Helen DeWitt: Some Trick: Thirteen Stories
by Esmé Hogeveen
Some Trick: Thirteen Stories by Helen DeWitt is itself a bit of a trick. Thirteen being an auspicious number, the reader is obliged to attribute some significance to the volume of narratives in this collection about the strange characters and compromises that make up the worlds of art and publishing. Indeed, DeWitt’s stories are often about probability and her interest in numerical calculations frequently works as a vehicle for exploring analogous aesthetic and literary formulas. These rules, as one might call them, of art and writing may not always be clear, but they can be discerned at least by degrees and DeWitt takes a distinctly formal approach to their unpacking. Fittingly, then, ratios and scarcity, luck and shrewd investing, are at the heart of DeWitt’s stories, whose slantways narratives are never just about one thing. Depending on the reader’s perspective, DeWitt’s greatest trick may either be telling one story 13 times or making 13 disparate stories seem related.
To the readers of this magazine, DeWitt’s characters may seem uncomfortably familiar: artists looking for a break, publishers attempting to re-package the European avant-garde for US market appeal and “geniuses” who may or may not have anything interesting to say when encountered in person. DeWitt’s overarching project in Some Trick is chronicling the trials and tribulations such characters undergo through their various engagements with the fickle world of taste-making. In the resulting vignettes, DeWitt captures many of the cringe-worthy clichés germane to art and publishing milieus—or should I say sectors? spaces? sites? (DeWitt makes one painfully conscious of needless argot!) In response to DeWitt’s canny, though occasionally self-conscious, depictions of creative power struggles and ennui, the reader feels a mixture of bemusement and implication.
A trick may be social or cultural, but in Some Trick, DeWitt is chiefly engaged with rhetorical ramifications. Each of her tales is about the conflict between what one wants or hopes to make and the strangeness of watching that desire being awkwardly communicated. In “Brutto,” a middle-aged artist has a chance encounter with a famous gallerist who asks her to recreate what he calls a “‘monstrosity,’”a “sullen mustard wool [suit with] psychotic stitching” that the artist had made during a dressmaking apprenticeship in youth. The artist hesitates to sideline her painting career, but ultimately feels obliged to make the concessions that Adalberto, the gallerist, requires in order to elevate her career. Fame, the presumed goal of the practising artist, is a trick Adalberto knows how to master. Under his wing, the artist recognizes what is needed to successfully play the games of art awards, prizes and international attention. Considering textile options on a lavish buying trip, the artist reflects: “If you set out to make something ugly it is like setting out to make something beautiful, you will just end up with kitsch.” DeWitt describes the artist’s subsequent realization that to make the new suit approximate the original, “she had to pretend she was just making some suits the way they used to.” To pull off Adalberto’s scheme, the artist has to pretend not to understand it—herein lies the trick!
DeWitt skewers the ways in which artistic potential comes up against financial and cultural realities informed by bureaucratic incentives, commercial market demands and curious notions of public impact and accessibility. DeWitt’s adroit renderings make sense given her firsthand experience of creative recognition as a result of her successful novels, The Last Samurai (2000) and Lightning Rods (2011), and the period of financial challenge that came between them. Her darkly humorous take on the difficult repartees between creatives and their financial and critical interlocutors form a thread that coheres the collection. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” a mathematician who recently published a bestseller struggles to explain to his literary agent why it’s imperative that his upcoming book include complex formulas. In “On the Town,” “dudes who had won at Sundance, who thought funding was solid for their first feature, had suddenly found that the money had dried up because the producers wanted something guaranteed bankable and commercial.” Throughout Some Trick, DeWitt reminds the reader of the impossibility of untangling personal and commercial value. As Gil, a New York publisher trying to woo a punctilious Dutch author into a new book project, reminds us in “Climbers,” there may be mutual awkwardness around the process of collaboration: “The thing is there are people who . . . like hustling, and they’re good at it. . . . . I’d be afraid of losing something that really means a lot to me . . . What if it changed the books for me?”
In anecdotally charting the role of the trick in the linked processes of art making and marketing, DeWitt draws the reader’s attention to how appreciation always exists relative to what the creator can recognize, as well as to what they predict others will recognize. In other words, DeWitt’s stories suggest that success, however defined, is the result of a series of bets and bargains. Whether or not an artwork or book is well received is almost secondary; the point is that its creator has correctly wagered people will care to respond and thereby render a project culturally relevant. “Some trick,” the narrator mutters in the preface, as if responding to a magician who’s just produced an ill-concealed rabbit (no coincidence that the same creature appears on the book’s front and back covers). The fact that the rabbit—here, a trick embodied—was there in the first place is the marvel DeWitt reminds us to grapple with.