Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt

The Last Samurai Helen DeWittIf we lived in a better, more literate society, I would not have to preface this post with the caveat, "This book has nothing whatsoever to do with the execrable Tom Cruise film."

Sometimes I find myself caught in a moment of naive optimism when it comes to these same-title-different-works things. When I saw a poster for 2005's milquetoast Michael Keaton horror film "White Noise," my first thought was, "I wonder how they're going to film the Airborne Toxic Event." Looking at the poster again, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. But then again, how would you design a movie poster for a DeLillo novel?

You would think I would have learned, though, after "Underworld" turned out to be about werewolves or something and not J. Edgar Hoover, B-52 installation art and Bobby Thomson.

At any rate, Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai is, as I've said, not in any way related to Tom Cruise. However, it is in many ways related to Don DeLillo. It shares with his novels many of the traits which have been identified with (and, I think, consolidated around) the aesthetic James Wood notoriously dubbed "hysterical realism."

In DeWitt's novel, information is a pervasive, animating presence, operating inside the novel with a character's force and function—namely, to move the plot along by virtue of its qualities and its quirks. Plot details and characterizations do not defy realism or possibility, but rather dangle off the outer edges of plausibility and persuasiveness. And they do so not in a challenging way, but with an affable degree of condescension; the bounds of realism are not expanded; they are jocularly nudged.

More importantly, density of feeling is avoided—not intensity, which is intermittently present, but density, which is flattened into thinner sheets when it threatens to consolidate. Emotions are displayed as complex in the novel, but they are simplified in the reader; emotional calibrations are meant to be challenges for the characters, but not for the readers.


Geez, I'm ripping on this novel as if I loathed the time I spent reading it. Not true! I enjoyed it a lot, and would unreservedly recommend it. Why? Well, here's the rub: The Last Samurai, and most other hysterical realist novels, are books for people who enjoy enjoying books. This type of novel gives the reader lots to do, and many different types of things to enjoy. It gives the reader exactly what they want—the knowledge that they are enjoying the book as they are reading it. Not the story, not the characters, not the jokes or the emotions or the constitutive ideas or themes of the book, but the book itself—and not the material book, but the idea of the book, the idea of the book as a whole entity, to be enjoyed.

It is puritanical and perhaps a little daft to say that this is a bad thing (although clearly too much of it is a bad thing), but I do not believe Wood is saying that it is a bad thing to have books like this existing in our literary ecosystem. I believe what he has always decried about this type of book is the type of writer it creates—a writer of hysterical fiction. Yes, he's saying that a book like White Teeth is inferior to a book like Moby-Dick, but that's not really contested, is it? What Wood's point in critiquing the genre was—and subconsciously, his critics have picked up on it, for this is precisely what enrages them—that Zadie Smith is (or was) less of a writer than she could be because she uses these hysterical realist strategies only when she's evading something in her novel that might be harder and more real, more dense, than she wants to handle in the text. That is not to say that there is nothing hard or real or dense in White Teeth, but that what is any of those things is permitted (and sometimes even wedged) in, while many other of these things which might be there are dropped or sidestepped.

I do not believe there are very many cases of sidestepping in The Last Samurai—mostly because DeWitt is skillful in not requiring very many. The novel and its characters are so competently generated and fitted together that no moment threatens to disturb their smooth working order. The Last Samurai is a tremendous example of what hysterical realism can be about and do, and it is an extraordinary achievement for the author. I say that not because I believe DeWitt to be incapable of doing something other than what she has done, but because it is clearly so incredibly difficult to do what she has done well.

I didn't end up talking about the things I had intended to discuss, so I may post again tomorrow with those thoughts.


Lyz said...

Okay. Now that you've read that book read "Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close", and you tell me that the two books are not related. Its hard to just love Jonathan Safran Foer when I am constantly struck by how unoriginal he is.

Lyz said...

Also, I completely disagree about Zadie Smith being less of a writer because of the "hysterical reality" strategies she employs. I absolutely don't think it is an evasion strategy, I think it actually ingeniously complicates the novel and adds layers. But I think this way of writing is more Eastern European and not quite a part of our American literary heritage. But look at Gogol, look at the short stories of Chekov and Tolstoy--this way of pushing the boundaries of reality is very provocative. And just for the record, the dialogue in The Last Samurai is one of the things I love best about the novel.

Andrew said...

O I know JSF is painfully derivative--do I really have to read IL&EC to verify?

As for Zadie Smith--don't get me wrong--I like her work a lot. But I think I liked On Beauty (or parts of it, at least) more than I liked White Teeth, mostly because I thought she dealt with her characters in a much more interesting way. I felt the characters of White Teeth were written, for the most part, in such a way that their actions seemed like summations of the things Smith told you about them. Even if they did surprising things, they did so because they were drawn as surprising people. I felt that in On Beauty, there was more indirectness to the way she told you things about the characters, so that when they did something (especially something important or surprising), their characterizations seemed to crystallize around that action, rather than to produce it.

You make a very provocative point, though, about an Eastern European element/origin. I haven't really thought much about that, though it's obvious how much Kundera has influenced a lot of the younger writers who might be called hysterical realists.

At any rate, I'm really glad you're commenting--and reading!

Lyz said...

I had the completely opposite reaction to Smith. I thought On Beauty was too much like White Teeth, except with less original characters (the lecherous professor, the hot girl with the daddy complex, the big soulful mother, etc.) and they didn't seem to surprise me. In White Teeth her characters seemed to be more fully rounded and more engaging, and I don't really understand what you mean about their character not producing action, the whole culmination of the book is a result of the essence of the characters. But I'll think more on that.

I studied Russian in undergrad so Eastern Europe is kinda my thing. But thanks. I like your blog, its what I wish mine was. Except I get so enamored with telling dumb stories I forget to be smart. Oh well, the story of my life :)