Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Breaking Out of the Walled Garden of Literature

Helen DeWitt’s new novella, ‘The English Understand Wool,’ thumbs its nose at the publishing industry while beckoning readers beyond its ken.
December 16, 2022
Breaking Out of the Walled Garden of Literature

The English Understand Wool
by Helen DeWitt
New Directions, 64 pp., $17.95

There’s a scene in Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts that finds the narrator rereading an email from an ex-boyfriend concerning Our Mutual Friend. Right, I thought, I know that one. Dickens—his last complete novel. About money, I think? How odd, these extremely online millennial characters reading that. I certainly haven’t. Had I read Our Mutual Friend—or even taken two minutes to scan its Wikipedia entry—I would’ve seen exactly why Oyler placed it in her book, as it telegraphs a crucial late plot twist. But it wasn’t until I read a line near the end of Fake Accounts, “increased access to information hasn’t really increased our willingness to access it,” that I was shamed into looking up the Dickens book, and it was then that I realized Oyler had bet on my laziness and ignorance and won. (No reviewer—I googled—has mentioned this trick, doubtless for fear of spoiling its effect.) Pulling a fast one on your reader: That’s one way to criticize the state of literature.

Helen DeWitt demonstrates another way in her new novella, The English Understand Wool. The book is in part about the value of actual knowledge—as opposed to the vague notions sufficient to bullshit one’s way out of a conversation—and like the cruel joke above, it turns on the need to read closely.

Like Oyler, DeWitt is prosecuting a more-or-less righteous grudge. (The depressing history of her battles to publish has been recounted many times over, including by DeWitt herself, who says the industry is “committed to the disempowerment of the author at every single stage.”) She also has no false modesty about her intelligence. Readers acquainted with her three previous books may have felt acutely—and desired to remedy—their ignorance of linguistics, probability, corporate HR protocols, film, various dead and living languages, the R programming language, information design, contemporary art, or poker.

It’s easy to make wrong guesses about the role of these various subdomains of human knowledge in DeWitt’s books. Are they meant to tease benighted readers? Do they provide information from without that is essential to fully grasp her meaning, as in crossword puzzle–type novels? No and no; those are the stratagems of a lesser writer. DeWitt demands no prior knowledge from the reader, and is willing, mostly, to explain whatever is necessary. What she does with these fields is instead to approach them as pathways into the world, ones that offer their own unique views of the landscape. DeWitt makes them deeply appealing to the reader, who comes to feel life would be clearer, more interesting, more bearable, or simply better if such knowledge came readily to hand. She explains in an interview:

We may think of the way a good chessplayer sees a chess position, the way a good poker player sees a poker hand, the way a good bridge player sees a good bridge hand—always in the context of large numbers of other possibilities. Information design might enable the reader to see the world through the eyes of persons with different kinds of expertise—which is to say, among other things, to see the possibilities for misunderstanding among persons with radically different frames of reference.

If fiction is to be more than an exercise in talking to oneself in different voices, it’s essential for writers and readers to seek out these new ways of seeing, beyond the horizon of the literary world. For DeWitt, to ignore them is to leave money on the table, to be a rube. It is—to use a word the novella applies to New York’s literary kingmakers—provincial.

Of course, this is only one way of conceiving of knowledge and sophistication, and rival conceptions are what generate the conflict in The English Understand Wool. (The story is not ruined by learning its details ahead of time, but its twists are delightful enough that interested readers may wish to stop now and pick up the book, ideally without looking at other reviews or even the jacket copy—it’s 63 pages of good-sized type; it won’t take long, and it won’t let you down.)

DeWitt works a classic plot out of James and Forster, the education of a young lady. Marguerite has been raised in great wealth by her “Maman,” a woman of formidable taste, if we can define that word capaciously enough to refer to the rigorous tenets of style and conduct Maman imparts to her daughter. One speaks French to the Moroccan help unless they are sick, which calls for one to use the local dialect instead. A seven-year-old must learn bridge, “because one cannot always assume that a child can be kept out of sight.” When Marguerite is suddenly left alone and without money, she makes the delicate decision, like many a resourceful young woman before her, to sell the one major asset available to her: her memoirs.

As this premise indicates, the book is a series of vicious jokes at the expense of American publishing, culminating in what could easily be read as DeWitt’s revenge fantasy on the industry that has continually misappraised her art. It’s easy to root for Marguerite to triumph over philistine agents and editors, but also hard to avoid drawing parallels between the rules they live by (“if you don’t talk about your feelings there is nothing to engage the reader and keep them turning the pages,” an editor condescendingly writes to her) and Maman’s exacting guidelines. Even worse, her handlers possibly have a point. Might she be in some denial about what has happened to her? Couldn’t she stand to process? Is she not being just a bit cold?

Cold—the word is used four times by Marguerite’s editor, and it tips DeWitt’s hand. In the interview quoted above she criticizes “fiction which presents characters drawn to precision rather than the expression of feeling as obsessive, alienated, autistic, antisocial”—for her it represents an “impoverished view of the world.” The editor’s comments on Marguerite’s manuscript could describe DeWitt’s own style, of which The English is a representative example. Here she is, for instance, on the need to bring an electric piano into a hotel room:

It would be mauvais ton to inflict one’s music on persons who have expressed no desire to hear it (the Royal Suite and Prince Alexander Suite, each with its grand piano, surround the instrument with “buffer” rooms, but Maman had been unable to satisfy herself of vertical protection sufficient to shield a sensitive ear). It was a regrettable but necessary sacrifice to accommodate to the inevitable shortcomings of the digital instrument.

Here is, as always, the clipped, assertive tone. Material descriptions are minimized and strictly functional. Language is always, always refracted through character: either first person or extremely limited third, always using the thought patterns and verbal tics of DeWitt’s subject, who operates according to strict but warped decision trees, and always at the destabilizing velocity of a Howard Hawks comedy. The prose is elegant and balanced, with the clarity of good scientific or technical writing, or the better analytic philosophers—very little ambiguity. Showboat sentences in the classic manner of American prestige fiction are virtually nonexistent. This combination of technical precision and total saturation of voice is reminiscent of Joyce, who might admire her multilingual and typographic experiments, or Charles Portis. (It’s worth noting that DeWitt is as funny as either one.)

But there is something in DeWitt’s work that looks back past the midcentury black humorists and the high modernists, past the Victorians even, to arrive among the satirists and moralists of the eighteenth century. Her omnivorous, polymathic approach recalls the philosophe’s easy conversance with history, science, classics, mathematics, and philosophy in a time when it was still possible to know everything there was to know. Her characters are like those of the era: vivid, but at least partial caricatures, lacking the delicate psychological shading of the intervening centuries. Her structures, too: The Last Samurai is a picaresque, Lightning Rods is ribald Swiftian satire, The English breaks into the epistolary mode at key moments.

The similarities extend from the tools to the user: Her sensibility as a writer can feel stuck out of time. The sensory world and truth itself appear in her books, in good Enlightenment fashion, as givens for thought, things to consolidate and build on rather than call into question at a deeper level; critical ideas about subjectivity that were already percolating into the philosophy of the era (and the literature of the following century) do not limit her characters. In her books, pace Nietzsche and Freud, an individual can possess judgment sound enough to rationally determine, at least some of the time, what is true, what is right, and what is necessary to live correctly.

DeWitt the novelist is centrally concerned with ideas, and she develops them not through gentle modulations of character or intricate symbolic patterns, but through the old-fashioned device of plot. Events in her books are, first and foremost, proving grounds for philosophies. Her faith in reason and belief in its availability to anyone who will sit still long enough to attain it—consider a character in Lightning Rods who learns to read Proust in French using only a dictionary and patience—recalls the calm, skeptical humanism of Voltaire or Johnson. It can seem cold to the contemporary reader at first, but is much more humane and humorous than anything that passes for an idea among the living “rationalist community.”

For all these unique virtues, DeWitt’s anachronistic approach has not endeared her to the publishing world, and as The English Understand Wool makes clear, there is no love lost there. (New Directions deserves great praise for providing her a haven.) She occupies a lonely place in literature. There is no Republic of Letters anymore, no Club for her to join. Her peers (she was born a year before George Saunders, five before David Foster Wallace) are gradually being consigned to history, filed under “hysterical realism” or “maximalism.” Her influence can be detected in younger writers (including Lauren Oyler), but they have not, as yet, written books that break out of the walled garden of literature—that send one running for The Visual Display of Quantitative Information or Play Poker Like the Pros, or that leave one hanging on every word of John Smoltz’s pitching analysis in this year’s World Series.

DeWitt’s outlier position may account for the bittersweetness of The English. Its heroine has a moment of triumph, but a purely personal one—she cannot change the barbarous world around her, and in the end retreats from it. Marguerite is a sort of Don Quixote figure, nobly adhering to a code that no one else wants or cares about. When, at a key moment, she argues money is worthless without proper training in how to use it, she might as well be talking to a windmill (“precisely the sort of idiocy one would expect from someone who wore white patent-leather shoes,” she notes to herself). Well, they have made their choice. DeWitt is far too self-aware to ever be called quixotic, yet there is undeniably some resemblance between the author and her character.

But should we want to grasp the piece of reality available to the mind of a jazz musician or an haute-couture tailor—that is, if we’d like to see new things—DeWitt is ready to encourage us. If we wish to venture out of the staid precincts of commercial literature, she stokes our dissatisfaction, and is unafraid to point out the interests of those who police the industry’s boundaries.

Read closely; all it takes is time. DeWitt is holding open a door to the teeming world even as she stands willing to let anyone in on the smallest joke. The only thing she asks in return is that you want it.

Mark Clemens

Mark Clemens writes from outside Chicago.