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The new Helen DeWitt novel

I read the excerpt in n+1. As one would expect of DeWitt, it was great, while being nothing at all like her other book. THe new book reminded me a bit of Philip K. Dick. Here’s a brief excerpt (which is not actually particularly PKD-like) of the main character talking to himself:

“I don’t have what it takes,” he said. He had never said it before because saying it would be like admitting he couldn’t make the grade.

I’m not pulling out this quote to sell you on the book. The lines just struck me because of the exquisite distinctions, the idea that “don’t have what it takes” is somehow different than “couldn’t make the grade,” the idea that this character, who expresses his thoughts in empty phrases, ends up assigning to these phrases a set of precise meanings that make sense only to him.

One reason Lightning Rods was so fun and refreshing to read is that it’s a non-formula novel that, unlike ChabonFranzenLethemBakerEtc—and, for that matter, unlike Virginia Woolf—is about character and story and ideas, not about the author. Don’t get me wrong—I often love reading books that are all about the author’s virtuosity (for example Black Swan Green, which Bob recommended and was just great; I thought I’d blogged it already but I can’t find it in the search so it must be one of the posts in the queue)—but it’s refreshing to see something a bit more direct. I had a similar feeling after reading Deliverance, a book that otherwise has just about nothing in common with either of DeWitt’s.

The only thing I’m wondering about that Lightning Rods excerpt is why it appeared in n+1 rather than the Atlantic or the New Yorker. I think n+1 is great, but those other mags must pay a lot more and also give more visibility. (These are the only two general-interest magazines I know of that regularly run fiction.) DeWitt is famous, the excerpt is hilarious and thought-provoking, so it would seem to be a natural for the Atlantic or the New Yorker. Perhaps some bit of path dependence: for some reason the book isn’t being published by a major commercial publisher, so they don’t have the publicity machine behind it, so they couldn’t place it in the top places, etc. In the long run it probably doesn’t matter—DeWitt is well-enough known that people will find her new book. And good for n+1 to snag it.

My impression from reading the published story is that DeWitt must have worked really hard on this. As an author of books, I find it tough enough to write coherently in my own voice, and it must be so much harder to write in someone else’s. I admire this because I can’t write in anyone else’s voice. This isn’t an absolutely necessary skill for a writer—Bernard Shaw couldn’t really do it either, but he could reconstruct others’ thoughts, which I think I can do pretty well too—but I think it’s pretty good if you can do it, it gives a three-dimensional character to your writing.

Anyway, there must have been days when DeWitt could just whip out page after page of the stuff, but even then she probably had to go back and clean it all up. I’m glad she put in the effort; the finished product was just great, and I’m looking forward to reading the whole novel (also a little bit afraid it won’t live up to the promise of the excerpt).

3 Comments

  1. Phil says:

    David Mitchell (author of Black Swan Green) is a great talent. Cloud Atlas is terrific, a really wonderful book…and is very different from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is in turn very different from BSW. Cloud Atlas is my favorite of these, but they’re all terrific. I admire writers (Lethem is another) who can write about completely different plots and characters and use a different style, and still be great.

    • Andrew says:

      I find Lethem irritating (and not particularly readable) in any form he tries. In contrast, I find Chabon irritating too but I still find his stories and novels enjoyable and interesting to read.