Helen DeWitt's Some Trick seems less like a story collection and more like a series of notes from some vast, alien intelligence, not quite human itself, but capable of picking apart human habits with startling precision. DeWitt's characters are savants, weirdos, and artists, often trying to achieve their ends against the best efforts of the well-meaning and conventional people around them ... DeWitt's fiction is preoccupied with maneuvering around — or preferrably hijacking for one's own use — all that paraphernalia superfluous, not to say impedimental, to ratiocination. That can include people, ideas, bureaucracies, or businesses (especially book publishers). One of the collection's prevailing themes is that inefficiency is not just inconvenient, but contemptible. It details social and sexual codes as scrupulously as mathematical functions. Emotions, when they appear, are described both carefully and distantly ... In her fiction, she uses Greek if Greek is called for, or graphs if graphs are called for. Ideals such as likeability and accessibility seem irrelevant, if not quaint, in the face of her wonderfully irritable intelligence.
The voice of these stories—compulsive, overstuffed, highfalutin and colloquial in equal measure, unafraid of exclamation points that would make Tom Wolfe blush—is like a record of the speed at which such a brain works, and the concomitant difficulty of slowing it down in order to deal with what we regular people would call 'regular people.' That voice’s resting pulse, so to speak, is a kind of deadpan logical progression ... It shouldn’t work, really, none of it. It should seem too self-pitying, too inside baseball. Even armed with the knowledge of all that the author’s struggles have cost her, reading tales about geniuses suffering the indignity of exposure to nongeniuses might well cause a reader’s eyes to roll: I mean, tell it to James Joyce, you know? ... What saves Some Trick in the end is not only that DeWitt is so very funny but that she has harnessed her coder’s brain to negative capability. Which is to say, while she is firmly on the side of the intellectual unicorns, she is also capable of doing full and hilarious justice to their bizarre, frustrating, alien, occasionally tiresome aspect. And she does treat the plight of these artists as a comedy rather than a tragedy, even if, as in any serious comedy, there are casualties.
DeWitt’s ruthless honesty about the sausage making of literary production is no doubt autobiographical ... But the generosity and humor of these stories soften any sense of personal grievance into something much more interesting and complicated. The stories are devastatingly specific, and yet they serve as broad parables about the inevitability of being misunderstood, both as an artist and as a person ... DeWitt captures the particular mix of sincerity and jadedness of the publishing world and of those whose job it is to be enthusiastic about highish culture in the face of periodic reports of its demise ... It’s probably not good for most writers’ sanity to spend a lot of time analyzing the cycles of hype, money, and fate that can dictate a career. But DeWitt has already done the work. One little look or two won’t hurt.
Along with the uncanny determinism of her surname, Helen DeWitt has several assets, inherited or acquired, useful to the comic writer...her style is brilliantly heartless, and cork-dry; original herself, she is a witty examiner of human and cultural eccentricity ... What grounds all DeWitt’s brilliance and game-playing is the way that she dramatizes a certain kind of hyperintelligent rationalism and probes its irregular distribution of blindness and insight ... The stories in Some Trick return often to this artistic drama; in them, painters, writers, and musicians attempt to preserve their genius in the face of a hostile world run by vulgar businessmen, mercantile agents, and idiot fashion designers. An aesthetic category clearly of interest to DeWitt...is the ugly work of art, the difficult artifact that cannot be easily assimilated ... When DeWitt’s passionate struggle for aesthetic expression...is reified in these tales as scenes of repetitively rigged business with imbecile agents and mindless art dealers, the comedy suffers, hardens a bit, and narrows its scope. Maybe that’s why 'Famous Last Words,' the best piece in the collection, and the funniest, has nothing to do with art worlds and the bitter toil of the genius.
...a DeWitt short story is a thing crafted with unimpeachable skill, even genius, but as you marvel at the stitching you might also shudder at the sense of a cruel, even brutal, joke ... There is much madness in DeWitt’s method, a madness of pure logic ... These stories eventuate a better kind of amusement — not indulgence, but the sometimes discomfiting pleasure of being dazzled.
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 ... 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.
She aims to stimulate the head, not the heart, but her blistering sense of humor, rivaled today only by Paul Beatty and Nell Zink, keeps the stories earthbound ... The stories themselves aren’t bitter but rather take bitterness as their subject matter. In DeWitt’s world, there are Mozarts, Salieris, and the many suits whose livelihoods depend on them. No one is spared, the suits least of all. It’s safe to say that the stories in Some Trick have their rough edges. They are the farthest thing from the model writers’ workshop story, 'plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew,' to borrow a phrase from Michael Chabon. But for sheer brilliance and humor, Some Trick delivers like nothing else, simply because DeWitt writes like no one else.
What happens when a person like DeWitt comes up against the world of 'the arts,' which is finally an economic sector like any other—dominated by the profit motive, bureaucratic inertia, and polite evasiveness? The answer, in these stories, is a kind of anguished comedy ... Remarkably, DeWitt manages to keep the theme fresh through the power of her style, which is unique in contemporary fiction. If it resembles anything, it is the elliptical, syncopated, highly artificial prose of certain English writers like Ronald Firbank or the early Evelyn Waugh ... How do you get a complacent world to stop talking and pay attention? Some Trick suggests that the answer involves stubbornness, oddity, and a great deal of talent.
Helen DeWitt's story collection Some Trick...wields an immense intellectual palate that, in each of her books, she uses to cynically delight her readers ... DeWitt’s obsessions often involve business, and many of the stories in Some Trick feature the financial pressure that drives music, art, publishing, and more ... A recurring fixation in DeWitt’s work is how quickly commerce can destroy the creative spirit ... The DeWitt stories we have...present a uniquely brilliant and obsessive mind at work, the sort of performance that happens infrequently at the intersection of business and art.
...DeWitt uses fiction to elucidate the conditions that allow people to create brilliant and beautiful things. Sometimes her characters make literature, but they also make suits, compromises, money, music, businesses, deals, and love. DeWitt’s keen insights provide the reader with a distinctive glimpse at how these moments of creation blossom ... In Some Trick, for every absolutist declaration, another voice protests, 'Isn’t there more to it than that?' as DeWitt unspools a story from the divergent perspectives ... DeWitt constellates her stories around ideas and explanations that only come into full view through accumulation, the individual fictions unified by the book’s end ... By blending accounts of subjects as disparate as painting and contract negotiation, she somehow illuminates both in ways that couldn’t be achieved if treated individually. In doing so, DeWitt uses fiction as a brilliantly expansive approach to exploding, dissecting, and reconstructing aspects of life that too often go unexamined in literature.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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
Some Trick is understandably despondent and often crisply acerbic, but it rarely tips over into bitterness. DeWitt is a hot-blooded intellectual, and her contagious passion for the life of the mind can redeem even the bleakest lamentations ... In the world of Some Trick, the best words are so acute they lacerate.
... what it lacks in girth it makes up for in inventiveness ... as in so many of DeWitt’s narratives, at some point things cross an invisible line and the reasonable blurs into the absurd, producing a Lynchian mix of the banal with the surreal ... DeWitt’s stories have the texture of fairy tales...But her fairy tales have a brothers Grimm-like underbelly to them.
The artist-characters in Some Trick, Helen DeWitt’s new collection of bitingly hilarious stories, discover that integrity and commercial success are incompatible, or at most a fluke that can’t be replicated without sacrificing one’s sanity and/or soul ... DeWitt’s prose itself suggests improvisation’s blissful illusion of freedom. What a delight to have her back. Here’s hoping another novel’s on the way—and soon.
DeWitt (The Last Samurai) reasserts herself as one of contemporary fiction’s greatest minds in this dazzling collection of stories about misunderstood genius ... DeWitt’s disdain for those who seek to profit off of genius is sharp and refreshing, and her ability to deliver such astounding prose and thought-provoking stories constitutes a minor miracle. This is a gem of a collection.
One of the distinguishing features of DeWitt’s work is a sense of curiosity. She seems to find everything interesting, so she makes everything interesting ... DeWitt’s wide-ranging intellect makes these stories, but it’s her sense of humor and profound humanity that make them work. She approaches her weirdos and screw-ups with keen-eyed honesty but also with sincere affection. And the first story, 'Brutto,' has one of the most satisfying closing lines ever. This collection has many delights, but it’s worth picking up just for that.