and make some pretty picture on a box.

There is the urge to go spelunking through her books, to descend into the mad caves and walk the corridors and labyrinthine tunnels, in search of meaning (or…treasure? Uh-oh, here goes the metaphor). But I discovered — about five stories in to DeWitt’s bursting, bizarre new story collection, Some Trick (New Directions) that the most pleasurable way to be with her fiction calls for a verb that requires no gear. What you really ought to do with DeWitt’s prose is dance with it. But I’m not talking waltz: these words want a fast-paced, hectic, muscular dance. Picture a foxtrot, breakdance, 15-step. I had the most fun getting “tricked” when I elected, as a reader, to live for the flash of poetic symmetry in a DeWittian gesture, parseable in the middle of some huge, hectic movement — the revelation sentence, the left turn ending line, the belly laugh one-liner out of seemingly nowhere. Less joy came from digging through the dark matter and attempting to make some neat narrative from the many objects in this collection. In DeWitt’s case, it is best to simply follow this dizzy mind where it leads, and be delighted. Prepare to sweat on the journey, though.

The through line in a DeWitt story, such as there is one, is always angular and unpredictable. Her sentences will ask you to dance faster and faster.

This is all to say that there is not a clean “story” running through most of the stories in this jumpy collection. Nor are there, precisely, always: people to meet, feelings to feel, or new worlds to visit — unless this world is the inner ivory tower of one’s own conscience, which DeWitt believes is worth our determined scrutiny and endless respect. DeWitt is an inventive stylist, a ruthlessly curious intellectual, and a sparkling wit; her stories, accordingly, tend to deal in language, philosophy, and humor before touching plot and character. Her backdrops reveal a scattershot yet penetrating wheelhouse; Subjects (note the capital S) include the myopia of the commercial art world, the myopia of the publishing world, classical music, the arbitrariness of religious ceremony, the glory of spoken language, the perils of capitalism, and “how mathematicians think” (“My Heart Belongs to Bertie”). Oh, and rock ’n’ roll.

As in the kind of dancing I am talking about, we flit quick from room to room in Some Trick. Often inside the space of a single story. In “Brutto,” the inaugural tale and a scalding satire of the art world/meditation on Italian involvement in World War II (yeah, I know! Mind like an overstuffed suitcase, this one…), we gearshift abruptly between verb tenses, a “trick” that abets the impression that we are hopping between characters’ minds. (It took this dingus a few reads to track just how many minds we visited in this story, and four reads later — I’m still not entirely sure.) Elsewhere, characters introduced two or three pages in suddenly take over a piece, jerking us into their lives and demanding focus. Familiar verbs are repurposed to make new meanings (“Gerald mooted.”) Other languages are abundantly referenced, as well as wheelhouse-contingent jargon that may as well be un-English. (In a story about two philosophers ending an affair, Voltaire, Barthes and Hume feature prominently.) To borrow a DeWitticism from that same lovely meditation on a break-up, “Famous Last Words”: “Language squeezes [the] author like an orange.” And still, we are never restored to the picture on the box, no promises get kept. The through line in a DeWitt story, such as there is one, is always angular and unpredictable. Her sentences will ask you to dance faster and faster. And even though they can’t be anticipated, you seem to learn the steps as you go along.


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But when you pause for breathers in Some Trick, there are tremendous rewards. As in brilliant descriptions like this one of a young writer, in the story “Remember Me”:

“Eloise had written a book and then been made to have discussions in which the phrase ‘flesh out’ was used of characters. She was just out of college. She had been reading Robbe-Grillet. She had recently seen Dogville. In a moment of weakness she had attached to four characters the sort of name that is affixed to a little primate at birth. Each was also provided with hair, eye, and skin color, a wardrobe, some sort of plausible history.”

The humor in these pages gave me the same kind of hard little laughs that I knew when first encountering Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. DeWitt draws these laughs by many means. There are flashes of language play (“Poop POOP poop POOP”) and diamonds of satire (“The idea that you would rather have a month’s rent in Berlin than two pairs of Manolo Blahnik’s, well, huh”). There are also moments of metafiction — as in my personal favorite story, “Climbers,” in which a reclusive author considers cobbling a collection together in order to pay off debtors:

“Stories, okay, not the fast track to debt-free nirvana, but you can’t always be breathing down your own neck. Think of Gurrelieder. Something that starts out small and self-contained can morph (“morph”! English is so great!) into an extravaganza. You have to give the horse its bit.”

And one step, two step, twelve step, hop…

*

People — or, other members of the fan club — throw the word “genius” into most conversations about DeWitt. It’s a useful descriptor for both the author, and her most scrutable preoccupation on the page. For on the face of it, Genius — or its best friend, the pure, love-driven pursuit of Subject mastery — is a unifying feature of these “tricks.” ‘Genius’ is mentioned frequently in connection to characters here; some people dismiss it, some embody it, some “abuse” it. And in most of these tales, conflict arises when the “master” and her pure, authentic love for her Subject are made to butt up against the more tedious structures that life in late capitalism requires. For instance: the grim rock star in “Stolen Luck,” (and the cheeky rock star in “In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16K Having Once Been Young”) are driven to near madness (or actual madness, in the first case) by the sheer arbitrariness of their profession; the demands of selling out, versus retaining some purity of heart lend these stories their dramatic stakes. And in “Climbers,” that distraught writer (who curiously bears the name of a Danish composer) must nudge himself out of retirement for a paycheck, at great psychic cost.

The picture this collection makes is one of a genius who is herself maddened by social niceties, and all the other tedious obstacles of the daily capitalist grind.

The DeWitt to David Foster Wallace comparison begins to feel hackneyed, but I’ll argue there is something useful still about putting these two writers side by side. (Especially if you haven’t been to DeWitt world yet; their similarly elastic use of language is a helpful style guide.) While Wallace — if you can believe it — largely elected to be a little more formally inviting in his shorts*, few writers seem to be as devoted to exploring the headiest philosophical questions by getting daffy with the building blocks that make those questions possible: language. DeWitt, like Wallace, is mainly interested in the meaty problem of how a human being may live an authentic life in a ruthless world. We see the author grappling with this conundrum herself, via all these “tricks,” in style, in rhythm, in tone. Tricks that puzzle, tricks that frustrate, tricks that make the world go fuzzy at the corners — yet they succeed in the sense that they serve to render the world as it feels to really live in the world. (We’re all mad here.)

And taken as a whole, the picture this collection makes is one of a genius who is herself maddened by social niceties, and all the other tedious obstacles of the daily capitalist grind. Whether this means making money from art (“In Which Nick Buys a Harley…”), or the dailier toll that is having to make oneself heard over some pedantic dude (“Trevor”). An anxiety about the tension between genius (or the pursuit of it) and money-making governs all the protagonists, whether we’re talking about a set of ill-matched newlyweds, some precocious new-to-New Yorkers, frustrated Japanese pianists, neurotic book collectors, soul-sucking agents, or stone-faced statisticians. The style ultimately reflects the content. Which is not so insane, after all.

*

In her novels (The Last Samurai, Lightning Rods) one can behold the same dizzying intellect, the sentence pyrotechnics — yet, there is more to latch on to. The Last Samurai, with its pages and pages of literal Greek, is often an exercise in patience. But you may endure — and even come to admire, anticipate, adore — the unparseable pages because you’ve come to love the woman whose mind engineered them: in this case it’s usually Sibylla, the stubborn philosopher, devoted Mom, and determined advocate for autodidactism. Though The Last Samurai is formally inventive and wickedly funny, it’s one of my favorite books only because the formal invention and language play always feel sutured to characters who raise my hackles. I am emotionally engaged as I am sweating it out.

Which is where I think DeWitt’s true brilliance lies — her ability to pair the spectacle of her sheer intelligence with characters who demand our emotional investment. In Some Trick, these corners come together in a few places. There’s a stunning passage in “Remember Me,” that places us briefly in the minds of three would-be writers, who imagine the books they would write given X and X and Z. And in “Famous Last Words,” there is this KO of a musing from a woman en route to heartbreak: “I have mastered subjects and failed to love them. I have looked at the sun and not been blinded; I have dimmed the sun. I will be a lover of the moon.”

The stories that really penetrate in this book, in addition to dancing us clean, marry linguistic fireworks with all the emotional meat that is behind DeWitt’s aesthetic mission, i.e.: Describing all that which words can never really reach. Though she attempts this impossible project. She gets very close.

* I mean in terms of narrative structure; I’ll argue that you can sculpt something like a plot out of most DFW shorts. But moreover: I don’t super care about plot, so ra-ra-DeWitt says this reviewer.

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Brittany Allen is a New York based prose writer, playwright and actor. Her essays and fiction have been published in CatapultThe ToastGreen Mountains Review, and elsewhere.

Editor: Dana Snitzky