From the author of The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt returns with a collection of stories that explore the peculiar mind of the creative genius and the headache-inducing social and capitalistic systems with which it must contend.
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.