Helen DeWitt, Some Trick: Thirteen Stories.
Critics were quick to identify the most obvious virtues of Some Trick. Helen DeWitt is funny. She is perhaps the most broadly learned fiction writer working in English today, and folds this knowledge into her work in a way that warmly reminds the reader of the pleasures of learning. In distinction to conventional short stories whose primary achievement is to establish a mood, her stories are actually about something. Rather, they are about a few things, all likely to be resonant with her readers: selfish men and the women they underestimate; trying to get money, and feeling the lack of it; and the difficulty of doing honest, intellectually meaningful work in a world ruled by money and men. That the collection is full of stories that are at once funny, smart, and serious is more than enough reason for a critic to praise it--and for a potential reader to buy it, right now.
The stories so reliably deliver up enjoyment that the first wave of effusive reviews often overlooked a deeper literary game in Some Trick: the collection extends DeWitt's development (or revival) of forms through which literature can explore ideas--not, in fact, an easy thing to bring off. The common means for working overtly intellectual content into prose fiction are somewhat limited and limiting. Contemporary authors regularly give themselves space to explore ideas by suspending core narrative conventions of realism. But the high modernist and postmodernist canon is filled with works that leave the reader (at least, this reader) with the sour feeling that their main achievement is to flaunt the author's knowledge, though this may say more about the egos of the authors than the possibilities of postmodernism. For those who abide by the basic expectations of psychological realism, there cannot be much gap between ideas and characters having ideas. This pairing is often clumsy: each season brings a new harvest of favorably noticed but inert novels in which a smart protagonist walks around a big city thinking smart thoughts, or sits at a desk struggling to write while thinking smart thoughts.
DeWitt is regularly characterized as an unconventional author, but she defies conventions with remarkable economy. Critics, for instance, often note the unusual sorts of knowledge that DeWitt introduces into her fiction: quotations in foreign languages, mathematical formulae, or, in "My Heart Belongs to Bertie," some basic ideas about statistical probability with supporting visualizations and R code. But these matters are not digressions introduced by DeWitt--their presence in her work is a natural outgrowth of her creation of intelligent, curious characters. Further, DeWitt's stories unfold in relatively orderly worlds recognizably like our own, in approximately chronological order, as conveyed to the reader by trustworthy and unobtrusive narrators. Her work's formal originality grows almost wholly from a break with two conventions. It does not embrace the tenets, central to post-Flaubertian realism (including much of contemporary American fiction), that fiction should have a carefully established, stable tone, or tell something just the right way once and only once. Her rejection of these norms is emphatic. As Edmond Caldwell noted in Chicago Review, DeWitt's Lightning Rods, superficially a satire of American business culture, is at a deeper level a biting parody of the editorial and critical expectation that a novel should be neatly structured and uniform in tone, and that an author, having once succeeded with a style or form, ought not to develop any other.
DeWitt has not been satisfied to do something once. She repeats and permutes freely, and it is permutation that affords such a wide scope for developing ideas without reducing fiction to a vehicle for advancing any definite claim. This is apparent, first, across the whole body of work she has published to date. Some Trick explores the same handful of themes as her other works--the novels The Last Samurai, Lightning Rods, and the hard-to-find Your Name Here, as well as other published stories not included in this collection. Her individual books, too, repeat and vary episodes and forms.
In The Last Samurai, DeWitt's first and best-known work, many things happen over and over. In the first half of the book, its two brilliant principal characters, single mother Sibylla and her son Ludo, ride London's Circle Line around and around. Sibylla watches Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai again and again on the VCR. Her job-endless in-home transcription of back issues of hobby magazines--is a nightmare of fruitless repetition. In the second half of the book, Ludo, disappointed by the mediocrity of his biological father, sets out to convince more interesting men that he is their long-lost son. He collects a few, with varying, always fascinating outcomes. (I would willingly have read two dozen versions of the story "Ludo Acquires a New Father.") In its free, graceful engagement with the ideas of the human and natural sciences, The Last Samurai calls to mind the fiction of Enlightenment figures such as Diderot. In form, it recalls a different pre-realist novelistic tradition: it is remarkably like the picaresque, which accumulated narrative episodes ad libitum, and particularly recalls works such as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, a deceptively well-plotted work revolving around the title character's uncertain parentage.
At the conclusion of the novel, Ludo commissions a pianist to make a recording of nothing but variations of a short composition. Some Trick is, like that recording, a catalogue of variations on several themes, most obviously artistic integrity. The unnamed painter in "Brutto" labors over dozens of ugly East German-style dresses after attracting the interest of smooth art world operator Adalberto; before the end of the story she is no longer painting, but collecting jars of her various bodily fluids for a series of prestigious exhibitions. The story warns: "if you have never been there you think it is easy to walk away." The author Peter (no last name given) cannot persuade the dim-witted agent Jim of the promise of working mathematics into fiction, and strikes out on his own; his guiding light will be Andrew Gelman, a famous (and famously scrupulous) Bayesian statistician. The author Eloise, forever reworking her first novel according to the ever-shifting preferences of agents and editors, disappears from the narrative. The Dutch author Peter Dijkstra, a man with fragile mental health and limited social graces, tries to capitalize on American enthusiasm for his work without being destroyed by the crassly economic form this enthusiasm assumes. The author Jaap Bergsma, a master of self-sabotage, nonetheless gets the "crap-free deal" he so desired for his work. The world-famous pianist Morhange, after nearly a decade in the artistic wilderness, saves himself by taming his ego; Pete the rocker walks away from stardom with no regrets; the drummer Keith O'Connor kills himself. The photographer Plantinga, by her studied avoidance of formal training, winds up with both worldly success and a true education.
Any of these stories, read singly, could be taken as a sort of parable about intellectual virtue, or an allegory of DeWitt's own experience as a writer. But taken together, they offer no very firm moral about honest work, and vary widely in tone, pace, and outcome. "Brutto" is an incremental descent into a personal inferno, while "On the Town" is a Panglossian whirlwind. Sometimes the artists are right to stick to their principles, sometimes they are not. Very often, chance simply offers something good or ill. The formal approach of theme and variations, above all, allows DeWitt to explore the role of accidents, chance, and probability in life, with the firm implication that thinking seriously about chance will unsettle common modes of moral reasoning, as well as fictional conventions. If things can turn out many ways, there is not one correct way to tell a story, but a plurality of forms, styles, and outcomes, all interesting and mutually enriching.
The formal approach of theme and variations has another happy result: it is one that appears to admit of further development, perhaps indefinitely. DeWitt has long professed her interest in finding ways to integrate probability and statistics, data visualization, and social science into fiction. Some Trick makes modest, engaging moves in this direction, and readers should take care not to be impressed too early: DeWitt certainly has some more tricks up her sleeve.