Helen DeWitt is one of the finest novelists currently working in English. That she is not more widely known may be due to an unfortunate coincidence. She published her first novel, The Last Samurai, in 2000. Three years later Warner Brothers released an action movie by the same title, starring Tom Cruise. Readers happening across the DeWitt novel now probably assume its the book version of the Tom Cruise movie, a heavy-handed nostalgic tale about howalas!western modernity destroyed the Old Ways and the Wisdom of the East. They might be forgiven for not opening the book.In fact the novel and the movie are totally unrelated. The book tells the story of an intellectually gifted but unstable young typist, Sybilla, and her son, Ludo. Sybilla suffers from chronic depression among other mental quirks. Frustrated with her dull typing work, she has developed a habit of watching the legendary Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai over and over, either while or instead of working. Its evident that she needs a more intellectually stimulating profession, but she feels the chance for this has passed her by. She quit graduate school years ago on a whim, in frustration at the sophistry of professional academics. Then before she had a chance to reconsider the decision she got pregnant as a result of an ill-considered one-night stand. She now continues to work as a typist out of economic necessityin order to support her sonand because her depression is severe enough to prevent her from seeing any other option.Typical of the character: she had not decided on a name when the child was born, so his birth certificate says Stephen or Steven or David, she doesnt remember which. When she brought him home from the hospital, though, she decided he was a Ludovic and that is what she has called him ever since. As if single motherhood alone wasnt enough of a challenge for Sibylla, little Ludo has turned out to be a child prodigy with an insatiable mind. By the age of four he has mastered classical Greek. Since Sybilla constantly watches Seven Samurai, he decides he wants to learn Japanese, and pesters his mother about it with childish implacability until she agrees. By age eleven he knows over a dozen languages and reads textbooks about aerodynamics and particle physics. Sybilla has had to home school him, due to his failure to blend at public school.What he really wants more than anything, though, is to know who his father is. That is the emotional core of the book, but it emerges slowly and subtly. Sibylla does her best to be a good mothershes not the sort you would call social services on. She loves Ludo, and he loves her. Nevertheless she cannot stick to her work. She has frequent outbursts of temper and holds some unusual opinions on topics like suicide and the status of children in society, which she likes to rant about in front of her son. As Ludo begins to grow up, he remarks wistfully in passing: The great thing about having two parents is that each protects you from the other. If I had a father he would notice I was getting fed up and say Leave the boy alone, Sybilla. Or he would say tactfully Im going over to the park to kick a ball around before it gets dark and he would offer to explain the scene to Sib himself later on. Its a poignant moment: for all his child-prodigy brilliance, deep down Ludo is just a little kid who dreams of kicking a ball around with the father hes never known. DeWitt is audacious enough to let the central conflict of the story emerge through a series of these blink-and-youll-miss-it offhand comments, often buried in the midst of arcane grammatical digressions. The subtlety of the technique lends these comments, when they occur, an intense emotional power.Ludo begs Sybilla to tell him who his father is, but she is ashamed of the one-night stand that made her a motherchiefly because the man she slept with was a hack writer. She refuses to tell Ludo his fathers identity until he is old enough to know the difference between hack writing and good writing. So Ludo takes matters into his own hands and goes in search of his father, a search he naturally frames in terms of the farmers quest for protectors in The Seven Samurai, since the movies been playing constantly in his house since he was born. His quest brings some of the novels most warmly human moments, in which emotions bubble to the surface of these ordinarily cerebral characters consciousnesses and for fleeting moments take center stage.DeWitts second novel, Lightning Rods, was released last year from New Directions Publishing. This one is a brisk bright satire in the vein of Swifts Modest Proposal. Its a critique of American pragmatism and of the vacuous sort of thinking that goes on in management schools. Joe, a failing salesman, finally gets his big break when he invents a system for managing sexual harassment in the workplace. One by one he persuades American corporations to provide anonymous sex to their male employees via specially-rigged bathroom stalls. With this safe outlet for their desires, theyll be able to focus better on their work and wont harass their female coworkers! Everyone wins. It should be obvious that the lightning rods system is a form of prostitution, but Joes skill at circumlocution is such that he manages to convince the whole world its nothing of the kind:
I have strong views on sexual harassment. I believe that those in a place of work who do not welcome sexual advances should not be subjected to them. I also believe that a man who is producing results in todays competitive marketplace has a right to be protected from potential undesirable side effects of the physical constitution which enables him to make a valued contribution to the company.At this stage he might be asked, Are you suggesting we hire prostitutes?! Or Surely you are not suggesting...!Certainly not, he would protest, prostitution is degrading to all concerned, an atmosphere of mutual respect is indispensable to the modern office.I dont understand, he would be told.The concept was so revolutionary at the time that prostitution was the only thing people could think of. That was how original he was.
The book is so sexually frank that those with delicate sensibilities may not enjoy it, but its by no means pornographic. Thats part of DeWitts point: Joes system is mechanical and icky, not sexy. She leaves it to the reader, however, to puzzle out why. As in The Last Samurai, here one of DeWitts greatest strengths is her commitment to restraint. She never succumbs to the temptation of spelling things out for the reader. She presents Joes system as a thing that makes perfect sense given certain assumptions, then leaves it to you to figure out what those assumptions are. She invites you to compare lightning-rod sex to the sexual habits of real people in 21st-century America. She invites you to contemplate how we got to a place where Joes clich-ridden, vacuous dialect of English has become de rigueur in corporate management. She asks you to consider whether you hold any philosophical beliefs that would imply the legitimacy of lightning rods as a logical conclusion. What she never does is tell you her own answers to these questions, and the book is better for it.DeWitt is one of those rare writers who possess both sparkling technical skill and profound moral insight, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Both her novels have one glaring feature that may be off-putting to some. The Last Samurai is full of abstruse intellectual bits, mostly linguistics and mathematics, which may detract from some readers enjoyment of the story. DeWitt doesnt just tell you that Sibylla taught Ludo the Greek alphabet, she transcribes the whole thing on the page. Being a linguistics nerd, I love this, but others may not. And in Lightning Rods theres all the sex talk. Still, DeWitt deserves a much wider readership than she has acquired thus far. I cant wait to see what her career will bring us next.