Move Your Head and the Picture Changes
- Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt and Ilya Gridneff
helendewitt.com, 580 pp, suggested price $8.00, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 00 000097 2
Some years ago, the novelist David Foster Wallace submitted himself to a long television interview with Charlie Rose, the PBS chat-show host. It was a terrific performance, and in it Wallace talked about why, in much of his work, narrative is split into body-text and footnotes:
There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. And the difficulty about … writing about that reality is that text is very linear and it’s very unified, and … I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disorienting – I mean, you can take the lines and jumble them up and that’s nicely fractured, but nobody’s gonna read it.
Last year, Helen DeWitt posted this passage on paperpools, her blog: it ‘says everything I might have wanted to say about life, the universe, postmodernism and Your Name Here.’ Your Name Here is a 120,000-word novel; DeWitt is one of its authors, the category of authorship itself having been split. (At this point, it might have been appropriate to spin off into a footnote about its other author, Ilya Gridneff, an Australian journalist of Russian origin, born in Sydney in 1979 and currently working in Papua New Guinea for the Australian Associated Press, except that the DeWitt/Gridneff partnership doesn’t do much fracturing with footnotes. Epistolary structure and multiple avatars, yes, scans of original documents, including contracts, because ‘without the contractual details any book is just fogbound Jamesian kitsch,’ but not really footnotes: perhaps because, since it’s an authorship made up of two people, the challenge is to discover how, like Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Don Gately and Hal Incandenza, they might ever be brought together at all.)
In 2000, DeWitt published a first novel called The Last Samurai; it sold a hundred thousand copies in English, was translated into ten languages and turns up on various best-cult-classics lists. But no second novel has been published under her name. Instead, the author has moved from London to New York to Berlin, where she seems to have settled, and from where she has, over the past couple of years, relaunched as DeWitt 2.0, blogger, e-smallholder and co-author of Your Name Here – finished about a year ago but so far without a publisher.
A few months ago, Your Name Here was extracted in the New York journal n+1. To see it was like catching a flicker of the future on one of those move-your-head-and-the-picture-changes bendy cards. It begins ‘up in the air, literally’: travellers on an aeroplane are settling down to read their books. Each is addressed in the narrative as ‘you’ and each has bought a different three-for-two airport paperback – one has Pity the Nation, another has Harry Potter, another has Dan Brown. But the texts keep morphing into Arabic in front of the readers’ eyes:
‘All the travellers’ books, to their great consternation, are intruded upon by the Arabic language,’ the n+1 editors helpfully point out in a note. ‘A reminder of the supposedly “terroristic” world out there, for which “entertainment” is supposed to be a means of denial and escape.’ Is it a threat, though, or a promise? Mightn’t it be that these alien word-forms are only trying to help?
Straight after the shock of seeing those pages – like the writing on Belshazzar’s wall – I was on Amazon, buying a cheap copy of The Last Samurai. And straight after that, I started following the blog, on which DeWitt posts on such topics as linguistics and transliteration software, irritation with publishers, ‘Arabic verbs of vague application’, how she recently transported all her books to Berlin. There’s also a PayPal button by which you can ‘donate’ $1.15 to her when you buy The Last Samurai second-hand, thus paying the author roughly the same as she would get in royalties from a book sold new. ‘The norm in traditional publishing is for a second-hand book … to bring no financial benefit to the author – the book may have saved the reader from suicide, but there’s no mechanism for the reader to acknowledge the person who made this possible.’ Suicide, pro and contra, is a big theme in The Last Samurai, so this is not as melodramatic a thought as it may appear.
The novel starts in the voice of a woman called Sibylla, a young American living in London who wants to tell us, in a voice that is brainy and prickly but enchantingly funny and clear, the story of her education. Her father, it seems, won a full scholarship to Harvard but let himself be tricked into giving it up; she herself sneaked her way onto a Classics degree at Oxford, only to find herself defeated by the sterility of academic work. She wants to tell us about the job she got after that, and the party she went to, and the awful writer she slept with, mainly to shut him up. She wants to tell us why she likes living in London (something to do with Carling Black Label ads and the way the signs on British fast-food outlets mimic KFC). She’s been reading Schoenberg and wants to tell us about her vision of literature in the future: ‘Perhaps a writer would think of the monosyllables and lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese, and of how this would sound next to lovely long Finnish words all double letters & long vowels in 14 cases.’ Fatally, she finds herself discussing with the terrible writer her dream of an airport-paperback Rosetta Stone: there should be a law obliging publishers to furnish all new books with ‘say, a page of Sophocles or Homer in the original with appropriate marginalia bound into the binding’; it would be a gift to posterity, a second chance for people put off ancient languages at school, something to stow in your carry-on in case you crash on a desert island and find yourself in need of something to
WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?
But something, or somebody, keeps interrupting her flow.
WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?
It’s her small son, Ludo, the unexpected issue of the sex with the appalling writer, to support whom she now labours day and night, working at home tagging text for the online versions of hobby magazines. She started teaching him to read at two, with flashcards and Dr Seuss (‘I thought that this would be an enormous help to L for very little trouble to myself’); then, when the child starts gobbling through it, moves him on to algebra, Hebrew, French, anything she can pick off her bookshelf that might furnish pester-diversion and buy her a little peace. Then she reads in a newspaper that it is ‘essential’ for ‘the single mother’ to provide a son with ‘male role-models’. What to do? Clearly this cannot be Ludo’s father, whom she despises so much she refuses to reveal his identity, calling him ‘Liberace’ in recognition of his ‘terrible facility’ and ‘terrible sincerity’, his appalling talent for throwing out ‘logical fallacies like tacks behind a getaway car’. As a substitute she gets The Seven Samurai on video, and together mother and son contemplate what is essential to male heroism while practising their Japanese.
Page 195 out of 530 and everything changes. Ludo is six, speaking for himself, and desperate to know the identity of his father. His mother won’t budge, so eventually at 11 he embarks on the search himself, a search defined not by biological parenthood, but by Kurosawa’s – which is to say Ludo’s, which is to say DeWitt’s – ideas about what might constitute the good-enough man. A couple of travel writers are tested; one is easily pleased with himself, the other suicidal. There’s a gambler, a concert pianist, a self-immolating artist, an anthropological linguist, a Nobel Prize-winning astronomer. The world of the novel, previously so narrow and skittery and badly lit – the world of a depressed, frustrated woman stuck to her computer screen – opens out to take in Chad, Central Asia, the Amazon. Brains, courage, integrity, self-discipline: which can and can’t we expect of the samurai these days, and would even these qualities be enough? Where, in our enmeshed age, can the threatened ‘village’ of Kurosawa’s film be said to start and stop? The narrative appears to support quite old-fashionedly heroic answers to this, though the surrounding apparatus floats something more complicated. The dedication is to Ann Cotton, the founder of CamFed, a charity that supports the education of girls in sub-Saharan Africa, as a note explains – so never mind Oxford or Harvard.
To read The Last Samurai for the first time is to experience an odd mix of emotions. With its kanji and its carbon dating, it seems so new and at the same time so ancient. It’s like plunging forward, forward, back, back, back, to swim once more in the warm sea of Ulysses and the Cantos – imagine what Joyce or Pound would do with the internet! Imagine what the internet might have done to them! And yet, that bliss is accompanied by something sadder. As Ludo grows ever more daring, competent, articulate, we watch his mother seem to shrivel, exhausted and emptied, ready to die, she thinks; and the narrative diminishes with her, speeding up and thinning out, faster and faster, thinner and thinner. It’s as if the form of the novel were miming the energy that is being transferred from the mother to the son. Which is to say, while The Last Samurai reads like one of those ambitious, arrogant works of Modernism with designs on becoming a reader’s hotlink to the universal, an open university of the airport bookstalls, a foldaway Rosetta Stone, there is also a sense throughout of limitation, of a losing struggle, with time and/or funds and/ or stamina running out. While no serious artist ever wants gender or class or any other contingency or circumstance adduced as any sort of an excuse for anything, it’s also a fact that The Last Samurai is a novel in which we witness
WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?
the captivating sibylline voice continually interrupted by that of the demanding little boy, who must have food and heating and clothes and love – not easy when you have no one to support you, replenishing your own supply – and schooling and skateboards and role-models and endless books.
DeWitt was born in 1957, so was in her early forties when The Last Samurai came out. Before that, in the would-be dazzling dizziness of blurbspeak:
Daughter of an American diplomat, Helen DeWitt grew up in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador … She started a degree at Smith College and dropped out twice, the first time to read Proust and Eliot while working as a chambermaid, the second time to take the Oxford entrance exam … In 1988 she started her first novel. Over the next decade she started work on around fifty others.
Readers impressed by those ‘around fifty’ novels may be interested to note that she has recently started referring to The Last Samurai as ‘Opus 101’.
In 2003, DeWitt signed a two-book deal with Talk-Miramax in the US. But then Miramax went pear-shaped and DeWitt found herself stranded, under contract but without a champion. The rights for one completed book have only recently reverted to the author; work on the other one collapsed. In 2004, it was reported that the ‘acclaimed author’ had disappeared after sending an email to friends threatening suicide. DeWitt disputes this story: she says there was only one email, to a lawyer, with instructions for the disposal of her body, then one more when she changed her mind. In 2006 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to work on a project she calls ‘Invisibilities’, ‘an attempt to attack … textual and intellectual segregation … accompanied by a website, making possible a more thorough introduction to Arabic and Hebrew texts, to the powerful graphics of the statistical program R, and to other material than is consistent with the formal requirements of a novel’. The beginnings of such a project are among the resources available on helendewitt.com.
Back in 2003, however, when things were beginning to go wrong, DeWitt met Ilya Gridneff in an organic pub in East London: well-read, funny, swashbuckling and drunk as a skunk. A version of what happened next forms the spine of Your Name Here:
Got an email a month later, anarchic, obscene, insanely funny … Gridneff was in London upstaging the BAs formerly known as Y … he was in Cairo chasing Angelina Jolie for the National Enquirer. He was in Berlin chasing Britney Spears for some other rag. He was reading Deleuze, DeLillo, Burroughs, Bukowski, Houellebecq. He used his tabloid money to go off to the Middle East, wandering around Iran in search of pharmaceuticals with a dodgy phrasebook: ‘Give me painkillers, the strongest you have.’ Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Kurdistan, Iraq (not necessarily in that order), Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, the who what where why when remains unjournalistically unclear.
It took DeWitt some time to reply, but when she did, the pair of them began an email correspondence. They are not, on the surface, compatible: he is a tabloid fixer and party animal, an imbiber and ingester; she is a solitary intellectual, weaving quietly at her website, batting away unwanted phone-calls, signing her tagline, Ithaca, on her blog. But that, to begin with, was what she liked about him: ‘It was like the world of Fellini, that sordid glamorous world in the rubble of a dead empire, it’s like nothing she knows.’ She wants to help him, this talented young writer, and in helping him, perhaps she is hoping to help herself; ‘I think I’ve discovered the next Hunter Thompson,’ she writes to her publisher – the tone is bigged-up, swaggering, grandiose.
And so, she has her brainwave. They talk a lot about movies, and they both like movies (8½, Charlie Kaufman) in which an apparent impasse is solved by a recursive turn: ‘I love The Sweet Smell of Success. I love Malkovich in Les Liaisons dangereuses. I love Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich; I love Adaptation. Brilliant idea! We could write a book about this! We could write a book about writing a book about this! Bad idea …’ In a way, Your Name Here is simply a scrapbook, attesting to an odd, tense friendship, told through emails, avatars, fictional fragments, with the lack of conventional coherence compensated for by beautiful images, grabbed from the internet, of ‘Felliniesque … sordid glamour’ – Mastroianni and Ekberg, Mastroianni and cigarette, Adorno on YouTube talking about Beckett’s ‘deformed subject’. Gridneff’s avatars have a series of joke-Russian names (Alyosha Pechorin, Alexander Chatsky, Misha Kropotkin), and they all write much the same sort of emails. DeWitt sticks mainly to Rachel Zozanian, the prodigious but damaged author of a surprise bestselling novel called Lotteryland. Lotteryland itself features regularly, a Big-Brother-Blair-type satire in which ‘lucks’ are distributed by Lottomonitor, a cross between a home computer and a junkified I-Ching. And there’s a fictional memoir, of Rachel’s Oxford days in the late 1990s: the undergraduate body, after the abolition of the student grant, is visualised as engaging in a squalid carnival of desperate money-making schemes – phone sex, online poker, scratchcards, working, as Rachel does, as a prostitute in a Black Watch kilt.
The best and funniest ideas in the book involve the duo’s plans for diffusing Arabic throughout the notoriously obdurate medium of English-language culture – putting handy words and phrases, such as ‘Please’, ‘Don’t kill me,’ ‘I am a mother,’ in an Arabic-enhanced edition of The Accidental Tourist. Readers, DeWitt has noticed, will happily expend energy on things with which they feel a fantasy connection – she uses Tolkien as her main example – and so the writer, she decides, must become ‘an alter-Tolkien, creating desire for the languages of the Middle East rather than Middle Earth’, spreading knowledge of real-world languages, peoples, conflicts, instead of narcotising stodge about elves. Imagine a world in which every scholar of Elvish could follow Arabic as well: ‘Whatever events of terror might have been committed in that possible world, it’s unlikely that interrogators in it would be holding people in Guantánamo Bay four years after the event for want of competent Arabists to interrogate them.’ Not for the first time, DeWitt’s pedagogical daydreams lead to questions of fundamental human rights.
Following the example of Omar Sharif, who apparently taught himself bridge between takes because he found film-acting so boring, DeWitt and Gridneff cook up a plan to get A-list stars working through a Hollywood guide to Arabic. You start by learning vowel sounds via Arabic approximations of ‘Nicole’, ‘Tom’, ‘Thurman’, ‘Yoko’,
which enables one to segue smoothly, surely, into a sample verb. Which in turn enables one to segue … to the variations on three-letter core meaning which are the key to the elegance of the language. KiTaaB book, JiHaaD holy war, QiTaaL, struggle; KaaTiB writer, QaaTiL murderer, TaaLiB seeker; muKaTiB reporter, muJaHiD, holy warrior; maKTuuB thing written, letter, maJHuuD, endeavour, maTLuuB, wanted, sought (in classified ads).
‘In the world as we know it,’ the authors add, ‘the fact that you can now read more Arabic than 11,967 FBI agents is worrying.’ Indeed.
There are, however, ‘gnats in the Coppertone’, as Your Name Here puts it, and as David Foster Wallace acknowledged in his remarks about splitting text. By choosing not to impose a traditional artificial finish on the ‘reality’ you see around you, you risk giving up on one of the main art-carrots: how the hell can anyone, reader or writer, get through a book without a clear narrative line? And you can stick in an aesthetic-ethical quagmire. How will you know if the incoherence you are rendering is real, valid, accurate, necessary, or a mere artefact of your own ignorance or self-absorption? Throw out, by all means, the phoney warmth and sentimentality – the shellacked mystery, the Vaseline on the lens, of that ‘fogbound Jamesian kitsch’. How can you be sure, though, that what you are left with is not merely charmless and cold?
The Arabic apart, Your Name Here does not have the clarity and exuberance of The Last Samurai. ‘I think this is really part of something larger, the sale of souls,’ Rachel writes in an email to Misha Kropotkin, and she’s right. Although the book may appear, to begin with, to be plotless, it turns out to be tightly organised: a Godard-like enfilade of shaftings, a frontispiece-of-Leviathan-type portrait of the world as a great ‘Biz’ made up of millions of little bizzes, ‘a book-within-a-book-within-a-book-within-a and you … the minimost perestroikist in a nest of Gorbidolls’. I’ve read it three times now, and some of the patterns are clear to me, and there are others I sense but don’t quite get – partly because bits of it don’t work. Gridneff’s emails, for example, cause problems. The communication that starts DeWitt on her quest is written from London, in which ‘the past three days have been wrecked. Drunk karaoke on Thursday night in abject Dalston Chinese restaurant, the prawns, pork rolls, beer and in the style of Tina Turner, me grabbing the mic and singing led zepplin, guns and roses sweet child o mine.’ On he goes on his knock-off bicycle, throwing houmous at a branch of Blockbuster Video ‘for ruining film and colonising cinema’, posting his half-eaten Turkish flatbread into the late-video-return slot. You can see why DeWitt was excited: the writing is delightfully shameless, dishevelled and dissolute; globalised and pornified and digitised somehow, bit after bit after bit. He mails, a little later, from Iraq:
It didn’t start too well at the border … I rushed through a police line nearly causing them to draw weapons – too lazy to shoot and my clown-like shouts of ‘toilet toilet’ and no doubt the extreme look of terror on my face – after local water drunk due to that special kind of forced local kindness led to a rapid digestive process if not immediately dealt with post haste a suicide bowel bomber, think body without organs, would be on their hands … and feet-face etc etc.
So yes, DeWitt is right to think that Gridneff gives terrific email – and yet, they’re just emails. The writing is great, but it’s unchecked, unstructured, unsustained. As well as calling him ‘the new Hunter Thompson’, Rachel reminds her ex-publisher that ‘Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored whatever whatever was basically a stream-of-consciousness letter that Wolfe sent to his editor at Esquire’ (an anecdote that serves mainly to remind one how far away those bogroll-in-the-typewriter days of Beat/Gonzo legend now seem, and how very much one doesn’t want to go back there). Besides which, Thompson had a team of editors dedicated to crafting essay-like forms from his rants and torrents. Would any publisher nowadays bother giving such support to a writer who – unlike, say, the not-entirely-on-a-different-wavelength Russell Brand – has not already been organised as a living logo, down to his very name?
When I stumbled on Your Name Here for sale on DeWitt’s website, I emailed to check that she considered the text published, and so up for review. She replied to me that it was. But she also mentioned dealings with a literary agent who felt that it might yet be sold in a different form, as ‘essentially a postmodern Bell Jar’; citing Barthes, she said that since the text had already been through many versions, she could not see why it should not go through many more. The idea of the text as open to endless revision, never finished but only abandoned, as Auden put it, is not new. What is new is that with web publication, it becomes as easy as a couple of keystrokes to put into practice, opening – as has already become clear with the advent of MySpace and Second Life – unexpected dimensions to the familiar questions of privacy and publicity, concerning intimacy and vulnerability, self-awareness and self-defence. DeWitt and Gridneff are not daft teens posing in their underwear, but there are other ways in which the boundary between personal and public discourse can get disturbingly confused.
DeWitt has many reasons to mistrust publishers. Many writers do. And yet at the same time they know they rely on them, for income if nothing else. It is a relation of mistrust and dependence; of resentment, in other words. Some of Rachel’s sections have the attenuated, brittle feel of not-entirely-worked-through personal pain, and several are a vent against the ‘Biz’ of writing for a living: the crap deals, the loneliness and depression, the slippery publishers and ‘betazoidal’ agents and so on. Most writers think such thoughts, and for valid reasons, but they are not interesting to most readers, for equally valid reasons, and have a way of appearing disproportionate when given shape on a page.
Writers would not so resent publishers if the relationship were only about royalties and advances; but it’s also about deep and terrible emotions, to do with acceptability and rejection and the awful impossibility of ever getting it right. Most writers know the horror of the impending deadline, the jointed mechanical hand reaching out to snatch away one’s poor tender little creature, submitting it to the flaying eye of critical judgment, the swirling knives of the marketplace, the blunted machete of the consensus view. ‘It’s bad, very bad to deal with the biz, but it has to be done,’ as Your Name Here has it; and ‘it has to be done’ because, until very recently, tradition and expediency have deemed the work not in the world until the jointed hand has done its abominable work. Publication is unavoidably painful, and not just because the ‘Biz’ may be cloth-eared and exploitative and dumb. By self-publishing, is DeWitt trying to avoid that excruciation? And what does that avoidance do to the work?
To follow DeWitt’s adventures on her website is to experience blogging as an art-form, arranged sculpturally by the author, but given life only when you, the reader, pick a route. One day fiction might be as elegant and responsive, with maybe audial maybe visual maybe verbal branches, lovely sweeps of information waving and pulsing with the movement of the author’s mind, so close, so direct, so touching, you feel them brush against your cheek. Except that, once you really take that to heart, it’s difficult to see much point in continuing with novels at all, or not as we know them.
Your Name Here is a novel that doesn’t really believe in novels; that is harsh and bleak and weirdly proportioned; that talks about the readers of Anne Tyler and other perfectly decent authors as ‘ostriches’; that dismisses most contemporary fiction. You, on the other hand, are a reader committed to the art of fiction. Do you really need to go to DeWitt’s website and fork out $8 to buy what even a sympathetic reviewer makes sound like a stressful slog?
Writing in this paper about Oblivion, David Foster Wallace’s most recent collection of short stories, Wyatt Mason complained that although he found in it ‘a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value’, the book exhibits ‘a fundamental rhetorical failure’. You have to work a little at putting stories together from their fragmented state; Mason describes this as making ‘unreasonable demands’ of readers:
Wallace has the right to write a great book that no one can read except people like him. I flatter myself to think that I am one of them, but I haven’t any idea how to convince you that you should be, too; nor, clearly, does Wallace. And it might not be the worst thing in the world, next time out … were he to dig deeper, search longer, and find a more generous way to make his feelings known.
Perhaps because its form is more broken and non-text-based, perhaps because so much of their subject is economic desperation, DeWitt and Gridneff’s work shows up the fallacy in Mason’s argument even more clearly than Wallace’s writing. Generosity has nothing to do with it. Writers only ever get one choice, really, about what they write. Either you give in before you’ve even started and write to some fantasy of ‘the market’, or you go flat out, trying to say something useful about the world as it appears to you. Among the fascinating, touching, tragic, funny or otherwise worthy-of-consideration new ‘human objects’ contained in Your Name Here: the superfluous (wo)man in the age of Wikipedia; celebrities (yet again); global-blackspot tourism, as indulged in by the world’s ambitious and privileged young; security of information, in a world with no shortage of disaffected temporary workers and failed states; the systemic decline in humanities education, down to which books Penguin publishes as cheap classics, since the abolition of the student grant; that weird neurotic fear, post-9/11, in the English-language media, that ‘we’ are being watched and judged and accordingly branded by aliens who conduct their peculiar writing from right to left. And lots of other things – and also, something else.
In her review of The Last Samurai, A.S. Byatt noticed a ‘curious thing’: ‘Though it is the ideas that drive the [novel] … the characters are more human, more simply important to the reader, than in many finely constructed, primarily psychological studies.’ This paradox will be familiar to readers who enjoy complicated Modernist novels: the effort the reader has to put into her engagement transfers itself into a flood of the warmest fellow-feeling for the struggles of the characters – and for the authors, and for the books themselves. You simply don’t feel that way about things that try to be obliging. And so, with art as in life, it seems, the relationships that are the most rewarding turn out to be the ones into which you’ve sunk most work.