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The Screwer and the Screwed

Helen DeWitt’s sometimes fictional quests for a crap-free deal

“I get horribly depressed,” Helen DeWitt told n+1 in 2011, discussing the state of contemporary fiction. The occasion for the interview was the publication of her second novel, Lightning Rods, more than ten years after she’d finished writing it. “Books come along, and I open them in bookstores, and you see something sort of respectably done, it’s not like it’s badly done, but it makes me want to cut my throat.”

Seven years later, not much has changed. Autofiction was fun, while it lasted, but a self-conscious movement based on the lives and reading lists of young urban artists was never going to break new ground; nor did it give the reader a reason to jump out of bed in the morning. Even as they grafted searching and insightful essays on Time, Art, and the like onto their novels, these writers seemed ashamed of their intelligence, distancing themselves from it through self-deprecating humor (Ben Lerner) or ironic shallowness (Tao Lin) and naïveté (Sheila Heti). It’s not hard to see why: in the business of books, being smart doesn’t get you very far. Literary fiction published in English today is a philosophically incoherent exercise in ascending to greater and greater levels of competence; fearful of style and dismissive of idiosyncrasy, it eschews explorations of ideas or arguments or form in favor of joylessly sellable plots and premises inspired by a stable of influences so obvious they aren’t worth mentioning. Often you open a book that has been greeted by more or less unanimous praise to find there are barely any words in it. I recently watched authors and editors seriously debate whether it was “OK” that a young writer had copied a dead, better writer’s short story, from plot structure to sentence structure; changed the wording; updated little but location and demographic details; and published it in The New Yorker. That this is a common homework assignment in MFA programs was not the rock-solid defense the young writer’s supporters believed it to be. The situation may be OK, but it’s certainly not good.

DeWitt, whose debut novel, The Last Samurai, sold more than one hundred thousand copies when it was published in 2000, earning her enduring status as a cult author if not—thanks to a consequential series of snafus, disagreements, and contractual impasses—much actual revenue, has been a flickering ray of light in such dark times for the American reader. I say flickering not because her work only sometimes doesn’t make you want to cut your own throat but because she doesn’t publish often, and when she does it’s as if from behind some big stupid thing that has been obstructing her brilliance. The book incorporates several languages, including Greek and Japanese, plus impassioned discussions of a wide range of texts, films, and pieces of music. Its plot follows a single mother, Sibylla, as she attempts to educate her precocious son, Ludo, without letting him in on the secret of his father’s identity. In place of a male role model, she substitutes hilariously comprehensive homeschooling—Ludo can read Greek by age four—and repeated viewings of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, the structure of which Ludo eventually emulates when he decides to go on a quest to find his father himself.

The situation may be OK, but it’s certainly not good.

The novel is conspicuously a masterpiece. The long, maddening process of publishing it was only the first of DeWitt’s epic trials in the industry that has since become her subject. This spring sees the arrival of what can only sort of be considered her fourth book, Some Trick, a short story collection, and although its characters often find themselves alienated as they confront the needless limitations of what must be “just the way it is,” they fit in easily with the independent thinkers who inhabit DeWitt’s oeuvre. In Samurai, Ludo is quickly pulled out of public school; his intelligence incompatible with the set curriculum. Later, he reimagines his father after the real one is found lacking (though not before the disappointment impels him to ask his mother, “Did you ever think of having an abortion?”). In Lightning Rods, women try to make the best of sexism, and an author tries to produce a bestseller. Your Name Here, a never-published 120,000-word collaborative novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel-in-fragments written with the Australian journalist Ilya Gridneff around 2007, presents writers struggling with both the novel form and the petty demands of various publishing interlocutors. And in Some Trick, artists, musicians, writers, and one children’s author-cum-mathematician come up against the flintiness of contracts. All must deal with the pressure of income. But where characters in previous books are galvanized or frustrated or contemptuous or astounded by the people surrounding them, the ones who just don’t get it, the stories of Some Trick feel more resigned, though occasionally something comes along to offer a consolatory bit of hope.

The collection begins with “Brutto,” which follows a German artist living in London as she abandons her artistic scruples in order to appease a pushy Italian gallerist named Adalberto. On the verge of turning fifty, which at the time would have made her ineligible for the Turner Prize, and behind on rent for the studio where she lives illegally, she is confident in her work—entirely white impasto paintings that take too long to dry, one of which once “splodge[d]” onto a buyer’s carpet—but not in a position to turn Adalberto down. What he wants: twenty copies of a hideous wool suit he spots hanging in the corner of her studio. She’d sewn it thirty years earlier, as part of her three-year apprenticeship in dressmaking, a hellish endeavor pressed on her by her father. She tells Adalberto she doesn’t make things like that anymore, but he insists, with £50,000. “This was this very bad time when the National Gallery was quite keen on plastering meaning on its collections,” DeWitt writes, in close third-person narration, “so once a year they would have an exhibition and a big banner outside the National Gallery that said Making and Meaning, and if she would take a bus through Trafalgar Square she would want to vomit.”

The layers of translational wordplay at work in the story’s title constitute a neat synopsis of what happens, as well as DeWitt’s analysis of art-making under the pressures of industry. In Italian, brutto means ugly or coarse; in German the same word means gross, as in a total profit before deductions. Pun on that in English and you get gross as in disgusting, as well as obvious. The painter is reduced to showing the suits, praised as “che brutto!” Only upon receipt of a check does she learn that the cost of the materials was subtracted from her remittance. They’re all the rage in Milan, but when the show moves to New York Adalberto wants to take it to the next level, by juxtaposing the suits with containers of the artist’s bodily fluids. Unaware that the making of meaning is nauseating enough, he suggests she get “really drunk” to produce the vomit. In addition to DeWitt’s proficiency in (descending order) Latin, ancient Greek, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Japanese, she’s fluent in several dialects of ESL; the tentative would of the German’s British English is no match for the Italian gallerist’s rapid-fire confidence. “It’s about the body,” Adalberto tells her. “Hatred of the body. Denial of the body. The hanging requires the body . . . I hate the kind of hanging where you have seen it a million times, the lighting is a cliché, the frames are a cliché . . .” He’s talking about how he wants to set up an installation, but to DeWitt, he’s also proposing artistic suicide. Following some deliberation, meaning is agreed to be made. Shortly after our heroine reads in the papers that Adalberto has sold the entire New York show for $1 million, another artist has him declared bankrupt for failing to pay her—you can do that if you get a contract, which the protagonist has not—and he disappears.

Though the German painter ends up submitting her original ugly suit next to a jar of spermicidal jelly for the Turner Prize—brutal, indeed—a few stories in Some Trick do feature DeWitt’s version of a happy ending: someone figures out a loophole, a way to maneuver a set of senseless best practices to work for him, and experiences the watered-down relief of solving a problem that shouldn’t exist. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” a mathematician, Peter, has written a wildly successful children’s book of “robot tales” (after Stanisław Lem’s Bajki Robotów, which returns in later stories), and he’s trying to explain to a slickly enthused agent, Jim, that he wants to work on his second book with someone who understands binomial distribution and Bertrand Russell. That the agent doesn’t see why is upsetting. “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 genius, only went to show how deep-seated innumeracy actually is in our benighted culture.” DeWitt occasionally recalls David Foster Wallace in his I’m-presenting-the-thoughts-of-a-regular-guy mode, but without the sentimentality, the regular guys, or the skepticism of passports. Her style is conversational yet particular, with an escalating sentence structure that allows ideas to build on each other so the reader can follow the logic even as it enters “non-intuitive ways of thinking,” and the stereotypically difficult zones of philosophy, classical music, or, yes, math. This particular story also features charts.

The distress of his conversation with Jim sends Peter outside for a cigarette, where he is visited by a fleet of imaginary robots. Robots, or people who think like robots, are a motif in DeWitt’s work, not as overlords of our artificially intelligent future but as ideally rational models to which humans can aspire; they are “restful.” In his reverie, Peter forgets about the agent and leaves; he realizes that he has dined-and-dashed five hours later. The panic doesn’t last, however, because the mechanical pow-wow has shown him what to do: add a clause to his contract requiring a mathematical consultant.

On another level, the book was meant as an allegory of the publishing industry, which made DeWitt feel “like [she] was getting fucked from behind through a hole in the wall.”

Duh, the business-savvy among you are thinking. But DeWitt’s point is that people’s brains work differently; some are more suited to negotiation and manipulation than others. The next story, “On the Town,” stars Gil, a twenty-two-year-old Iowan who has recently relocated to New York City. His Midwestern friendliness and skills in plumbing, wiring, coding, and the sort of Tetris-like networking that complements a fast-paced New Yorker’s entitled self-importance earn him perks all over Manhattan and Brooklyn, from free rent in a TriBeCa loft to opera tickets to cocaine to financial stability. Though Gil’s aptitudes span many areas, his genius is in the way he can unite them easily, without breaking the Byzantine social conventions that govern each. Soon he’s spun an intricate web of “crap-free deal[s]” among his new acquaintances, solving their wide-ranging problems and endearing himself to all.

While his facility as a negotiator might otherwise mark Gil as suspicious, his adorable intellectual openness and specific enthusiasms—“La dolce vita was on at the Angelika!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”—earn him a charitable portrait from DeWitt, who despite appearances is ultimately not concerned so much with the scourge of capitalism as with the scourge of incuriosity and ingrained ways of thinking. At one point, Peter, the sad mathematician, even offers to swap profit percentages with Jim in order to get the kind of collaboration he wants. When Jim smilingly replies that he’s “happy with the normal 15% commission,” Peter covers his eyes and thinks of Bertrand Russell, who felt that “the desire to know more about mathematics restrained him from suicide.”

At the Altar of the Blurb

According to a 2011 profile in the Observer, DeWitt’s first publishing setback came in 1998. She’d sold The Last Samurai but, annoyed by her editor’s “crap comments,” ultimately pulled the manuscript to “protect her book from the publishing process.” She decamped to the countryside and wrote Lightning Rods, a pointed departure from Samurai in that it appeared to be a straightforward workplace satire containing no Greek, Japanese, or discussion of difficult art. It’s about a failed door-to-door vacuum salesman, Joe, whose downtime sexual fantasies give him a business idea: a temp agency for “lightning rods,” female employees contracted to serve double duty as well-paid administrative assistants and anonymous sexual-harassment-prevention apparatuses—prostitutes, basically, available to male employees via a glory hole in an office’s disabled bathroom stall. DeWitt showed it to the head editor at Talk Miramax Books, the new publishing arm of Miramax Films; he passed but said he wanted The Last Samurai, which became the star of the 1999 Frankfurt Book Fair. The contract stipulated that DeWitt had final approval on copyedits, which was critical given the foreign scripts and DeWitt’s experiments with casual punctuation and spelling. After enacting this final approval, she received her manuscript in the mail covered in Wite-Out. She hadn’t made a copy of her original edits and, devastated, had to redo them. Successful publication was not much of a solace; DeWitt left the book’s launch party and disappeared around New Haven, Connecticut and Niagara Falls for two weeks. The New York Times gave The Last Samurai a 650-word review, written by Myla Goldberg; it argues that the novel, while “exuberant,” needs “deeper character and plot development” and “worships too long at the altar of the intellect.” Somehow DeWitt ended up owing the publisher $75,000.

In 2003, DeWitt signed a contract with Talk Miramax to publish Lightning Rods, which the editor decided he wanted after all. On the level of feminist commentary on sex, the workplace, and capitalism, the satire resists the pat good-vs.-evil framework most critics place on it. DeWitt’s prose is typically buoyant and funny, richly detailed, and compulsively readable without succumbing to any of the clichés or sentimentalities that the blurb phrase usually disguises; she moves seamlessly from an on-point lampoon of the doofus genius who masturbates his way into a legally awkward goldmine to nuanced examinations of the lightning rod system’s impact on female employees. Some “found the practicalities of the job harder to adjust to,” while the first black applicant, initially rejected because her skin color would make anonymity impossible, points out that Joe is violating the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and forces him to find some way to include her. She spends her lightning-rod sessions working through A la recherché du temps perdu and uses the money she earns to pay for Harvard Law.

Lightning Rods recently joined the ranks of satires-now-prophetic—in 2017, a VR startup settled a sexual harassment lawsuit that alleged the company maintained a “kink room” for male employees who had “stated how they were sexually aroused by female employees and how it was hard to concentrate and be productive when all they could think about was having sex with them.” But on another level, the book was meant as an allegory of the publishing industry, which made DeWitt feel “like [she] was getting fucked from behind through a hole in the wall.” Appropriately, this, too, proved difficult to publish. You could say Harvey Weinstein screwed DeWitt out of work: the deal with Miramax Books fell through, and although DeWitt kept her advance for the book, it didn’t come out. A more resilient negotiator might have taken the rights immediately elsewhere, to capitalize on the momentum from Samurai, but DeWitt just wanted to be left alone to write. In 2004, she sent a 4:30 a.m. email to the lawyer who drafted the contract for the Lightning Rods advance, subject: “termination,” that began, “Please call my cellphone. If I don’t answer you can assume that I am dead . . .” Her method—sedative and plastic bag—was ineffective; she issued a note saying she’d try something “simpler” and disappeared, causing a stir. She turned up a few days later, again in Niagara Falls.

This story, including the email, appears in one of the less metafictional novels-within-a-novel in the unpublished Your Name Here. Another nesting-doll narrative concerns the writing of the novel itself, over email with Ilya Gridneff, though he has multiple pseudonyms in the text. An outer frame incorporates shifting second-person readers as they move, frustrated, through the book you yourself are reading, “the new novel by Helen DeWitt.” “You’re extremely aggrieved,” one characteristically short section begins. “Instead of the wealth of stories you loved in [The Last Samurai] there are narrative strands which you find hard to follow.” Got me there. According to DeWitt’s website, the book has not been published because “both permissions and technical challenges presented . . . obstacles,” but the way it refuses to answer the sort of crap questions a conventional editor might ask—“What’s going on? Where is this going? What is your character supposed to be doing? What is the book actually about?”—is also probably partially to blame for the book’s languishing. You have to read it at least twice for its logic to cohere, though bursts of sarcasm at your own expense manage to penetrate the first time. There’s a skewering of the tendency to justify Samurai’s Greek and Japanese as “motivated”—guilty again—by a scheme to teach unsuspecting American readers Arabic through implanting vocabulary lessons in bestsellers. A version of the book, sans its many unlicensed images, was once available as a PDF through DeWitt’s blog, paperpools, which she has kept active for years.

Lightning Rods recently joined the ranks of satires-now-prophetic.

In 2008, DeWitt got the rights to Lightning Rods once again, and the next year the agent Bill Clegg told her selling it would be a piece of cake. Seventeen editors proved him wrong; they thought the book was good but the premise too outrageous. In 2010 she booked a ticket to the UK, intending to jump off a cliff. “The system strangles the books in the head,” she wrote to Clegg in an email.

That she didn’t go through with it, and went on to publish Lightning Rods with New Directions the next year, is presented as a “happy ending” in the Observer profile. DeWitt, acknowledging that she was demonstrating the “behaviour of an addict,” took issue with the conclusion in a post on paperpools. To DeWitt, the Last Samurai copyediting fiasco was a link in a chain of events that led to an irretrievable loss of time and morale, a feature of a system that not only threatens books being published but also future half-written and unwritten books, and even the life of the author herself. She writes that this was the first interview

where I made a serious attempt to get the interviewer to understand why there is a genuine risk of suicide if too much work is disrupted and destroyed. . . . [The Observer writer] is like most people in discounting what he doesn’t see. . . . If you don’t see the dead books, turning down a $525,000 deal looks strange. Looking obsessively for the right editor, the right agent, the ones who protect the books to come, looks strange. And if you have an actual living author sitting across the table from you in the Tik Tok diner, the chance that the body might have been at the bottom of a cliff in 2010 looks negligible. And getting Lightning Rods into print looks like a happy ending.

As helpful fans pointed out in the comments, the use of such an unwieldy and indelible method as Wite-Out in a copyedit today would be ludicrous; it’s all Track Changes now. But the copyedit—“You want to write OK as o-k-a-y,” she told the Observer, “go write your own novel”—is not really the point. The point, as DeWitt told The Paris Review in 2016, is that people in the publishing industry are “committed to the disempowerment of the author at every single stage.”

Broken Systems

Ironically, the fact that DeWitt’s work has frequently been considered unpublishable has generated a good portion of her publicity. The singular brilliance of the writing that created this problem in the first place is pretty much taken as a given. This is one of her chief concerns—the consequences of broken-systematic thinking. The roles, of the screwer and the screwed, are sometimes switched, the emotional aftereffects distributed among various personalities, but the picture is clear. For a character in a Helen DeWitt story, the notion that anyone or any book could possibly “worship too long at the altar of the intellect” simply would not compute. How could a person be too smart, too knowledgeable, too curious? And why won’t you just let them get on with it?

After going out of print, The Last Samurai was reissued to enthusiasm by New Directions in 2016. While the New York Times did not take the opportunity to correct its mistake in coverage from the first time around, critics elsewhere took up the charge of championing the “unjustly forgotten big book” for new readers. Everyone should read the novel, but one bit of praise in particular disturbed me. In “Rewinding Helen DeWitt,” for Slate, Phillip Maciak argues that because “repetition is both the novel’s topic . . . and its style” the re-issue of The Last Samurai is “perfect for our streaming-video moment.” The former claim is solid: the first third of The Last Samurai is structured by mother and son’s repeated viewings of Seven Samurai, and this section ends with Sibylla having what Ben Lerner semi-ironically calls a “profound experience of art” at a classical piano concert. The musician has played versions of the same Brahms ballad for seven-and-a-half hours, followed, unexpectedly, by three other ballads in quick succession, each played only once. Tears begin to stream down Sibylla’s face. “It was as if after the illusion that you could have a thing 500 ways without giving up one he said No, there is only one chance at life once gone it is gone for good you must seize the moment before it goes.”

But Maciak’s second claim, that DeWitt’s work is compatible with the “streaming-video moment,” rests not only on a misunderstanding of DeWitt but also on a misunderstanding of what it means to experience art at all. What Ludo and his mother do with Seven Samurai is not “mak[ing] ordinary art transcendent through repetition,” as Maciak writes—they use repetition to approach the state of transcendence made possible by extraordinary art. The implications of the idea that ordinary art—art that conforms to expectation, that accepts that this is just the way it is—could rise, through repetition, to extraordinary status might explain why books these days make you want to puke or die: If any work of art can be transcendent, what’s the point in trying something extraordinary? The blithe assurance with which a person will engage in repetition for repetition’s sake is alarming: Maciak goes on to compare what Ludo and Sibylla do to his repeated viewings of TV shows like Parks and Recreation, which he watches to “distract” himself, and Mad Men, which he watches when he feels lonely. “I sync media,” he writes, “to the ebbs and flows of my life, making it look more like me.”

My initial response to this was “I’m going to be sick.” But interrogating my own motivations for rereading DeWitt, I have to admit I do look for an emotion in her work: relief, from the complacent and respectably done. For all her appreciation of robots, no formula or algorithm could ever generate anything like her books.