Skip to main content

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

The reason is that even in a fantasy
there is nothing even remotely erotic about a toilet bowl.
Hi, how’ve you been? I’ve been busy myself, thanks for asking. In fact, I was so busy I began contemplating a terminal hiatus from this, ostensibly purposeless endeavour. However, for reasons, I chose not to take it. So on with the show and back to Helen DeWitt.

If there’s one thing about this dense, frankly mind-bogglingly erudite book to love/find empathy with (apart from my own Canadian edition’s deckle-edged hardbackedness – deckle edges; good or bad? Discuss!), it would have to be the passages narrated by Sibylla, mother to genius progeny Ludo. As a parent to one post-toddler and one pre-toddler, as well as occasional taker-up-of-space in the lives of three other young human beings, there are so very few occasions where a simple conversation can be carried out to its logical terminus without interruption and digression; conversations start, stop, return to the beginning, are interrupted once more, are delayed and postponed, and cycle back again until it’s time to give up, get off and go home. Unlike (or perhaps, very much like?) the circular tube routes that carry fictional mother and son through the underground of London, where the carriages are nice and warm whereas the apartment is not, it is rare to be carried smoothly along to the end destination. Sibylla, in writing her thoughts on to the page as they occur to her, and in a style that her first agent and editors allegedly attempted to beat out of DeWitt in order to standardize the formatting of the text, themselves often disjointed and jumbled, a mix of memory, anxiety for Ludo’s education, and distaste for those irrational humans which make up the 99% of people who will avoid rational thought 99% of the time, frequently interrupts herself to carry on conversations with Ludo, who is usually reading classics in their original languages or demanding to learn all of the Japanese pictographs, or negotiating to find out the identity of his father, participant in a one-night-stand with his mother and, it turns out, the object of some vitriol and scorn as the Sibylla-described ‘Liberace’ of English travel literature. The fonts vary in size, sentences break across the lines and up and down pages, there are swathes of Greek and Japanese and Icelandic text where Sibylla attempts to find a simple way that any parent could teach a six-year-old a foreign language, and passages from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the cast of which serve as Ludo’s surrogate father figures, teaching him everything there is to know about being a man.

Later in the novel, as Sibylla slowly sinks into a state of nervous depression, her narrative is taken up by Ludo, whose disappointment at the discovery of his real father’s identity sends him on a crusade to find a suitable alternative amongst the men his mother knew and who could, conceivably, be persuaded to accept the fact he was their son. His quest adds the frisson of new voices and some delightful anecdotes from a motley crew of gadabouts, dastards and ne’er-do-wells.


Being a bit of a fan of novels that push the boat out a little, I was delighted to find that this book, which had been out of print for years and has only very recently found a new publisher and a deservedly wider readership, was one such boat-out-pusher. It’s daring, challenging, full of language play and knowledge, and damned funny in places, particularly when Sibylla enrols Ludo in a state school. The format I imagine was a complete bastard for proofers and copy-editors (good!) and despite some clunky passages, such as those lifted wholesale from texts on aerodynamics (or thermodynamics? I can’t remember as I only skimmed them briefly), never failed to impress upon me the ambition shown in taking on this mammoth literary endeavour. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s one to sink your teeth into if you’ve a mind to be properly absorbed.

Comments

How's about that then?

Metaliterature - what meaning to have is this for meaning?

Not a review this time, more of a curiosity. It seems I'm receiving lots of hits from Russia (Здравствуйте России!) from people searching for the definition of "metaliterature". As such, it is something of a bespoke word, created to fit a need and probably not yet recognized outside literary theory / criticism circles (Merriam-Webster Online certainly don't like it). I was wondering what they typed in to end up here, so, for fun (it's not fun, sorry) I thought I'd bung it in Google Translate and see what came out. As it turns out, one needs a little hyphen for the rather ponderous machine to understand it, and even then only does half the job (meta seems to be meta in any language). 
Incidentally, below is, ironically, a Google Chrome Thesaurus definition* of "meta":

met·a Adjective/ˈmetə/
(of a creative work) Referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referentialInterestingly (not interesting, sorry) it says this for the full term, t…

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

In days gone by, when repeatedly pressed about what my favourite book might be, a banal question seeking an impossible and crude reductionist answer to which I was usually rude in response, I would offer Breakfast Of Champions as a pacifier. 

I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.

So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.

I'd clearly not remembered it very well.

But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes fo…

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …

To Say Nothing Of The Dog by Connie Willis