Improbable Outcomes

Improbable Outcomes

Illustration adapted from Open Face Odds

Some Trick: Thirteen Stories
by Helen DeWitt
New Directions, 2018, 224 pp.


Some Trick is Helen DeWitt’s third book. That is to say, her third published book. She has written dozens of others that haven’t made it from her hard drive into print. Her first novel, The Last Samurai, tells the story of an intelligent, insular woman, Sibylla, and her prodigy child Ludo, who searches for his father while reading The Odyssey on the Circle line of the London Tube. Clever and sharp, yet close to generous in its display of knowledge, the book manages to question the notion of family while also eviscerating nearly every accepted educational norm. The book won DeWitt devoted readers, a feat rare enough in modern fiction that newspapers often described them as a “cult-like following.” But it apparently ruined her relationship with the publishing industry. The novel uses half a dozen languages. Editors prefer to deal with one at a time. DeWitt got into too many fights over typesetting and copyediting. She had difficulty publishing again. Her second book, Lightning Rods (2011), a satire about sexual harassment in the workplace, more Mel Brooks than #MeToo, delighted some but disgusted others. A failed Electrolux salesman decides that the cure for unwanted advances is to hire temps for sex on demand. (The horny office workers only ever see their bottom halves.) It’s a scenario that now seems prescient, though it didn’t win her industry support. DeWitt is among the smartest and most original writers living today, but, in her telling at least, she’s too obstinate and too demanding to get the recognition she deserves.

Some Trick, DeWitt’s collection of stories, is full of people pushing up against the literary world or the art world or any of the other narrow-minded “worlds” that determine what creations can be called art. Painters and writers in these stories, some of which have been sitting on the famous hard drive since the 1980s, have to fight to preserve their talents from what the market wants. In “Brutto,” the opening story, an artist tries to sell her works, large canvases covered in paint “20 centimeters thick or maybe more” that “can take a year before it’s really dry.” Opportunity comes in the form of a famous gallerist, dressed in the Berlin-Basel uniform: a black t-shirt and a black cashmere jacket, his hair cut close, like “short fur on the skull.” He wants to sell what she’s made. Not the paintings, though. What interests him is a suit she sewed decades earlier, when she was growing up in East Germany, a “baleful garment” made of scratchy cloth in dirty mustard brown. “I don’t do this anymore,” she pleads. The suit’s hideousness excites him. He wants more of them. He offers her £2,500 apiece for twenty suits. Miuccia Prada might like to exhibit them in one of her stores, he tells her. She agrees. Once you get to a certain age, you start to worry about the cut-off age for the Turner Prize. “It’s easy to say you can just walk away from it,” runs the story’s refrain.

In “Climbers,” a writer named Peter Dijkstra finds himself torn over whether to submit to the demands of the New York literary scene. He has so many fans in New York, young people who sit around and chat about how much they love him. If “Peter Dijkstra went through my papers, my personal papers, and he took my diaries, and my notebooks, and my photo albums, all this incredibly personal, irreplaceable paraphernalia, he just took it,” declaims one fan to a crowd of like-minded admirers in his loft, then “I’m happy. I’m ecstatic. Peter Dijkstra—Peter Dijkstra!!!!—has appropriated this stuff, in some mysterious way my stuff is going to contribute to a book by Peter Dijkstra!” (DeWitt is a master (!) of the exclamation point as dis.) The fans get together to arrange for an agent who can make Dijkstra the star they know he is. They want to publish his notebooks. They want him to write the next 2666. “There was a lot more sincerity than he knew what to do with,” thinks Dijkstra. He doesn’t want to write the next 2666. In fact, he thinks the original 2666 is no good. But his own writing is not enough to sustain him financially. “Though the phrase ‘cult classic’ had come to his ears it did not buy many Marlboros.”

DeWitt’s great subject is the cost of selling one’s work—how easily skill is squandered when the work from a singular mind becomes “cartoonified and fatuous” for the market. In her stories, there are clever people making possibly brilliant things, but the price for making their work public is often destruction of the work itself. Money and its demands are inescapable. DeWitt cites earnings down to the cent. “If you want those words in a notebook to be a solution to credit card debt, there is a bridge that has to be crossed.”

Delicious schemes occur when money ceases to be a concern. In “Entourage,” my favorite story in the collection, a man fills suitcases with books “replete with the letters z, w, y, z and k” and hires attendants to carry them. These attendants must be perfectly suited to the works at hand: “Słowosław was the applicant whose name had the best letters.” The man’s joy is strange characters:

It’s interesting, everyone knows that Perec’s La disparition is a book in which the letter e does not appear, but Rabbit, Run is never mentioned as a companion piece in which the letter å does not appear. Ångstorm being the correct spelling of the surname of the eponymous protagonist.

The man then comes up with a new game, the classic marshmallow experiment, exponentially absurdified. He decides to arrange children around a sushi tray in a game of tasks and rewards:

Twenty children could be placed round the perimeter of the conveyor belt! Colour-coded tasks could be assigned! . . . Points would entitle the child to select a place with a cake, cookie, chocolate, or other delight from the moving belt! . . . A possible task is the performance of problems in algebra presented in Hungarian. The reward is a 5-tier wedding cake. (As an incentive, it beats a pootling little marshmallow into a cocked hat.)

The scheme turns into another and then changes still, so that by the end the protagonist has opened a restaurant chain where “a parent could leave a child at any time day or night” and even “send a child full-time to the restaurant while flush, then fall back on the public school system when funds ran short.” There’s great pleasure in seeing DeWitt play. It occurred to me how rare it is to read a work of contemporary fiction that actually has words most readers might not know.

Beneath DeWitt’s joy in knowledge is an acknowledgement of the refuge it provides from a world so difficult to fathom that it might as well be stupid. Bertrand Russell, one character thinks to himself in another story, said “that only the desire to know more about mathematics restrained him from suicide.” He’s not the only one. “If you have grown up in the type of place that is excited to be getting its first motel, the type of place that is only dimly (if, indeed, at all) aware of the very existence of the Yemen,” thinks Sibylla in The Last Samurai, “you want to study dialects of the Yemen if you can because you think you may well not get another chance.”

DeWitt’s own interest in reading beyond a narrow canon of American fiction has also given her a curiosity about technical expertise that most fiction writers avoid. In 2008, DeWitt wrote a blog post about statistics in fiction. What would it mean to take probability and risk seriously in literary work? Could it be that literature that ignores the language—and the reality—of numerical models is depriving its readers of a central way of looking at the world? “The management of risk is integral to our society,” DeWitt wrote. “If fiction ignores the way this actually works, its view of the world is not much less primitive than one in which storms blow up because Odysseus angered Poseidon.” Fiction, she posited, might show how mathematicians really think rather than present math as a kind of eccentricity. It could help readers avoid misunderstandings of risk, rather than reflect “the kinds of mistakes the naive observer makes in looking at the world.” She gave the subprime mortgage crisis as an example. “One thing fiction could have been doing all this time was enabling people to see on the page the way those in the risk business think about risk; it could have used the techniques of Edward Tufte’s information design, for example, to present data in a way that did not numb the mind of the general reader.”

Some Trick tries this; we get stories with Gaussian curves and plots based around games of Texas Hold ‘Em. In “Climbers,” Gil arrives in New York ready to waste his time watching French movies at the Angelika and eating pancakes but soon begins orchestrating some real-estate schemes himself. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” a writer named Peter sits with an agent, Jim, and attempts to illustrate the statistical probability of a heroin addiction. Jim cannot follow his mathematical arguments. “The fact that Jim could unashamedly admit to finding a perfectly simple explanation of the binomial distribution over his head, that he could unblushingly dismiss it as the province of genius, only went to show how deep-seated innumeracy is in our benighted culture.” Later, Peter has an easier time talking with an imaginary robot.

One does have some sympathy for Jim, though. After all, there are more ways of showing the application of risk than through the work of the statistician Edward Tufte, an early pioneer in the field of “intellectual” dorm room posters. Fiction doesn’t need charts to show versions of reality its readers may not have imagined. DeWitt has already made improbable outcomes one of her central exercises. Plenty of books take on the impossibility of dealing with one’s parents. Few ask what would happen if you could simply choose your own, as The Last Samurai does.

I don’t know whether DeWitt’s stories help us manage statistical thinking better than we already do. (Or whether the disasters ignored or misunderstood by statistics wizards have shaken her belief.) But they are a good reminder that books that can only mirror back our world often make for boring reading. As much of fiction seems to shy from novelty and pleasure, DeWitt’s bracing experiments are risks worth taking.

Madeleine Schwartz is an editor-at-large at Dissent.