Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth

Is Helen DeWitt a genius? Readers familiar with the author’s fiction will not find this question out of line. Genius is a word that comes quickly to the lips of ...

Is Helen DeWitt a genius? Readers familiar with the author’s fiction will not find this question out of line. Genius is a word that comes quickly to the lips of her champions, especially when they discuss her first novel. The Last Samurai, first published in 2000 by Talk Miramax Books and returned to print in 2016 by New Directions, has been called a “singular masterpiece.” It has been described as a “bizarre, bold, brilliant book.” One reviewer, meaning to praise it, has suggested that the novel is a “rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge.” And it is all these things. But the rhetoric of genius sits uncomfortably on the page.

Our culture, to be sure, is hungry for geniuses (especially male ones). We toss around the epithet without much thought. Every day, we mint new geniuses in every domain of human achievement. In Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? one character is, only semi-ironically, described as “a genius at fucking.”1 Our genius hunt can often seem quixotic, an effort to revive an outmoded aesthetic category for an era that has “shattered the aura of the genius’s sanctity,” in the words of the intellectual historian Darrin McMahon.2 At its worst, all our talk of genius becomes indistinguishable from boosterism and marketing speak. We’re constantly calling out new geniuses and then discarding them for newer, shinier models.

And yet, even if we’re uncomfortable with the genius hype machine, and even if we cannot help but be skeptical of the very notion of genius, the question cannot be dismissed in the case of DeWitt. The author is, at the very least, genius-adjacent. Indeed, the great subject of her writing is the possibility—and the conditions of possibility—of genius today. The Last Samurai, for example, tells the story of three generations of prodigy, the first two thwarted and the third, embodied in the child prodigy Ludo, primed to succeed. Schooled by his equally brilliant polyglot mother, Sibylla, Ludo may realize his potential in a way his mother was never able to.

The hero of DeWitt’s second novel, Lightning Rods (2011), is also a sort of genius. Joe, a beleaguered Electrolux salesman, turns his sexual fetishes into a successful business that promises to eliminate sexual harassment from the workplace by bringing sex workers into the office. Discussing Joe’s scheme, which is far more successful than it has any right to be, DeWitt’s narrator observes:

What he [Joe] didn’t realize is that a genius is different from other people. A genius doesn’t waste time like other people. Even when he looks like he is wasting time he may in fact be making the most productive possible use of the time. In fact the only time a genius wastes time is when he tries to follow the rules and act like ordinary people.3

DeWitt’s second novel is, to be sure, a satire of the lunacy of American capitalism, and Joe’s genius is inextricable from his exploitation of his female employees, but DeWitt herself is nothing if not committed to questioning the rules and norms governing “ordinary” life.

In a brief intro to a story in her new collection, Some Trick, DeWitt explains that she wanted to write a story that “shows the way mathematicians think,” and that she observes a “gap between people who see why understanding chance matters and people who just don’t get it—people who don’t see why this is crucial to the most basic questions of ethics.” It’s the no-man’s-land between those who get it and those who don’t, across disciplines and intellectual domains, that seems to be the territory of DeWitt’s art. All of the stories of Some Trick explore some variation of this terrain. Among these 13 amusing, occasionally (yes) brilliant short stories, we again encounter geniuses, mostly artists, whose varied deviations from ordinary life drive a range of fascinating, strange, and lively plots.

There’s a German visual artist who receives recognition not for the work she most values but for work that happens to catch the eye of an aggressive Italian curator. A brilliant author of “robot tales” tries in vain to make his needs as a writer clear to a befuddled “hot shot literary agent.” The story “Climbers” features a serious Dutch novelist, burdened by credit card debt, struggling to convert his cultural capital into any sustainable form of financial remuneration. “On the Town,” meanwhile, seems at first to be about the son of a cult novelist, but the focus quickly shifts to a different genius, one more like Joe from Lightning Rods, an utterly sincere “Boy from Iowa,” Gil, whose genius seems to involve having madcap and well-paid adventures in New York.

Gil is one of DeWitt’s most delightful inventions:

After the film he got to talking to some dudes in the lobby, who invited him back to a party in their loft on Canal Street. In no time at all he was doing lines of cocaine with three investment bankers!!!!!!! Which was exactly why it was worth waiting to see La dolce vita in New York. At the age of 12 Gil had decided not to experiment with drugs, he wanted his first cocaine to be special, he wanted to try cocaine for the first time in New York, and it was definitely worth the wait. Because now, see, it was part of this whole experience of dressing like Bret Easton Ellis, seeing La dolce vita for the first time and going back to a loft to get high with three dudes from Morgan Stanley.

So it goes for Gil—and so it goes for Some Trick as well, which bounces from one oddball to another, many charming, some baffling, all in one way or another brilliant.

These characters (even Gil, who of the characters in the collection is among the more successful at what he does) are cognitively out of synch with the ordinary world. And this mismatch is also the motor of DeWitt’s style. Her approach to scene-setting, storytelling, and point of view deviate from the norms of the MFA and trade publishing world. Some of her paragraphs shred into one-sentence islands. Exclamation marks proliferate. Sentence fragments abound. Snippets of the programming language R appear alongside probability plots. One encounters more footnotes than one might expect. A more than passing familiarity with poststructuralist theory can be helpful. And the stories themselves, which take any number of unexpected twists, often require multiple readings before their full shape or meaning becomes apparent.

Once upon a time, when the mainstream publishing field supported serious experimentalists, we might have called DeWitt a postmodernist. Yet it does not seem right to call her a postmodernist or even an experimentalist in a conventional sense. She isn’t writing the sort of metafiction or magical realism one finds on the pages of novels published by McSweeney’s, isn’t drawn to the sort of autofiction that’s all the rage with our literary Smart Set, and isn’t interested in the slightly askew gritty surrealism of authors such as Nell Zink and Ottessa Moshfegh. Many of these writers wear genius as a badge of distinction, as a social identity or personal brand trumpeted by various—fairly predicable—formal special effects.

DeWitt, by contrast, really does think the novel has something to gain from a substantive encounter with, say, information design or probability theory or Attic Greek. That is, DeWitt is experimental less in how she plays with form and more in terms of the subject matter she imports into contemporary fiction. From this vantage point, if we wanted to call DeWitt a genius, the content of her genius might be found in her rigorous failure to comfortably inhabit her own time.

What might an artist as talented as DeWitt have written in a world made not for profit but for human flourishing?

Indeed, in a recent Los Angeles Review of Books essay in which she discusses her troubles with the publishing industry (a perennial topic of her essays and interviews), DeWitt comments that “I had a hundred-odd unrealized projects immured on my hard drive, projects of which agents had said No Publisher Will Allow, projects that could change the face of 21st-century fiction.” Fans of The Last Samurai will understand her frustration. Who wouldn’t want to read all the novels hidden on her hard drive? (Although, I should say that her self-published novel, Your Name Here, coauthored with the journalist Ilya Gridneff, is her least successful book, though still well worth reading.) It’s easy to imagine how such frustrations might have turned into paralysis or despair. DeWitt might have been trapped by her knowledge that, year after year, her own potential to change the shape of our literature has been thwarted; and one gets the sense that every book she has published has come hard.

In practice, though, she has turned the gap between potential and fulfillment into the content of her art. In many of her stories, it is the mediators of the art world—the agents, the editors, the producers, the curators, each of whom prevent her characters from realizing their potential—who are the primary antagonists. In one story, the author of robot tales mentioned above, Peter, faces a literary agent, Jim, who seems unable to make sense of him. Peter wants the agent to find an editor “with relevant expertise” to edit his second novel, one, for example, “who admired Bertrand Russell.” Jim is less than helpful. In another story, we encounter a band called The Breaks, who have been encouraged by their manager to adapt their older, harder-edged songs to sound more like their more mainstream recent hits. In the story “Stolen Luck,” a poker game between Marc, a freelance journalist, and Keith, a drummer for the band Missing Lynx, opens up onto a doleful meditation on intellectual property law. And in “Brutto,” one of the best stories in the collection, the impossibility of creating art under capitalism plays out in the most mundane way. Paint, it turns out, needs time to dry, and this makes all the difference for the artist:

But if there is a painting that would be dry in a week and another painting that would be dry in six months there is that pressure to paint something that will survive in the time you know you can pay for. So that is the trade-off, the more white you buy the less time you can pay for. So you are always living hand to mouth.

As these examples suggest, the opening question of whether or not DeWitt is a genius has sublated in her fiction into a second, far more interesting question, the question of the mediation of art, the question of how our institutions transform—and damage—the work of the artist. And the initial opposition discussed above, between the ordinary person and the genius, has correspondingly transformed into a different opposition, between those who have settled for the world as it is and those who find the world as it is intolerable. It may well be, DeWitt suggests, that we are all geniuses—wanting only for a good research library and the free time to cultivate our tragically wasted talents.

We are left, at last, with a host of new questions. Is art possible under contemporary capitalism? If so, where can we find fulfilled or fully realized forms of art? If not, what structural and social changes would we need to make to make art possible? What might an artist as talented as DeWitt have written in a world made not for profit but for human flourishing? And how many of the rest of us have been likewise thwarted?

These are not questions for fiction to answer—but for us. Nonetheless, until such time as we can remake the world along more humane lines, we may still feel tempted actually to answer the question with which I began this review. Is Helen DeWitt a genius? On the evidence of Some Trick, the most appropriate answer might be, it’s too soon to tell.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

  1. Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be? (Henry Holt, 2012), p. 197.
  2. Darrin M. McMahon, Divine Fury: A History of Genius (Basic, 2013), p. 231.
  3. Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods (New Directions, 2012), p. 10.
Featured image: Skylight (2014) (detail). Photograph by Martin Fisch / Flickr