Open Helen DeWitt's debut novel, The Last Samurai, to a random page, and you may think you've stumbled upon some sort of guide to the Tower of Babel. There are bits of Greek and Japanese and Inuit. And, more than once, like weird typographical errors, a list of stops on the London Underground. This is babble with a purpose, though, which is all revealed in the fullness of a very satisfying--not to mention rapturously received--novel about a single mother and her genius son.
DeWitt knows her linguistic playfulness pushes the boundaries of what is ordinary and acceptable in fiction. She knows she risks trying her readers' patience. But, she says, "I had this proselytizing zeal." If she'd had her way with her editor, her book would have been even more multilayered; for instance, she wanted to include photo stills from The Seven Samurai, the Akira Kurosawa film that is integral to her story. "There was also originally something about counting in Arabic," she says, and bursts into peals of laughter. "I feel I exercised such restraint."
Restraint, though, does not come naturally to the 43-year-old author. She says she has 50 to 100 unfinished books sitting around--some of them 120,000-word drafts, others a few chapters. She had a "terrible" time selling Samurai, and Plan B was to write "much more commercial things--not much point in finishing those." Not after Samurai, which has been sold to more than a dozen countries and optioned for the movies.
An American raised in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador (her father was in the foreign service), educated at Oxford, currently camped out in Baltimore but dreaming of Paris, DeWitt may also be the perfect author for our age of distraction. She appears to have a magpie's fascination with pretty much everything. The other media clamoring for our attention, from the movies to the Internet, are gifts she is delighted to play with. "This is a very exciting time to be writing fiction," she says. "It's so virtuous, completely eschewing all these things that could be explored. We're surrounded by images, and people don't seem to have done very much in that way, so I'd love to think about that."
To that end she is working on a "brief love story" called Paper Pool, based on artist David Hockney's luminous pictures. Oh, but there's also a book on poker. And another inspired by Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress. "There's always that exciting moment when you see something in your head," she explains, "and you feel you've never seen something like it before, and you have this passionate desire to see it exist." Whatever new world she creates next, surely readers will want to see it too.
--By Elizabeth Gleick
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