1 November 2011

A Joke from God, Part Two

An Interview with Helen DeWitt

This is the second (and final) installment of an early September conversation between Helen DeWitt, Christopher Glazek, and Elizabeth Gumport. Read the first segment here.


EG: I wanted to talk about sex in novels, and where sex is in contemporary or American novels. Because it’s often not in them—

CG: Or it’s extremely sentimentalized.

EG: This is actually something I asked you [Helen] about in email, when you said a lot of women who read Lightning Rods early on didn’t like it.

HD: Yeah, maybe it was just their generation. Because it seems like younger women don’t have that same problem. My mother just hates this book! She says: “Lightning Rods! Ah! I hate that book!” Then when it got a publisher, she said, “I’m going to try to read it again.” My loyal mother! And so then she got up to “tight, wet twat” and she just couldn’t go on.

EG: So do you think it was the explicitness of some of the scenes—?

HD: I have no idea. My UK editor—she just said, “Ughhhh.”

EG: So it wasn’t this question of sex, or sex work—

HD: They just found it really repulsive and revolting.

CG: But it’s wonderfully subtle. It really doesn’t call attention to itself. It isn’t like, “I’m gonna use dirty words now!” It doesn’t intend to shock. Maybe to needle.

HD: I was surprised. I was completely taken aback. There are books that do want you to dwell on, I guess, the reality, but it’s not really like that.

CG: Maybe that’s what they found so uncomfortable. They probably wouldn’t have minded a book that really called attention to its own bad behavior. That’s the wrinkle in our neo-Victorian era—propriety reigns in such a oppressive and general way, but we do allow these spaces for extreme divergences, so long as they announce themselves as exceptions. Then it’s OK. But something that’s very slightly pulling back the curtain—that’s more alarming.

HD: It’s too bad. See, I’m sure if different people had seen it early on, I would have gone ahead and published it.

CG: And you have another fifty books on your hard drive. Could you imagine a more interesting future for those fifty books than another New Directions release? Have you ever self-published?

HD: See, I would just like to have an income. Sorry.

CG: Not sorry! That’s pretty central . . . But maybe we don’t need to make money from writing? Maybe we should make it from other things.

HD: I think that’s right. I’m thinking maybe I should just get some job. Any sort of job.

CG: Tutor! Donate sperm. There are ways to monetize your intelligence that doesn’t do damage to your craft. Yeah, the world is difficult, but it seems like sometimes we make it a lot more difficult than it has to be. What people definitely shouldn’t do, to my mind, is get jobs in adjacent fields. Like, “Oh, it’s so great to have a day job that’s related to what you want to do!” Not necessarily. I think it can be quite damaging to what you want to do.

(to the dog) You are such a silly goofus.

EG: I’m going to go have a cigarette on the balcony, if you guys want to—

HD+CG: Yeah, yeah.

On the balcony:

CG: Wallace Stevens worked at insurance company. So did Kafka.

HD: I’ve thought that would be interesting. Insurance is interesting.

CG: In Berlin I was supposed to do project on insurance in 19th-century novel, tracing the rise of insurance in the novel. In 19th-century fiction gambling is a very important structuring motif, but in modernism it’s insurance.

EG: What novels?

CG: In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom is thinking about insurance scams. George Eliot—Daniel Deronda. In all the marriage market novels gambling’s very important to dramatic structure and suspense, because it’s like, What’s going to happen? But in insurance regimes, all potential futures are always-already realized in the present. Insurance literally collapses time. The future is already, right now, being paid for. So in a way it doesn’t matter if the person ends up dying or not, since whatever the outcome is, it’s already been paid for.

HD: The thing is with life insurance there’s a two-year exclusion for suicide. If you commit suicide within two years the policy doesn’t pay out. But in all states except, I think, Montana, if you commit suicide, it pays out. And so what I was thinking suppose you have six people—perhaps your life would be [better] if you had a million dollars. You could do something. So you have six people who decide to commit suicide. . . If all six took out term life insurance and the agreement is at the end of two years one of them will commit suicide and the rest of them will share the premium, so only one person has to die, to transform—

CG: That’s a good novel.

HD: That is my novel! It makes so much sense. You look at some lives and you think, Why does someone have to live out that life? Why would you have to do that? It’s like a prison sentence.


HD: In [One Dimensional Woman], one of the things [Nina Power] talks about is the way that [the category of the perky, flexible worker] becomes naturalized. Suddenly, it’s not set out as something that is an expectation.

EG: It’s just how to be a worker.

HD: Exactly. It’s being a particular type of person. Rather than performing a task.

EG: It’s the maintenance of an attitude.

HD: Yeah, exactly.

HD: With Lightning Rods, to begin with it’s just some person’s idea. Once he’s able to get it embedded, changing the parameters, there’s just this expectation—this was the office. So you can commodify the absence of that product. People actually pay to have something that was previously just the norm.

EG: Partially because I happened to read it so closely on the heels of One Dimensional Woman, I kept thinking of. . . Nina Power’s thing about the feminization of labor. First it was the idea women should be adaptable, good-natured, flexible, and this has now diffused to everyone. So in a way everyone is more like women. Those aren’t actually qualities that are natural to women, but this has become the expectation—and it puts everyone in many ways at a painful disadvantage.

CG: Mmmhmm. The generalization of subjugation.

EG: Yeah. And it’s just this exhaustion—you have to be a person all the time. It’s hard to be a person. Life becomes all the time.

CG: Being perky.

HD: I thought of [Lightning Rods] as feminist. I was just interested in the fact—my ex-husband is an observant Jew and he’s the one who introduced me to The Producers. And he loved “Springtime for Hitler.” and I was thinking, there’s this kind of rage underlying “Springtime for Hitler,” but it’s transmuted into this humor, and in a way I felt this was doing the same kind of thing, from a feminist point of view. Most of the men that have read it liked it. They thought it was funny. They often recognized themselves in it . . . For me, that was part of its cleverness. Instead of getting people really angry and hostile.

CG: Exactly. Maybe this sounds anti-feminist, but what is so successful about the book is that it manages to convey critique and anger in a way that’s still acceptable for a woman to do. it’s so sly.

HD: The only competent people in it are women.

Image: Mel Brooks's The Producers, 1968.

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