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.