2020 fiction finalist

Helen DeWitt | Some Trick

Helen DeWittAbout the author
Daugher of American diplomats, Helen DeWitt was born in a suburb of Washington, DC and grew up mainly in Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador). She gets hit up for donations/invited to reunions by: Colegio Bolivar (Cali); Colegio Americano de Guayaquil; Northfield Mt Hermon; Smith College; Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford; Brasenose College, Oxford. GHS (the eponymous high school of the town that is home to the Fighting Gators) is missing a trick, as are others too numerous to encourage. She has a BA (and, indeed, Oxford MA) in Literae Humaniores and a D.Phil. in Greek and Latin Literature. Editors of previous bios have liked the 15-odd languages and the varied work history; conversion to Judaism (1985), UK naturalisation (1999) and late onset lesbianism have been seen as TMI. Roland Barthes does say that an author's life can't be written by the author. Her first novel, The Last Samurai, was published to international acclaim in 2000; a second novel, Lightning Rods, was published after many vicissitudes in 2011, and a collection of stories, Some Trick, was published in 2018.

About the book
For sheer unpredictable brilliance, Gogol may come to mind, but no author alive today takes a reader as far as Helen DeWitt into the funniest, most far-reaching dimensions of possibility. Her jumping-off points might be statistics, romance, the art world’s piranha tank, games of chance and of skill, the travails of publishing, or success. “Look,” a character begins to explain, laying out some gambit reasonably enough, though in the face of situations spinning out to their utmost logical extremes, where things prove “more complicated than they had first appeared” and “at 3 a.m. the circumstances seem to attenuate.” In various ways, each of these thirteen razor-sharp tales carries DeWitt’s signature poker-face lament regarding the near-impossibility of the life of the mind when one is made to pay to have the time for it, in a world so sadly “taken up with all sorts of paraphernalia superfluous, not to say impedimental, to ratiocination.”

Helen DeWitt will make you laugh until you cry. —Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker

DeWitt is willing to take her satire as far as it will go, giving us the freedom to read it (or even misread it) as we choose. —Jennifer Szalai, New York Times Sunday Book Review

DeWitt certainly has some more tricks up her sleeve. Chicago Review

DeWitt keeps a pure flame, and doesn’t want to hear why others won’t. The abiding theme of Some Trick: Thirteen Stories is thwarted genius — especially where that genius is female. The art world features heavily, as do publishing, music, languages, maths and computer programming—yet it’s all perversely readable, and entertaining. —ASH Smyth, The Spectator

DeWitt is a hot-blooded intellectual, and her contagious passion for the life of the mind can redeem even the bleakest lamentations…In the world of Some Trick, the best words are so acute they lacerate. —The Nation

At times I’ve thought of “geniuses” as those lucky individuals who turn out to have a destiny, one they can convince themselves and many others of at once. To me, DeWitt is an exception: No matter the vicissitudes of the publishing industry, she remains the real deal. —Hannah Gold, Village Voice

The picture this collection makes is one of a genius who is herself maddened by social niceties, and all the other tedious obstacles of the daily capitalist grind. —Longreads

DeWitt’s bracing experiments are risks worth taking. —Madeleine Schwartz, Dissent

One definition of a genius is that she is so dissatisfied with the way the world is that she compels it to adjust to her, rather than following the usual course of adjusting to it. The 13 stories in Some Trick are full of this kind of figure, so much so that the book comes to read like a disguised confession. How do you get a complacent world to stop talking and pay attention? Some Trick suggests that the answer involves stubbornness, oddity, and a great deal of talent. —Adam Kirsch, The Atlantic

DeWitt’s style is brilliantly heartless, and cork-dry; original herself, she is a witty examiner of human and cultural eccentricity. She can take a recognizable social situation or fact and steadily twist it into a surrealist skein. In Some Trick there are passages and pages that had me laughing out loud—imagine a Bertie Wooster who is not a straightforward dimwit but an eccentrically clever and hermetically erudite dimwit. —James Wood, The New Yorker

Some Trick seems less like a story collection and more like a series of notes from some vast, alien intelligence. DeWitt’s characters are savants, weirdos, and artists, often trying to achieve their ends against the best efforts of the well-meaning and conventional people around them. —Annalisa Quinn, NPR