Helen DeWitt Day At LARB

Today the Los Angeles Review of Books publishes my review of Helen DeWitt’s novel Lightning Rods, plus a very strong review by Lee Konstantinou and Konstantinou’s absolutely demented interview with DeWitt that is a must-read.

I think Konstantinou makes some very insightful points in his review, but I have one area of strong disagreement. Toward the end he laments:

DeWitt’s use of cliché points, too, to the novel’s main weakness. If Lighting Rods is about selling the unsellable, if it’s about the deranged genius of American capitalism, DeWitt’s style grates against her theme. What the history of entrepreneurship shows, if nothing else, is how very appealing, how very sociable, how willing to speak in vernacular, the new is, how very opposed to cliché and cant the true innovator is. DeWitt makes a common mistake, conflating the creatively destructive entrepreneur and the corporate bureaucrat that the entrepreneur wants to destroy. The Steve Jobses of the world not only know the language of cool but are thoroughly ideologically committed to destroying stale conventions. In our world, Joe would hate cliché.

Konstantinou is of course completely correct that the truly new never speaks in cliche, but I regard it as a misreading of Lightning Rods to view its principle inventor, Joe, as a force representing the new. Joe, who invents the “Lightning Rods” enterprise, speaks in cliche because his work is in fact not new. It merely seeks to uphold the social order that he succeeds so magnificently within. As I write:

In The Last Samurai DeWitt showed a strong interest in notions of normalcy and its opposite, and this is a theme that occupies a central place in Lightning Rods. With Joe, she seems to be asking, What inspires someone to go beyond the normal?, as well as, Can hard work alone ever really get you there? “All I want is to be a success,” Joe reflects, but is even a multi-billionaire who triumphs by the rules of capitalistic logic anything more than a steroidal embodiment of normalcy? Pursuing this question, DeWitt pays close attention to desire’s inspirational role in a capitalistic society. For average-joes like Joe, a desire for wealth, sexy women, and, above all, respect are the strongest motivational forces possible. DeWitt is terrific at differentiating these various forms of desire, as well as showing how they, and not notions of career or social good, really drive our economy. Yet aren’t these desires merely average? DeWitt is ever mindful that most people work their hearts out on their “third of fourth or fifth choice because there just isn’t any money in their first choice.” The implication drawn across Last Samurai and Lightning Rods is that the truly different — those who really change society — manage to hold out for that first choice.

And that notion of “holding out for one’s first choice” moves us perfectly into DeWitt’s interview:

I spent nine years in Oxford (B.A., D.Phil., JRF), then decided I could not face the enforced specialization of academia. Spent seven years working on various novels, trying to combine this with various jobs. In 1995 I decided this must stop. I had 100 novels in fragments, including a 300-page single-spaced MS with terrible structural problems. I quit my job: I would write till money ran out. Had terrible argument with my father, could not deal with this big difficult book. Thought: We don’t pick our parents. If we could choose, I would have picked someone better than this. Thought: OK. I can’t work on this book. I will write a novel with a simple structure that can be FINISHED. I will set aside a month and write with NO INTERRUPTIONS. (Story: Son of single mother, obsessed with Seven Samurai, goes in search of better father than the one fate provided.)

Did a lot of research, started writing in September 1995 with NO INTERRUPTIONS. Wrote very fast. Chapter about a gambler in 2 days, chapter about a painter in 3. Looked at these pieces of paper which had been blank only days before; thought: This is the real thing. But the book was not finished in a month, I was about to run out of money, had to do freelance secretarial work. (Was desperate to finish the book and get back to the 300-page monster.)

A lawyer in my office saw two chapters, thought they were brilliant. His wife wanted to option them for a film. Introduced me to an agent, Stephanie Cabot . . .



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I enjoyed your review, Scott, though I’m not convinced to abandon my critique of LR. Though LR is shot through with irony, I take Joe’s creatively destructive “genius” at face value. The book is much funnier, in my view, if Joe’s Lightning Rod business genuinely “adds value” for his clients. The ultimate effect of Joe’s innovation could be taken, as you argue, to be fundamentally conservative–in the sense that it treats the symptoms of a problem it purports to “cure”–but the same could be said of lots of creatively destructive technological innovations.

Ms DeWitt is continuing her seemingly lifelong vocation of touring whatever library is available, inhaling then regurgitating esoteric tidbits of knowledge, then moving on to the next subject. Soon she will exhaust the Dewey Decimal System. It seems she has now embraced the computer and the Internet. What can be next?

It is a shame than she has not been able to actually DO anything with all of this erudition. She studies. She writes papers. She earns degrees. She writes novels that are somehow a continuation of the preceding processes.

There is a lot of telling, but no showing. You need characters, a story, and some actual living to have something worth showing…

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