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

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-writers-forum_0001-cmyk2.jpg

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

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 author of Mature Themes (2014) and MacArthur Park (2017), both from Nightboat Books. A monograph on Raymond Pettibon is forthcoming from David Zwirner Books in May 2018. He is a Senior Editor of frieze and lives in New York.

Issue 194

First published in Issue 194

April 2018

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018