The Not-Nice Novel
In the last fifteen years, the Precocious Child has become one of the American novel’s favorite protagonists. Whimsical, ingenious, and verbose, the Precocious Child knows simultaneously more and less than his adult readers. He may be a tennis prodigy (Infinite Jest) or a twelve-year old farm boy who wins science prizes from the Smithsonian Institute (The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet). But he’s impeded by his youth and something else, too: autism (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) or amusingly bad English (Everything Is Illuminated) make it difficult for him to understand or articulate adult feelings. This tension between extraordinary competence in some areas and lovable haplessness in others is what gives the Precocious Child novel its appeal.
The Last Samurai belongs to this genre—in fact, it is one of the very first Precocious Child novels—but it also obviates it. It seems to have been written, point by point, to reject everything the Precocious Child novel would come to stand for. As the other Precocious Children go looking all over the city, the country, the world for their lost families, DeWitt’s young protagonist, Ludo, meets his father for the first time and thinks that he could probably kill him. As other Precocious Children use dead patriarchs and historical disasters to invest their fact-filled lives with meaning (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), DeWitt understands that life, often enough, already is a disaster, and that the only true precondition for a meaningful life is the financial freedom to live it. “What we needed was not a hero to worship but money,” Ludo thinks. His mother, Sibylla, never has enough money. On cold days they ride London’s Circle Line in an endless loop to save on the gas bill. “If we had money we could go anywhere. Give us the money and we would be the heroes.”
DeWitt studied classics and philosophy at Oxford for 11 years. She left academia for writing, but this, too, would be a long series of false-starts; she began writing, according to her estimate, about 100 other novels before hitting on The Last Samurai. Then many publishers rejected the manuscript. Then, finally, she got a big advance and lots of praise. In The New Yorker, A.S. Byatt called it “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Elsewhere, DeWitt was compared at length to David Foster Wallace, and the widely publicized story of her difficulties with the publishing industry turned her into a kind of romanticized writer-hero. It should have made her a famous, comfortable writer for years. Instead, follow-up novels never materialized, or, when they did, they appeared as a self-published .pdf file on DeWitt’s website. As a result, The Last Samurai slowly receded into the background of the general literary conversation. Early on in the book, Sybilla has a thought: “There is a character in The Count of Monte Cristo who digs through solid rock for years and finally gets somewhere: he finds himself in another cell.”
Ludo, age 4 when the book begins, is a genius. Sibylla is a genius, too, but she has had to be alive for much longer. Like DeWitt, she has an unsatisfying relationship with the publishing industry. She lives in London and spends part of her day typing up manuscripts for a publishing house to make rent. She spends the other part trying to keep up with Ludo, who learns roughly one new language a week, and who she regards with a mix of exhilaration and fear. She gives him a box of highlighters so that he can mark up different parts of speech:
At about 6:30 or so he would rush upstairs to report on his progress waving a flourescent page in my face and I disapproving of the type of parent who fobs a child off with Wonderful Wonderful would murmur Wonderful and then disarmed by a face like a new penny ask questions. Elephant stampede up and down stairs for a couple of hours & time to get up.
Sibylla remembers what school is like, and so wants to keep Ludo, who is obviously getting along just fine, out of it. This is unconventional parenting, though, and Sibylla is already a single mother. DeWitt knows that the world loves nothing more than to provide parenting advice to mothers, and Sibylla, having already ignored the world’s favorite piece of mothering advice (“Be married”), begins to worry. “Today I read these terrible words in the paper: ‘In the absence of a benevolent male, the single mother faces an uphill battle … It is essential that she provide the boy with male role models.” The boy’s father is out of the question. He is a magazine writer, a happy and successful idiot who she met at some party. The one-night stand made Ludo. She never saw him again, and her perfect code word for him is “Liberace.” “Here was a man,” Sibylla thinks, “who’d learned to write before he could think, a man who threw out logical fallacies like tacks behind a getaway car, and he always always always got away.” Ludo wants information on his father, but Sibylla won’t tell him.
She tells us all about it, though. The Last Samurai has the funniest description of bad sex that I have ever read:
No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realized how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow, swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley.
DeWitt, working at a time when critics routinely praise writers for their “generosity of spirit,” is ungenerous, even mean. Liberace falls asleep after the sex ends, and Sibylla leaves the room and then comes back again:
Liberace was still asleep. His head lay on the pillow, face as I had seen it, skull encasing a sleeping brain; how cruel that we must wake each time to answer to the same name, revive the same memories, take up the same habits and stupidities that we shouldered the day before and lay down to sleep. I did not want to watch him wake to go on as he had begun.
I did not want to watch him wake to go on as he had begun. This kind of truth, this kind of open disgust with other people, running alongside a complementary disgust with oneself, cannot be accessed via generosity, empathy, or niceness. The Last Samurai has real anger and darkness in it, darkness which DeWitt elaborates and compounds as the book’s narrative unfolds. What makes Sibylla’s misanthropy disturbing is its comprehensiveness—one of her pet obsessions, to which she returns again and again, is the barbarism of a society that doesn’t recognize the right to legal suicide. It is a right, we eventually learn, which she has tried to exercise before.
* * *
Ludo, writing in his diary, gradually becomes a narrator of the novel: “It is boring on the Circle Line but I am up to Odyssey 15.305. 9 books to go.” He wants to Sibylla to tell him about his father. “One thing that is funny,” he writes, “is that even though I have been reading the Odyssey on the Tube for a long time nobody ever asked if my father was Greek. Today I read Babar but nobody asked if he was French.” Sibylla eventually lets on that his father is a travel writer, and so Ludo reads White Fang, Journey Into Danger!, and other great, entertaining books about male adventure. “I asked if my father was French and Sibylla said no.” His voice isn’t realistic, but it isn’t cloying, either—it isn’t an authorial excuse for vagueness and sentiment. (Contrast with the child narrator of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, who thinks, in the book’s opening pages, “What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers? … I wonder if everyone’s hearts would start to beat at the same time.”) Ludo knows all about Sibylla, knows just how angry she is, and while he doesn’t hate her for it he really would like to know about his other parent. “There is a strange taboo in our society against matricide,” he thinks.
While Sibylla will not provide Ludo with his father’s name, she makes a principle of concealing little else from her son. That parents should address children as equals: this is one of the book’s central arguments. There is a scene where, pressed again with questions, Sibylla fobs Ludo off by saying he’s not old enough to know his father’s name. “How do you know I’m old enough to know YOU?” he asks. She says, “What makes you think I think you are?”
Years go by. 11 years old, Ludo finds his father’s name stashed away in a drawer and goes to visit him. Pretending to be an autograph-seeker, he talks his way into Val Peters’ home and sizes up his new dad. “I’ve read all your books,” Ludo tells him. “Thanks,” Val replies, “I mean that. That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in a long time. Ludo thinks, “I can’t stand this.”
Desperate to compensate somehow for the absence of a male role model, Sibylla has been showing Ludo Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai, which has seventeen of them: seven samurai, seven actors playing the samurai, and Kurosawa. There is a famous scene early in the film where some villagers come across two men fighting with bamboo swords. One man thinks their duel has been a draw. The other, a samurai named Kyuzo, says, “If we fought with real swords, you’d be dead.” This enrages the first, who insists on a real duel. Kyuzo, it turns out, was right.
Sitting across from his father, wondering how it all could have happened, Ludo hears Kyuzo’s line flash through his head: “If we fought with real swords I would kill him.” Then he thinks, “I can’t say I’m his son, because it’s true.” This, again, is how un-generous thinking can get you truths that generous thinking can’t. Many novels and memoirs today describe relationships between parents and children that are difficult but loving, aggravating but essential—above all, “complicated.” In the Precocious Child novel, a parent’s death is just another ordinary complication, certainly nothing that can’t be overcome by empathy and love. DeWitt knows the truth is simpler. Relationships between parents and children aren’t just complicated. In a basic way, they are impossible.
* * *
Seven Samurai is about peasants who recruit a group of warriors to protect their village from bandits. Disappointed with his real father, who he never speaks to again, Ludo decides to go recruit a better one.
What follows is like a piece of music. First, Ludo hears enchanting descriptions of some man’s life and exploits. There is the linguist who leaves academic life to wander around in search of a lost tribe, and who saves a small boy’s life along the way. There is the astronomer with a Nobel Prize. There is a painter who works only with animal blood. These passages are delivered in the manner of enchanting fables, but as Ludo tracks each of them down, one by one, the fable gives way to reality. This alternating sequence structures the rest of the book, disapointment swelling and receding in a steady rhythm. When Ludo tells the astronomer that he has lied, that he is not really his son, the man hits him twice across the side of the head with his open hand. “I’m sorry, that was completely out of line,” he says, seated again at his desk, to Ludo. “My temper flares up and then it’s over, I never hold a grudge.”
Not everyone is a disappointment. Although a man named Szegeti will not make a good father for Ludo, it turns out that he saw Seven Samurai on a date at Oxford, years ago. His date may have been Sibylla. “You said she was pretty?” he asks Ludo, who narrates:
In my mind I saw the beautiful girl glowing in the light of the film. If Sibylla had always watched Seven Samurai she would always have been beautiful, but there is more to life than art.
She’s not really pretty, I said. She’s beautiful. When she’s excited. When she’s bored she looks like someone who’s got two weeks to live. Someone who’s got two weeks to live & is going to spend it begging the doctor for a mercy killing.
Although The Last Samurai does not take feminism as anything like a primary subject—it is mostly a book about who we choose to learn from, and what we do, or fail to do, with our educations—it is inflected by feminist thought. In the novel I Love Dick, published three years before Samurai, Chris Kraus wonders, “Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our debasement?” Sibylla is a little bit like that. She is an unapologetic snob, an underemployed parent, a failed academic who rants at less intelligent passengers on the train because they are less intelligent. She is neither a likeable protagonist nor the kind of charming, charismatic jerk who populates Martin Amis novels. She is just genuinely unlikeable, full stop. Despite this, Sibylla’s life, as distinguished from Sibylla the character who lived it, registers rather modestly and painfully as tragic. She should have been a genius too, like her son (he definitely didn’t get it from his father, after all). “She tried to kill herself once and was stopped,” Ludo tells one of his prospective fathers. “Now she can’t because of me.” This is a scary joke to make.
Szegeti responds to Ludo’s description of his mother. “You could say that of any woman. They are moody creatures, up one minute down the next—it is what makes them so exasperating and delightful.”
“Do they all want to die?” Ludo asks.
“They have all said so at one time or another, but whether they mean it! There is not one woman in a thousand who has not said she wanted to die; perhaps one in a thousand has tried to do something about it—and for every thousand who try perhaps one succeeds. There is not much logic in it, but if they were more logical they would be rather dull.”
I would have liked to hear him talk this way longer. I would have liked to hear him talk this way about anything, as if you could be impervious to sorrow just by being a man.
* * *
In his great defense of the novel, “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James wrote:
The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life. When it relinquishes this attempt, the same attempt that we see on the canvas of the painter, it will have arrived at a very strange pass. It is not expected of the picture that it will make itself humble in order to be forgiven.
The challenge here is not to redeem, forgive, or make peace with life. The challenge is to represent it. This is both simpler and more daunting than the alternatives. It asks that novelists refuse to ingratiate themselves, that they represent their own currents of thought without apology, even if those thoughts are ungenerous, pathetic, mean, indefensible. Novels, lately, have had a difficult time with this challenge. Threatened by the internet, by premium cable television dramas, by Amazon, many novelists have done exactly that which James identified as the kiss of death: they have made themselves humble in order to be forgiven.
The Precocious Child is a device invented by novelists to help cope with this humbling. It makes novels cute, like Youtube videos of our pets, as though the problem with novels was that they were not sufficiently likeable. With The Last Samurai, DeWitt refused to humble or apologize for herself, her characters, or her art, and twelve years after its publication the book remains an inspiring example. Novelists: abandon the Precocious Child! These teary-eyed geniuses haven’t taught us a thing. “I thought suddenly that it was stupid to be so sentimental,” Ludo thinks at one point. What a wonderful, bracing line to encounter in a book about parenting, childhood, and education. It is a lesson laid out with humor, anger, and charisma. If other novelists can’t learn from it, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves.
Rich Beck is an assistant editor at n+1. Read more Rich here.