Based on the evidence of the first section we’re reading of The Last Samurai, I think it’s fair to say that Helen DeWitt likes to layer her works in the best tradition of the postmodernists. Already, I’ve noticed a number of themes that she has returned to in various ways again and again: the role of chance in life, the likeness of writing (particularly grammar) to other forms of art, blocked geniuses, cultural literacy, and parents and children. All of these pop up in at least two distinct threads from the first 84 pages, and most of them more. This kind of layering/concatenation strikes me as central to the styles and world-view of postmodernists like Wallace, DeLillo, and Pynchon, and I see it very much in evidence in DeWitt. It even happens on a phrase level, as in “anxious to seem anxious to please,”  which is very reminiscent of Wallace in particular, who used similar effects to continually point out the self-consciousness of even supposedly sincere personality tics.
To exemplify the chance theme, I’d like to quote a bit of text that reminded me very much of one of my favorite postmodern romps of 2010, Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference. While reflecting on the role that just one book has played in shaping the narrator’s life, she tells us:
There are 60 million people in Britain. There are 200 million in America. (Can that be right?) How many millions of English-speakers other nations might add to the total I cannot even guess. I would be willing to bet, though, that in all those hundreds of millions not more than 50, at the outside, have read A. Roemer, Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik (Leipzig, 1912), a work untranslated from its native German and destined to remain so till the end of time. 
Now here’s Aira:
An intellectual’s uniqueness can be established by examining their combined readings. How many people can there be in the world who have read these two books: The Philosophy of Life Experience by A. Bogdanov, and Faust by Estanislao del Campo? Let us put aside, for the moment, any reﬂections these books might have provoked, how they resonated or were assimilated, all of which would necessarily be personal and nontransferable. Let us instead turn to the raw facts of the two books themselves. The concurrence of both in one reader is improbable, in as far as they belong to two distant cultural environments and neither belongs to the canon of universal classics. Even so, it is possible that one or two dozen intellectuals across a wide swathe of time and space might have taken in this twin nourishment. As soon as we add a third book, however, let us say La Poussière de soleil by Raymond Roussel, that number becomes drastically reduced. If it is not “one” (that is, I), it will come very close. Perhaps it is “two,” and I would have good reason to call the other “mon semblable, mon frère.” One more book, a fourth, and I could be absolutely certain of my solitude.
At heart, these are both statements about solitude and chance, as well as perhaps how the books we read come to define us.
If you’re reading along, you know that the narrator’s thoughts about Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik are all part of a chain of causation that she traces down to the birth of her son, who appears to be a genius. (At six, he reads Greek, among other languages, and is learning Japanese.) He’s far from the only genius here: the narrator’s father appears to have been one, the narrator might be one, and there are plenty from history: Mozart, Chopin, Schoenberg, just to name a few. It is certainly not lost on the narrator that many of these people saw their genius blocked: Mozart died at 35, Schoenberg never had the means to finish his great opera, Moses und Aron, her father wasted a chance to go to Harvard 15 and ended up owning a motel. One already suspects that the narrator tries too hard not to block the genius in her own son.
To pause on geniuses for a moment here, since it seems to be such a prominent part of the book, The Last Samurai seems to be cultivating a sort of discussion of the variety of geniuses. For instance, in the midst of a long discussion of a writer of distinction (never named), the narrator calls him a “stupid virtuoso,”  among many other things, as she tries to define the exact quality of his particular genius with words. The Last Samurai seems to be a book obsessed with genius in the many different forms that it can take.
If you’re reading along, you’ve no doubt noticed by now that DeWitt likes to use odd constructions and to break up her sentences in haphazard ways. Part of this is very much in keeping with the story itself, as one lengthy section includes about 3 separate threads–the narrator’s attempts at adult thoughts, her son’s continual distractions, the film Seven Samurai, playing in the background–all of which keep interrupting one another. This kind of functional fragmentation strikes me as very useful–it’s innovative/experimental writing in service of communicating something real about the times this book is trying to evoke, instead of simply for obfuscation’s sake. I like it so far.
In addition to the kind of formal narration in parallel I mentioned above, which can get quite complex at times though not overwhelming, DeWitt also gives us sentences like this:
Only the pen of Lord Leighton the writer could do justice to the brush of Lord Leighton the painter, for just so did Lord Leighton (the writer) bring the most agitated emotions to an airless to a hushed to an unhurried while each word took on because there was all the time in the world for each word to take on the bloom which only a great Master can give to a word using his time to allow all unseemly energy to become aware of its nakedness and snatch gratefully . . . 
Interestingly, although it feels like there are definitely words and punctuation marks missing in that sentence, the whole thing hangs together cognitively: I feel like more or less understand what the narrator’s trying to communicate.
So some questions:
What do you think of this style so far? Are you enjoying it? Does it feel too fractured? Does it feel suitable to the narrative and themes that are being unfolded here?
Are you liking the story? (I didn’t comment on this above, but I found the book a very engaging read so far, pure on a level of plot.)
What other themes, layerings, etc are you noticing so far?
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