Fiction and Drama
Your Name Here
Eight years ago, the reclusive novelist Helen DeWitt published The Last Samurai. This told the story of a cash-poor young linguist and the education of her intellectually curious young son. The critic Sven Birkerts recently called it, in New York magazine, the most underrated book of the last decade. Still, the book is hardly unappreciated: The Last Samurai was widely praised, translated into other languages, celebrated as a “cult” book, and reached a large audience.
Many readers’ reaction to The Last Samurai focused on the bond between mother and son and the peculiarity of the son’s gifts. These things reflected only part of DeWitt’s purpose and her range. What was more rarely said was that The Last Samurai was also an angry book, about the curse of living with too much curiosity and intelligence in too pinched, prosaic, and conventional a world.
At age 47, DeWitt’s success and frustrations led her to leave the United States again and take up residence in Berlin. She has since written a new novel, Your Name Here, in collaboration with the Australian journalist Ilya Gridneff. It continues the preoccupations of The Last Samurai, and it is an important and complicated work of art which unjustly has not yet been able to find a publisher in the United States or England.
Your Name Here begins with a reclusive novelist, Helen DeWitt, alone in Berlin, who starts to mix into her writing the emails of a globetrotting paparazzo, Ilya Gridneff. It is a Pygmalion story with the sexes reversed. Gridneff is the young writer who sends DeWitt reports from the front lines—of his affairs of the heart, of the media pursuit of Britney Spears, and of Iraq, where he goes to report on the war. The character Helen seems to have found a way to grasp the real world without leaving her writer’s desk: she’ll make a novel of it all, and bring both herself and Ilya back into the world of money and success.
But making a novel from real life is easier said than done, the more so when Helen’s creation turns out to include the frustrations of the collaboration itself—along with readers’ constant efforts to read the final result before we have read it, this book that DeWitt has put together. Your Name Here begins up in the air, literally: among a group of airplane travelers, readers of paperbacks from the airport newsstand—one of which happens to be Your Name Here. Another happens to be the bestselling cult classic Lotteryland, by the reclusive author Rachel Zozanian, who turns out also to be in email correspondence with a young paparazzo and world traveler, A. P. Pechorin . . . All the travelers’ books, to their great consternation, are intruded upon by the Arabic language, a reminder of the supposedly “terroristic” world out there, for which “entertainment” is supposed to be a means of denial and escape from reality. And this is only the first chapter.
n+1 is proud to publish, for the first time in print anywhere, the opening chapter of Your Name Here.
You’re going to Paris. It’s an 8-hour flight from New York. You want something to read on the plane. You’ve been meaning to read Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation, but you’re not sure you’ll be able to concentrate. The last four days have been wrecked.
The name on the ticket is Antonios Demetriakis. It matches the name on the passport. The picture in the passport doesn’t match what you saw in the mirror. The feeling that aliens from Planet Zworg have performed plastic surgery while you slept is not unfamiliar.
The plan suggested by the documentation leads inexorably doomwards, to passport officials, security guards, petty teetotalitarian apparatchiks unlikely to be open to the Zworg hypothesis. Failure to follow the plan may prompt swift reprisals from Zworg. You want something to read on the plane, but this is no time for Pity the Nation.
The book is on a table in [Barnes & Noble/Borders/Waldenstone’s/Dalton’s/Other, delete as appropriate], part of a 3-for-2 offer. You’ve also been meaning to read Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command, and this too is in the 3-for-2 deal. They’ve got Gravity’s Rainbow by the notorious recluse Thomas Pynchon. Mao II by DeLillo, The Border Trilogy by McCarthy, Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, notorious recluses to a man. They’ve got The Loser, a novel about the notorious recluse Glenn Gould by the notorious misanthrope Thomas Bernhard. They’ve got Lotteryland by the reclusive misanthropic Zozanian. You feel surly and uncommunicative, you hate your fellow man, reclusiveness and misanthropy could be the hair of the dog. They’ve also got Helen DeWitt’s new book, Your Name Here.
Your friend Mike has been telling you for years to read DeWitt’s first book, The Last Samurai (which is not on the 3-for-2 table). He went to his friend Dan’s place in Seoul in 2002; the book was lying on the bed, which took up 60% of the studio apartment. (Dan is now a big pop star with a bigger apartment.) Mike didn’t much like the cover; he asked: “Is this a romance novel?” “It’s fantastic, you should definitely read it,” said Dan. The book was in surprisingly good condition. “You finished it?” “Just the first chapter. But it’s good.” Mike was bored, needed a book, smuggled it out in his bag, read it in two days, called Dan. “Yeah, what’s up?” said Dan. “Yo, Last Samurai is so good. It’s so fuckin’ good.” “Yeah, I told you it’s good. Did you take my fucking book?” Mike hung up, smoked five cigarettes, went to sleep. Told all his friends, including you, to read the book. You’d heard the book was full of Greek and Japanese, a much-needed gap in your life, and Mike said, “No, no, you have to read it, it’s fucking great, there is Greek and Japanese, but it’s motivated.” But Mike is the first-son-of-the-first-son-of-the-first-son-of-the . . . for 11 generations going back to King Sejong, inventor of the Korean alphabet. This may be the warped perception of a descendant of Korean royalty with alphabetic obsession in the DNA. Also, Mike is not unconnected with your present hatred of the world. Not unconnected with bad, baaaaaaaad nights at Kim’s Korean Karaoke. Not to be trusted.
Something’s bothering you, but you can’t put your finger on it.
You pick up Your Name Here. There’s a quote on the cover.
“I give it 8 1/2!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Janet Maslin, New York Times.
You open the book. Who are these people? What’s going on? Where is it going?