Most “cult” writers find their disciples only after years of semi-obscurity; Helen DeWitt, who published her first novel The Last Samurai in 2000, found hers in the first sentence of the jacket copy. “Destined to become a cult classic”: thus spoke the oracles of the Talk Miramax/Hyperion marketing department, and subsequent events seemed to bear out their augury. Last summer, in a New York magazine poll, the critic Sven Birkerts called The Last Samurai “The Best Novel You’ve Never Read.” And now the Young Turks at N+1 have gone him one better, devoting 40 pages of their winter issue to an excerpt from DeWitt’s second novel, Your Name Here, “a complicated and important work of art which unjustly has not yet been able to find a publisher in the United States or England” – a “cult” work in the making.
We learn as children, of course, that only the morally obtuse stoop to judging a book by its cover, but in revisiting The Last Samurai – which is indeed complicated, important, and a work of art – it’s worth considering the mixed blessing of all prophecy, and the backhanded compliment implicit in that jacket-copy prediction. Why “cult?” Why not just, “destined to become a classic?”
A biographical critic might connect DeWitt’s “cult” status to her uncompromising authorial persona. The word “reclusive” appears three times in the N+1 introduction, which nods approvingly at her expatriatism (she has lived in England and now resides in Germany). Like her literary forebears, DeWitt has embraced cunning, exile, and the writer’s version of silence. Yet she is hardly J.D. Salinger. She keeps a blog called paperpools. For a few dollars, you can download a short story from www.helendewitt.com – in Microsoft Word format, no less. One recent customer even got a nice email from the author. “Reclusive” doesn’t seem to be the right word.
An overhasty reviewer might offer an equally easy and equally unsatisfying answer to the question of “cult”: The Last Samurai’s erudition limits its audience. The story concerns two linguistic prodigies, a mother and a son, and their learning gives the novel its texture. Greek and Japanese characters pepper the page – one imagines a typesetter groaning, head in hands – as do math problems and intertextual allusions ranging from Homer and Ovid to Kinski and (natürlich) Kurosawa. Intellectually, then, DeWitt seems aligned with the post-Ulysses school of anatomic novel-writing, which has produced more than its fair share of “cult” writers: William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace…
Following Joyce, though, the anatomist embeds and signifies his learning in a style of pyrotechnic complexity; his cult status (a sign of high seriousness) is secured not by the range of his references, but by his refusal to translate his shibboleths. DeWitt deploys her erudition quite differently. She doesn’t merely write Greek and Japanese; she teaches them. The patient reader emerges from The Last Samurai able to read a Greek cognate such as ανδρασιν (“men [M. dative plural]”). In this, the novel harkens back to a premodern, rather than to a modernist, tradition. Helen DeWitt has taken quite literally the Horatian injunction to instruct as well as to entertain.
Her prose, too, diverges from the gnomic prolixity of other “cult” writers. This is not to say that she isn’t a stylist, but rather that she seems determined to distance herself from the stylist’s customary repertoire. Linguistic and cultural references may enrich the diction, but DeWitt’s basic unit of composition is the simple, declarative sentence. Take this passage from the prologue, in which Sibylla Newman, the narrator, tells us how she came to be born: “My father was struck speechless with disgust. He left the house without a word. He drove a Chevrolet 1,300 miles.” These sentences are like the logical propositions Wittgenstein describes in the Tractatus. Each corresponds to, and so depicts, a state of affairs. The syntax seems almost reactionary: subject-verb, subject-verb, subject-verb. Keep reading, though, and you discover that simple propositions bend toward the moral and the metaphysical as surely as the dream-tongue of Finnegans Wake:
In later years my father sometimes played a game. He’d meet a man on his way to Mexico and he’d say, Here’s fifty bucks, do me a favor and buy me some lottery tickets, and he’d give the man his card. Say the odds against winning the jackpot were 20 million to 1 and the odds against the man giving my father the winning ticket another 20 million to 1, you couldn’t say my father’s life was ruined because there was a 1 in 400 trillion chance that it wasn’t.
With its colloquial repetitions, its undifferentiated dialogue, and its gallows humor, this passage is typical of the novel as a whole, as is the leap from the quotidian “fifty bucks” worth of lottery tickets to the melancholy grandeur of ruined lives – the scale of a number like 400 trillion, ineffable but terribly exact.
Beneath the simple surface of DeWitt’s propositions, then, lurks a vast ambition: an ambition that privileges form over fact and inquiry over knowledge. Like the early Wittgenstein, DeWitt wants to clear away the confusions that arise from the sloppy use of language, and like the later Wittgenstein, she wants to run against the boundaries of language and to gesture at what lies beyond them. The result is a peculiar tension between precision and disorder. That DeWitt sustains it for more than 500 pages is as much an ethical statement as an aesthetic one.
The beginning of the novel proper deposits us in present-day London, in the company of Sibylla, who has dropped her graduate studies at Oxford after an unplanned pregnancy. Her narration of these circumstances never quite reaches the point of conception, both because Sibylla keeps digressing about various historical geniuses and because she keeps being interrupted by her five-year-old son Ludo, himself a
“Why are they fighting? WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING? WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING? Can’t you read what it says? OF COURSE I can read it but WHY Well, they’re looking for samurai to defend the village from bandits.”
DeWitt presents Ludo’s interruptions just as I have presented them here, unannounced and unexplained, and as they proliferate, The Last Samurai’s early chapters become a bricolage of narration and digression and bits of the books and movies with which Sibylla tries to occupy her son. The effect is both artful and the opposite of artful: it feels like the truth. Apparently, the life of a single mother with a child prodigy is more disorienting than glamorous.
Social facts peek through the gaps between the different narrative registers. Lacking a labor permit, Sibylla works off the books, typing up old issues of magazines like Sportsboat and Waterski International for digitization. At the same time, she attempts to keep an eye on Ludo. They live in a cramped, sporadically heated apartment, and in an economy that privileges utility over talent. They are barely hanging on. Sibylla earns our sympathy by playing this situation for comedy:
I should be typing Advanced Angling as they want it back by the end of the week, but it seems important to preserve my sanity. It would be false economy to forge ahead with typing until maddened to frenzy by an innocent child.
It becomes apparent that she herself is a genius, and one might think she’d want to furnish her genius son with the tools to avoid meeting a fate like her own. Instead, Sibylla feels an obligation to protect him from the vulgarity and stupidity of a world that, for example, pays people to retype Advanced Angling. She likens conventionally successful people, such as Ludo’s otherwise unnamed father, to Liberace; against them she sets her personal pantheon of iconoclasts: Glenn Gould, Rilke, Akira Kurosawa.
A running set of epigraphs from Kurosawa makes it clear that Sibylla sees these heroes as latter-day samurai, bound to a code that transcends the philistinism of daily life. She cultivates the code in Ludo, too. After she takes him to a poorly received concert by an avant-garde Japanese pianist, one Kenzo Yamamoto, a quest, of sorts, is inaugurated. Ludo decides to use the scant information his mother has given him to look for his missing father. He will test seven men – the pianist, an artist, two journalists, and two adventurers – to determine their suitability.
The introduction of an old-fashioned plot into The Last Samurai’s principled disorder is jarring. The model, however loose, is The Seven Samurai, in which, we are told a young ronin joins a band of warriors to defend a village against bandits. Ludo is the ronin, obviously. But who are the bandits? And what is the village? More jarring still is a concurrent shift in voice. Halfway through the novel, without warning or ceremony, DeWitt has switched narrators, so that the second half of the book will be Ludo’s. As a structural enactment of the child’s ego-separation from the parent, this is wholly appropriate. However, we hunger for Sibylla’s point-of-view, and as Ludo’s search for his samurai takes him farther and farther from the apartment, we will spend less and less time in her company.
In place of the comforting rhythms of a well-made modernist novel, DeWitt, characteristically, has given us something asymmetric and surprising. We think not of the painter of modern life, imposing form on chaos, but of the bansai artist, whose scissors follow the tree where it wants to go. The form of any novel, of course, tends toward a narrative end, and Sibylla’s digressions and distractions, however captivating, have thus far frustrated our desire for plot. Indeed, Sibylla increasingly sees herself at loose ends, or even a dead one.
Though Ludo’s voice bears a filial resemblance to his mother’s, his world is still full of possibility, and as he explores it, the story accelerates. One of his seven samurai punches him. One slices Ludo with a knife. One, having stared too long into the abyss, thinks of jumping. Each has a story of his own, a nested narrative, and each of these stories is more moving than the last.
More importantly, Ludo offers us a clearer understanding of what we read in the first part of the book. Sibylla, a charming and very literary eccentric, emerges in his eyes as a fully articulated human being – and as a woman whose frustration with the world threatens to destroy her. We recall, for example, that she tried to kill herself before her son was born. “What if a person called the [suicide hotline] and they weren’t very helpful?” Ludo asks one of his samurai.
What if there was a person who thought the world would be a better place if everyone who would enjoy seeing a Tamil syllabary had access to a Tamil syllabary? What if there was a person who kept changing the subject? What if there was a person who never listened to anything anybody said?
He said: Did you have anyone special in mind?
I said I was speaking hypothetically.
This is a lie, of course. As Ludo continues, we can hear in his anaphoric fragments the measure of his desperation:
The type of person who thinks boredom a fate worse than death. The type of person who always wants things to be different. The type of person who would rather die than read Sportsboat and Waterski International.
He asks his interlocutor to help him save the person of whom he’s been speaking. And in the space of a few sentences, the novel’s resistance to imposing a conventional form on its material starts to look more like a refusal to let the story ripen before its time. All along, the quest of DeWitt’s last samurai has been not to seek out like minds, but to redeem one very particular mind. And note, too, that The Last Samurai can be read as either singular or plural: there may be more than one. Redemption, the calling out from samurai to samurai, seems very much like the project of the novel.
It is difficult to know what to make of DeWitt’s more recent work, which resists even more forcefully received wisdom about what fiction should look like and how it should read. But by turning her back both on the formal strictures of the well-made novel – which, absent their ability to surprise, decay into meaninglessness – and on the stylistic habits of postmodernism, Helen DeWitt has crafted at least one book that speaks directly to “the type of person who thinks boredom a fate worse than death.” It is a small band, no doubt, like the mystery cults of Greece, or the Gnostic Christians, hermetic and even self-involved, but absent the safety of crowds, the ideal reader of The Last Samurai depends on art to make sense of the world. Which is a way of saying that the novel dignifies the term “cult,” and not the other way around.
__ Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Canteen, The Pinch, Slate, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others, and in the anthologies Best New American Voices 2008 (Harcourt Books) and Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books).