In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Move Your Head and the Picture ChangesJenny Turner

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Vol. 30 No. 17 · 11 September 2008

Move Your Head and the Picture Changes

Jenny Turner

Your Name Here 
by Helen DeWitt and Ilya Gridneff., 580 pp., £8, May 2008
Show More
Show More

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:

انجيلينا   Angelina
بانانا   Banana
تيتيكاكا   Titicaca

‘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


But something, or somebody, keeps interrupting her flow.


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


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

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 (, 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.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 30 No. 18 · 25 September 2008

I agree with Jenny Turner that an argument of mine that appears in her review of Helen DeWitt’s new novel is fallacious, but only in the misleading context in which she presents it (LRB, 11 September). When I wrote that David Foster Wallace was ‘making unreasonable demands’ in my article on his collection Oblivion for this paper, the phrase appeared in a rhetorical question given to an imagined reader who was misreading Wallace’s stories due to their difficulty – as good reviewers have done and as my essay documents. What’s more, the question of difficulty that prevailed over my essay was a response to Wallace’s rather extensively documented ambivalence, throughout his career, about the tension between fiction that ‘forces you to work hard to access its pleasures’ and a commercial-art culture that has ‘trained’ readers to be ‘sort of lazy and childish’ in their expectations.

In the context of what Wallace is on record as wanting fiction to do (‘to give the reader … imaginative access to other selves’), I was making the case that his rhetorical strategies in his own recent fiction were at odds with his stated philosophical leanings. My gripe was not with, in Turner’s phrase, ‘putting stories together from their fragmented state’ – I am an admirer of DeWitt’s challenging The Last Samurai and of the postmodern fictions of Guy Davenport as well as much Modernist poetry and prose – but rather with Wallace’s own fiction, which risked losing itself in its rhetorical strategies.

Readers of Wallace’s most recent fiction, ‘Good People’, which appeared last year in the New Yorker, will note that, in its very different strategies – direct address rather than hyper-fragmentation – it bears the stamp of a writer who may himself have come to the conclusions that I did: some strategies for some writers become dead ends.

Wyatt Mason
New York

Vol. 30 No. 20 · 23 October 2008

Once again, Jenny Turner takes a statement of mine and origamis it into an animal that it is not (Letters, 9 October). In her letter that replied to my letter (which replied to her essay in which she etc etc), Turner insists that I believe that the stories in ‘David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion represent a rhetorical or aesthetic or ethical dead end’. Whereas Turner says she ‘and lots of other readers find them beautiful, moving, clarifying and enriching’. I do not know how I could have been clearer about my admiration for Wallace’s final collection than I was originally, when, in these pages, I described those stories as ‘a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value’, also calling them ‘the most interesting and serious and accomplished shorter fiction published in the past decade’.

Of course, this sort of impasse between people attempting to use the English language to communicate and, evidently, not succeeding is at the heart of what Wallace was up to throughout his career and, especially, in Oblivion. As he wrote in ‘Good Old Neon’, a story from that collection, ‘It’s interesting if you really think about it, how clumsy and laborious it seems to be to convey even the smallest thing. How much time would you even say has passed, so far?’

Wyatt Mason
New York

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.