DeWitt assembles everything from letters of the Greek alphabet to Fourier analysis to tell the tale of a boy prodigy, stuffed with knowledge beyond his years but frustrated by his mother’s refusal to identify his father.
So a novel that appears on the surface to be elitist — concerned as it is with great works of art, scientific achievement, and excellence generally — is actually profoundly anti-elitist at its core. DeWitt’s novel is infused with the belief that any human mind is capable of feats we tend to associate with genius ... DeWitt’s stroke of comic brilliance is to combine the pathetic and parodic in Sibylla’s efforts at survival as Ludo diligently ploughs through the epics of world literature ... The Last Samurai is, in a few ways, an instruction manual. It contains an ethics of living and learning, but it also attempts to tell its readers how to learn and to show them that they can learn things that they might have thought beyond their grasp ... It drinks deeply in the canon while at the same time renewing it.
The Last Samurai is not a novel for everyone—no novel is—but it is a novel for many people. It is deliberately—proudly—erudite and intertextual; it is, like the mind of its author, stubbornly idiosyncratic. But also, importantly: it is a novel less interested in being ambitious for ambition’s sake, than it is in cultivating ambition in its readers ... If DeWitt could not set aside the limitations of her time, The Last Samurai certainly struggles against them. Narrative trains of thought are interrupted, mid-sentence, and then picked back up, pages later ... We are all too dumb, I suspect, for Helen DeWitt, if only because we are too lazy to be the one out of the hundred who refuses to spare herself the trouble of rational thought.
That’s the DeWitt tone—tart, brisk, snobbish, antic. She can take a recognizable social situation or fact and steadily twist it into a surrealist skein ... Repressed pain is the engine of The Last Samurai. It is a wonderfully funny book, but comedy dances near the abyss ... It would be a mistake to force this strange and brave book into a sentimentality it deliberately disrupts. It won’t be made into a conventionally humane domestic novel about a frustrated single mother and a brilliant, questing son. Still, it is not only about being inefficiently intelligent and trying to raise a genius, not only about the inanities of the school system.