A Joke from God

Mel Brooks's The Producers, 1968.

Early in September, Christopher Glazek and I spent a long, pleasant afternoon interviewing Helen DeWitt. Helen had arrived in New York a few days earlier, about a month before her latest novel, Lightning Rods, was to be released by New Directions. There were miles of book tour events to be traveled before she slept, and our discussion was one of them. But it was a Friday, and the end of summer, and the city was warm and mild and forgiving, and all in all our meeting felt less like an interview and more like a conversation. The three of us met on the Upper East Side and talked for many hours, as if we had nowhere to be. I don’t think any of us did.

Listening to the recording afterwards, it became clear not just that we tended to drift off topic, but how easily we did, how lightly and casually we got carried away–by ourselves, by the weather and the coffee and the cigarettes, by the general leisurely sense that there was enough time  to do what must be done. In the end, it turned out that perhaps there wasn’t–that the (sadly redacted) half hour we spent talking about sperm donation was a half hour that might instead have been given over to Lightning Rods, that we ought not to have been so unhurried, so indolent. 

That we were is one of the reasons why this interview–even the highly edited, extremely condensed version you’ll find below–already seems to belong to the past. At least it feels that way to me now, less than two months later: now that Helen’s book has been released (to many positive reviews); now that it is autumn and dark and cold, not only here on the Upper East Side but all the way down to the bottom of the island–to a place whose name I didn’t know those seven weeks ago, a plaza called Zuccotti Park. 

—Elizabeth Gumport

CG: So were you in Berlin for the summer?

HD: Yes, it was kind of stressful. I kept going to hotels in order to stop talking to people. It’s especially good if you go to a hotel without Internet access. I would just sit there reading Bourdieu. It was great. I’ve realized that if I’m in my own apartment, there are all these things surrounding me, reproaching me, reminding me of everything I ought to be doing, But if you’re in this anonymous room . . .

CG: You mentioned last night that the voice for Lightning Rods just “came to you.”

HD: Yes, it was this third person voice, that was the interesting thing. It came as “free indirect discourse.” It’s a third person voice, but it’s also the mind of the character, or his own self-presentation.

CG: I thought so much of David Foster Wallace when I read it. The voice feels like the voice of American fiction—of masculine fiction, the kind of writer who’s interested in American males working in business places and the specialized lexicons that they develop. Most authors revel in this stuff—they convey so much warmth, even when seeming to satirize. You see reviews so often now that commend male authors for their “generosity,” the “generosity of spirit” shown in their work. This is like praising the sensitive husband. Empathy is the starting point for a woman. You would never pat a woman on the back for being generous.

What makes Lightning Rods important, I think, is its lack of generosity. It’s a gift of bitterness. I believe you said this to me once, Helen, “Foster Wallace manages to find so much good in everything he writes about.” And not everything is good! Not everything deserves a conciliatory approach. Despite bits of surrealism, David Foster Wallace’s writing is like a rapprochement with reality. And maybe we don’t need a rapprochement. Maybe we need a schism.

What I found so masterful about Lightning Rods is how it manages to convey anger in a way that’s acceptable to the reader. It’s so carefully modulated, but also powerful. It doesn’t seem angry.

HD: Yes, well, I was full of rage when I was writing it. That was the thing—not giving anything away. I had an agent sending around Samurai to people, and my view was that the book would benefit from the undivided attention of its author. I just needed money and time to finish it. Instead, everyone just kept giving unsolicited advice. They would sit down with it over a weekend and tell me how to fix it.

I was in my room, in despair, feeling as if I could never write a book again. And then this voice started talking to me. This is the great thing about being a writer. To watch a film, you need this physical medium, you need to project it on a screen. If you’re a writer, God is just beaming stuff into your head. Once upon a time Springtime for Hitler didn’t exist, and then all of a sudden God beamed it into Mel Brooks’s head. I had that feeling, that God was sending me these jokes about this guy.

EG: The thing is, you need silence to be able to hear it.

HD: I felt that Samurai was a very generous book in various ways, there were all these quotations. And with Lightning Rods—I wasn’t consciously trying to be ungenerous—but I had this sense from the beginning that it would be a very self-contained book, that it would not give anything away. It would be like The Producers. It would be funny. There was this rage, but not overt. The main character is kind of like the likable sleazeballs in The Producers. But at the same time, the reader just watches him dig himself into these holes each time he tries to resolve a moral issue, and he just keeps digging himself deeper and deeper in, and we’re just watching him. It’s not especially kind in that sense.

EG: There’s something musical about it. You have these riffs and repetitions—expansions on a theme. You have the Lucille interaction, and then a repetition or amplification with the Renée interaction.

CG: I love Renée, that’s my favorite part. It also feels like such an American book. Samurai is signally not about America. That’s not the theme of it. Lightning Rods is “Helen DeWitt does America.”

HD: Yes, it is an American book.

CG: Why did you leave the United States?

HD: To go to Oxford. I was at Oxford for nine years. Then when I decided I didn’t want to be an academic I came back for a year and drove around, trying to write novels.

EG: Where did you go?

HD: D.C., Virginia—my father was living there, Florida, Vermont, San Francisco, different places. It took me a long time, I was trying to find some job I could do combined with writing.

EG: “The right life.”

CG: You should have become a sperm donor.

HD: Coming back to America always feels like defeat, I hate to say it. I don’t like living here—it feels like being trapped. If I could somehow make money out of being a writer it would be great, because I could just live in Europe and not come back.

CG: Do you read a lot of fiction?

HD: Not at the moment. Partly just because If I’m trying to work on something, I try to be reading the things that are relevant to that book.

CG: The source material is more often nonfiction than fiction.

HD: Yes.

CG: I ask because I read a book like this, and I like it, but that creates a problem for me, because I don’t really want people to read fiction. I don’t want them to get in the habit! People read too many books, not too few—

EG: Too many books? Or too many recent books?

CG: Too many new fiction releases. What’s the line in your piece on reviews? “Not only do we not want to know if Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel is good or bad, we don’t even want to know it exists”

EG: Something like that.

HD: (laughs) That’s so great.

CG: To me what makes Lightning Rods palatable, and interesting—maybe this just betrays my anti-fiction bias—is that it advances arguments.

EG: And it’s good—maybe you just don’t like bad things. We’re all going to die some day. We don’t have time to read things just because they’re new. . .

HD: You see something that’s just come out, and you ask yourself, “Has this person ever read Calvino?” because they’re doing something somebody did better forty years ago. I came across this book recently that seemed like it was doing something less well than Barthes did in Fragments d’un discours amoureux. And it’s just that Barthes is so wonderful.

CG: Do you think that people should read fiction?

HD: Well, there’s good fiction. There are wonderful books, and yes, it’s good to read them. Maybe if you’ve read a lot of fiction, you reach this stage of satiation, and you start thinking well, what’s the point, but then you talk to people who’ve read barely any, and you realize that things you take for granted if you’ve read a lot of fiction—unreliable narrators, how language frames your perception of people—things that seem obvious to the point of banality, except they’re not to people who aren’t in the habit of reading fiction.

CG: I admit my appreciation of Lightning Rods was enriched by having been exposed to so much bad contemporary fiction. If I hadn’t read Freedom—which is an important intertext for Lightning Rods, you might say, for the reader if not for Helen—I wouldn’t have appreciated the intervention that Lightning Rods makes. The way it comments on this American tradition of writing books about middle-aged men. Most books, of course, do not intervene, they just repeat. They rehash.

HD: Well, yes, I get horribly depressed. Books come along, and I open them in bookstores, and you see something sort of respectably done, it’s not like it’s badly done, but it makes me want to cut my throat.

CG: Did you read that cricket book? What was it called?

EG+HD: Netherland.

Yes, Netherland! That was a very nicely written book, I thought. It was enjoyable. I liked it. But it’s a good example of something I don’t want people to read. Maybe if you have a long train journey or something, but it’s still basically bad for you. Which I don’t feel about Chris Kraus’s work, which I really do want people to read. Or Sheila’s book—I really do want people to read How Should a Person Be?

HD: It seemed like a very strange book in some ways—just as a book about cricket. Britain exported cricket to different colonies, the West Indies and so on, and these people transformed the game. The style of the game played in the colonies is much more interesting than that played by the Brits, which tends to be a more solid, conservative style. It’s a cliché for people who follow cricket—the West Indies, and of course India and Pakistan, are an immense force in the world of cricket.

CG: That’s kind of the point of the book, isn’t it?

HD: Well, even just at the level of style, in Netherland there was an absence of everything that makes great cricket great.

CG: (laughs) It was written like British-style cricket.

HD: It just seemed like such a peculiar thing to do with the game.

CG: You mean in the way the game is textually rendered, or in the way the sentences are fashioned?

HD: Well, partly the prose, but also reading the book, it feels like an American view of cricket, as a genteel, upper-class kind of thing, whereas there are these rivalries, and these intense passions.

CG: Well, I think the novel thinks it’s informed by this kind of thing, this post-colonial fascination.

HD: It’s not post-colonial, it’s what makes the game interesting and exciting. The brilliance and panache that the colonies brought to the game. It seemed completely absent from the book.

CG: Do you read Malcolm Gladwell?

HD: I have read him, yes.

CG: Do you hate him as much as most people do? I kind of like him.

HD: I don’t hate him, but sometimes there are these arguments that are just incoherent, and that’s depressing.

CG: I had a coffee once with a New Yorker editor, who gave me some advice. “Have you read Making It?” you know, by Norman Podhoretz. And I said, “Well, yes, in college.” And he said “You should read it again.” Which sounded hilarious to me—as if anyone still cared about the New York intellectuals! He’s from a generation that still has this vision of New York–how can we recreate the world of Partisan Review and Commentary? n+1 has this problem, too, of course. It’s unfortunate, I think, because that scene never mattered. It didn’t matter then, it doesn’t matter now. Certainly when compared to something like the Frankfurt School.


In a hundred years, people will still be reading Adorno, and Walter Benjamin, and no one will have any idea who Philip Rahv is, or Dwight McDonald. Mary McCarthy is kind of fun I guess. And whatever, Elizabeth Hardwick—

I like Elizabeth Hardwick.

I mean I do, too, she’s a good writer. But as an attempt to recreate a culture—why don’t you create your own goddamn culture? If Elizabeth Hardwick were in her twenties today, I don’t think she’d be spending a lot of time reading Elizabeth Hardwick.

EG: A culture where everyone was a wife, too. Who said that, “poets’ wives have rotten lives?”

CG: I’m not sure. Do poets have wives anymore?

EG: You were saying that when you’re writing a book, you try to read things related to what you’re working on. What did you read for Lightning Rods?

HD: I don’t think there was anything for Lightning Rods.

CG: It was direct from God.

HD: Well, sometimes a book has a long genesis. So when I was an undergraduate I did a special subject, which was Aristophanic comedy, and then later I wasted a lot of time hanging out in the HCR when I should have been working on my doctorate, and my ex gave me not just The Producers, but this whole British satiric tradition—

EG: Just like in the book. “All that time he spent twiddling and worrying about the roll-down blind” turns out to be incredibly productive.

HD: (laughs) Yes, there’s a biographical element. So there are these British things, you might not know them here, like Yes Minister, Dennis Potter, Blackadder, there’s this British tradition of satire. The Brits are more vicious in their art.

CG: And in seminar, too!

HD: By the time I wrote this, there were a lot of things that had been around a long time that fed into it. But also, there had been all these people complaining about all this stuff in Samurai, that you would rather skip. So there were people trying to help me, saying I could just get rid of all this Greek. So I said, “Look, you want a book with no Greek? There is nothing easier in the world. I’ll write you a book with NO Greek, NO Japanese, and NO quotations. This is going to be a straight text, one voice. I’ll write ten books–none of them will have any Greek in them!”

CG: But instead what we have is so much repressed anger over not being able to put in any Greek. It’s like you’re saying, “Okay you don’t want me to be ‘difficult,’ so I won’t be difficult in an intellectual way, but I’ll be quite difficult in a different way.”

HD: You can go into a bookstore, and you’ll find all these books without Greek in them. You can throw a stone, and you’ll hit a book without Greek. Especially if it’s fiction. So it looks so easy to do. But I know most of the people writing these books . . .

EG: They’re not doing it on purpose.

CG: There’s no Greek to repress!

HD: If you think of Perec’s La Disparition, in which the letter ‘e’ never appears. It’s not like that if you see a novel in English, and there’s no Greek in it. These gaps are not visible. There are all kinds of things you could put in a book, so as soon as you’re conscious of all these things you’re leaving out, there’s this sense of constraint.

EG: I kept thinking of computer programming, or video games when I was reading this. It’s as if it proceeds from level to level, and couldn’t go otherwise.

HD: I love the analogy!

EG: You have this premise, and then it plays out in different ways. Each scenario dictates the next. Like: where will the lightning rod be? You pick the bathroom. Now every choice is a bathroom-related choice. How high will the toilet be? Joe thinks something like, you could help other people be their better selves, make the choices they’d make if there weren’t so many obstacles. You help them pick the right toadstool to hop on.

CG: It’s improvement, too. It’s a very American, progressive frame of thinking, and part of what the book satirizes. Like Helen said, this is a genuine American satire. And we have almost none of those! It’s a form very rarely used here. The Foster-Wallace strain became so prominent—which is to say, the non-satire. Everything became brightness and generosity.

EG: There’s something very angry about satire, often, but there’s also something utopian, and something more hopeful about humanity than all these books that are about being nice to each other. “The world might be otherwise.” The reason that satire exists, and should be used to describe our time, is to enable us to imagine a time that might be different.

HD: See, I had this fondness for the book! What a great part for a dwarf. How many books are there with good parts for dwarfs? is what I want to say.

CG: This could be a TV series.

HD: It feels like a sitcom. It has that episodic feel. My parents loved Get Smart and I only discovered recently that Mel Brooks was the guy who came up with that idea, then revolutionary, to have the hero of a sitcom who was dumb, who was not very bright. It is quite episodic, like a sitcom. There’s a slightly repetitious feeling about it that you like in a sitcom.

CG: Which is a kind of more characteristic American form.

HD: And you have these characters who are shallow, but that’s part of their appeal somehow, that repetitive and shallow, kind of predictable quality. So you like them for being predictable even if they’re sleazeballs.


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