Knowing Children

In the recent issue of n+1, Helen DeWitt and Ilya Gridneff have published an excerpt of their new collaborative novel, Your Name Here, a book that unfortunately still hasn’t found a publisher. The Last Samurai has been calling to me from my bookshelf for years now, one of those books I buy earnestly aspiring someday to read, so I read the n+1 excerpt with interest.

And was not disappointed. The excerpt is totally brilliant and packs more layers of cleverness and disorientation into one chapter than many wanna-be postmodernist epics do in seven-hundred pages. I could summarize these layers here, but such a summary would not begin to give a full sense of the total effect of weirdness the excerpt achieves (especially for those who know about DeWitt’s much-publicized suicide attempt). My one concern about Your Name Here is that the multiple parallel realities and agendas the novel kicks off may become tedious after several hundred pages, especially if they do not build to something that resembles a narrative (or at least intellectual) climax. To be completely successful, the inventiveness of the novel’s opening chapter needs to build to something larger than invention for its own sake.

Inspired by Your Name Here, I decided to make The Last Samurai my Christmas reading, pulling it off my shelf before I flew to New York. (Again, I’ll forgo any attempt at plot summary and write a longer post about the novel after I’ve finished it.) I’m 150-pages in and pretty thrilled with what I’ve found. The Last Samurai is very specifically a book about the aspiration to read–the aspiration that has filled my bookshelf with a hodgepodge of books-to-read, books like The Last Samurai–the conviction that, somehow, books or even knowledge itself might save you. I understand this impulse intimately; it’s the feeling I get before I buy histories of analytic philosophy or political-economy textbooks or Japanese for Beginners, books that I know I won’t have time to read in the near future, books I sometimes don’t read for years. When you see yourself buying books faster than you can read them, you begin to wonder about what’s gone wrong. But even the secret fantasy of becoming a perfect speed-reader is not satisfying; if you could somehow read everything, and access everything you’ve read with perfect recall, problems would persist.

A desire for all-knowingness is part of what draws me to encyclopedic fiction of the Pynchon-DeLillo-Wallace variety. My earliest dissertation idea was an exploration of that genre (JR, Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld, Almanac of the Dead, Infinite Jest, etc.). I ultimately abandoned this dissertation idea because I found it difficult to convincingly frame such a large project; my readings of individual encyclopedic novels would have to be conducted from the literary-critical equivalent of 30,000 feet up; this hypothetical project, which I may still someday return to, might consequently read more like (bad) philosophy than literary criticism. None of which would be a huge issue if the project worked out, and if the philosophy had turned out to be good after all, but I actually find hitting the smaller target of postirony to be a more satisfying exercise, more grounded in the contingencies of ’90s magazine culture and academic orthodoxy, a project that forces me to flex finer-grained mental muscles, more history than philosophy. As an added bonus, I also get to talk about many of the same authors I would otherwise have written about, writers I love, but in narrower–and more controlled–terms.

I have also turned away from the encyclopedic impulse for personal reasons: I increasingly see problems in it. Knowing everything is lovely (no irony here!); reading obscure books and becoming an expert in dead languages are genuinely wonderful things to do with one’s time. But when knowledge becomes an object in itself apart from specific personal, social, political, or intellectual goals, things can go terribly wrong. Reading The Last Samurai, I feel as if DeWitt is making pretty much the same point, and that The Last Samurai is less of an encyclopedic novel than a critique of the encyclopedic impulse, the lust to know for its own sake. DeWitt’s critique is, moreover, built on top of a compelling human story, the relationship between a mother and son. The desire to know is, after all, a human impulse, like any other, which has too rarely been taken seriously as human, more often depicted as the province of abstractions than people. All of which is to say that I’m really glad to be reading this book.

It may also find its way into the dissertation, paired with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in a chapter or concluding section that studies the figure of the “knowing child.”