I long marveled at Scott Walker’s nearly-Buddha forbearance regarding cuter young Bowie’s blatant theft of Walker’s voice. At what point did Bowie scurry on from ripping off Anthony Newley’s voice to ripping off Scott Walker’s? Sometime after swiping Marc Bolan’s chords/ poses (Ziggy) but before swiping Romy Haag’s coldly Teutonic drag gestures (“Boys Keep Swinging”)? In any case, it was long before Bowie ripped off Tom Verlaine’s nervous, hiccupy, proto-New Wave, mutated Buddy Holly yelp (by far Bowie’s most obscure caper) in 1980. Bowie’s shoplifting of the Walker-Lugosi thing first became evident on the high camp and often beautiful Diamond Dogs, didn’t it? Reaching a shameless apotheosis on the hippie-modernist, coke-fueled monsterpiece Station to Station. Scott remained far ahead of Bowie in the Obscure Art Rock Gestures decathlon, a gold medal Scott was too pure (and naive) an Artist to realize meant exactly zip. Walker left behind a looming-but-drooping monument of albums that very few will listen to… though a very high percentage of those who care enough,  to listen to those albums at all, will actually do the hard work of understanding, and being enriched,  by them… the perfect inverse of Bowie’s legacy. Sorry, Dave. This one goes to Scott.

A few years ago, I sent this clip (below: keep your eyes on the far right of the screen) to a long-ago Ex, so beautiful still, a working musician, and she wrote back “BOOORING!” And that’s when I realized I’d never loved her.



Some PR flack masquerading as a Literary Critic wrote:

“Critics were quick to identify the most obvious virtues of Some Trick. Helen DeWitt is funny. She is perhaps the most broadly learned fiction writer working in English today, and folds this knowledge into her work in a way that warmly reminds the reader of the pleasures of learning. In distinction to conventional short stories whose primary achievement is to establish a mood, her stories are actually about something. “

Would anyone with little or no knowledge of cars (beyond knowing what he or she “likes”) be trusted to write about cars in a serious publication? Of course not: this is a materialist culture and expensive objects are taken seriously. Books are not (unless they sell millions of units and thereby become honorary “expensive objects”). If Helen DeWitt is as broadly learned as this ignorant-regarding-great-writing critic claims, it’s a witty (probably not deliberate) irony that Helen needs to learn to write.

“In distinction to”  Cold War-era Reader’s Digest stories “whose primary achievement”  is to “actually be about something,” her stories are more specifically about money. The stories in Some Trick are. Americans seem to like stories about money and DeWitt seems to enjoy dreaming (on the page) about having more of it,  so… well: let’s hope for DeWitt’s sake that the latter interacts with the former, regarding Some Trick,  to everyone’s banal satisfaction. But what about serious or even great writing? Why can’t we have any of that? A few  pages into the first story in Some Trick we find:

“Serge owed her £5,000 from the London Art Fair two years ago.”

A few pages later we get:

“I will give you £1,000 apiece,” and ” You’ll get the normal terms, 50% split, the 20 grand is up front.”


“Adalberto said: Look, let’s not pussyfoot around, I give you £2,500 apiece, that’s 50 grand.”

Reassuring signs of commerce, those.  The story is named “Brutto” (her sentimental wink to Berlin’s tax lawyers?) after all. Maybe DeWitt is giving us another good old Cinderella story here. Those escalating figures are the essential shape that the flimsy garment of the story  (which is nearly indistinguishable from a puff piece in Salon) is hung upon.  The protagonist, a Reluctant Creator type, is helpfully characterized as Talented, for us, by these escalating numbers,  since the character is otherwise a cipher. Or rather like an interviewee who can barely get a word in while the interviewer (DeWitt) talks all over her.

“If you set out to make something ugly it is like setting out to make something beautiful, you will just end up with kitsch,” says someone. The omniscient narrator?  The character? If DeWitt is letting the character speak for herself, here, she’s giving that character curiously flavorless lines. What the story offers instead of characterization or atmosphere or the thrill of fresh, inventive language is a “peek behind the curtain” of a possible success story.

Most successful stories are stories about success, these days. They are stories about suffering and success or, even better, just success. Hedging her bets, DeWitt swerves clear of the suffering, largely,  and prefers skipping right to the fun part, which being the describing of success: how a clever person makes a series of clever (even crafty) choices to achieve the desired goal or trick (fame/wealth). This first story, in Some Trick,  with the reassuringly escalating figures in it, ends on one of those open-ended, minor key, did-she-or-didn’t-she ways. The reader is invited to imagine that Success happened on the imaginary very next page. Which is DeWitt’s nod toward the kind of arty ambiguity she generally banishes, with seemingly meth-goosed thoroughness,  from (or has no idea how to build into) her actual pages.

The story,  “about” Art/ Artist/ Art World (or, dunno: being ‘true to oneself?’ Or Money?),  is littered with uninspired stabs at The Knowing: “If you have followed the British art scene at all you will know that there are some things that are secondary.” Dewitt manages somehow to be quite naive in her attempts at The Knowing; her gestures at revealing “how things really work” have something of the Ron Howard film about them; a Ron Howard who thinks he’s early-’70s  Cassavetes.  There are levels of knowing (down, not up)  that DeWitt wouldn’t appear to know about… which is only important if The Knowing is her shtick, as a writer. Is it? She appears to know Math…  but the World?

“If you have followed the British art scene at all you will know that there are some things that are secondary. Tracey Emin made a tent called Everyone I Have Ever Slept With and the point was not the quality of the stitching. Later Emin did some other sewn work, but she got other people to do the sewing, and Hirst’s dot paintings were not executed by Hirst, and this is all in the tradition of Warhol’s Factory.”

Which isn’t very Knowing, is it? This is news to whom?  What about the stuff regarding International Money Laundering and Rohypnol; where is it?  No, not Knowing at all. Which wouldn’t have been the problem if The Knowing hadn’t been the trade-off for knowing so little about the protag. Give her just some sort of detail, Helen, to get her breathing on the page. Make her neurotically self-conscious about her breath or let her not be able to cleanse her mind of the time she accidentally laid her hand upon a warm mound of fresh pigeon shit or make her mildly racist or homophobic or OCD regarding doorknobs and mirrors and then set her loose in your Glorified Article about The Aht World. Eh? Give us some Literary Fiction. Not a mildly-distracting (reassuringly money-enhanced) Waiting Room Read.

I went through a “wish fulfillment” stage in my Writing about twenty years ago, soon after I decided to get more serious about the Art (aka: expose myself to the risk of unambiguous Artistic Failure by trying my best). I wrote a lot, I wrote quickly and glibly and with great pleasure, inventing the friends and lovers and living circumstances I’d have liked to have had back then.  The dialogue was snappy, the metaphors were clever, the insights were pithy, the endings satisfying and the stories were shit: exactly the kind of thing you could read in almost any magazine, then and now. Ugh.

Ugh, Helen!

Story number two in Some Trick shows us, yet again,  that Helen is mathy smart (has Helen considered switching from fiction to working in the cash-enchanted realm of churning out Popularizing Books in Math/ Science for Pretentious Kids, like an Asimov with exclusively Yuppie readers?) but she keeps the ethereal digits grounded in a friendly little success incantation near the tale’s beginning:

“Jim had already explained, by e-mail, that the option on Peter’s second book, held by the lucky publisher of Peter’s first book (advance: £5,000; sales: 500,000), was not an obstacle. The book must be submitted first to the lucky publisher, but if their offer was unsatisfactory Peter (or, rather, Peter’s agent on his behalf) was entitled to submit the book elsewhere.”

Near the very end (not counting the… skull-cleaving yawn… footnotes*) of Story Number Three,  “On the Town,”  every major character in the story (which opens on the maladjusted son of a famous wealthy writer before we are introduced to a plucky, resourceful and clever Dude from the sticks, blessed with so many homespun virtues, whose impeccable moves catalyze  everything good) gets what they want:

“Mr. Bergsma moves to Pittsburgh and immerses himself in his Automatika world. Fifty creative types move to Pittsburgh and comprehensively outperform the types who pipped them to the post in their initial grant applications. The subcontractor realigns his construction business. Automatika the movie succeeds beyond the wildest dreams of the NYU dudes, such that they can select their projects. Loopy Margaux packs the bare essentials (five suitcases of shoes) and goes to Berlin to pursue her dream. Mr. Margaux has fun. While the actual money involved is peanuts, his genius for applying financial acumen to support of the arts and urban renewal is noticed at the White House. Mrs. Margaux is the envy of her friends.

Benny gets $500,000.”

A bunch of Cinderellas in Manhattan? They love reading that kind of thing in Manhattan, don’t they? Do they still enjoy reading this sort of bullshit in Detroit or are they all too busy sharpening pitchforks and pimping their guillotine-trucks?  “On the Town” wouldn’t have been out of place as a mid-novel digression in Jay Franzen‘s nutty wish-fulfilling opus Purity**.  A mean-spirited thing to type. But I get mean when reading pap and nonsense.

Story four (five? losing track… mind wandering) gives us not only another good crack at watching DeWitt exercise her queer talent for thumbnailing characters we’d love to slap,  or who make you want to slap (only metaphorically!) DeWitt…

….”The girl’s Hebrew was not at all good. (Her personal best for the Amidah was a shamemaking 25 minutes.)”…

… but also gives DeWitt more than one excuse to shoehorn some lint-plumaged uncollected (and ultimately banal) Thinky Junk into the unsuspecting text, for example:

“K had once read an essay by Harold Bloom in which the great man found fault with J. K. Rowling for using the phrase ‘he stretched his legs’ whenever a character went for a walk. K had immediately lost all respect for Harold Bloom, who appeared not only to be unfamiliar with Milman Parry’s The Making of Homeric Verse but also to be wholly innocent of the Iliad, Odyssey, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle and Argonautica except, perhaps, in some sort of translation. Taken to its logical conclusion, the argument would compel one to prefer the Argonautica to the Iliad. Madness! (K had tried to do a search in the Perseus project for ton d’apameibomenos prosephe (that old Homeric wordhorse), was balked by an uncooperative search engine, left Bloom with a shrug unenlightened.) The problem with J.K.R. was not that she was repetitive, nor even that she was not repetitive enough, but rather that she was insufficiently formulaic.”

Wait. The punchline of that knobby digression was a throwaway dismissal of JK Rowling…? Why?

The thing I remember about being a very smart sophomore was the nagging awareness of how much I didn’t know and couldn’t do and the awful need, therefore,  to insinuate, imply, bluff abilities I didn’t yet have. The terrible insecurity of youth. And you construct elaborate facades and the elaboration informs your early attempts at Art and this tic, this ability to spin webs of bullshit, remains for too long, especially if it is, on one level or another, successful. But the mature Artist grows out of it. The mature Artist dispenses with the tics and elaborations and goes right to the heart of the task at hand. I’m suggesting here that DeWitt is not yet a mature Artist.

And she wants more money in her life. All the stories appear to concern the wealthy, successful and/or famous.  I mean, look, for example, next up, in Some Trick,  in the story “Remember Me,”  we’re treated to more of Helen’s Subliminal Affirmations: “Eloise’s new editor left for another job. The replacement examined the legacy and saw at once that the book would work better in third person. K won a prize for the new book, thus becoming much grander.”

Every day and in every way I am getting richer in dollar amounts. Think it,  reader!

Ah, but then DeWitt is gracious enough to toss in a joke, for free,  calculated to get a mirthless chuckle out of her badly chapped enabler,  Mr. Wood (or the first-cited “critic,” in this piece, who thinks Helen is funny):

“At supper he displayed his broadmindedness by consuming lobster patties with evident enjoyment.”

This was not quite the mid-point of the collection. I couldn’t (can’t) read on. There is a very good chance, of course (to paraphrase a paraphrase of a misremembered zinger from Will Self) that the book becomes Dubliners on page 60.

I’ll always like to think that it does.



*It’s interesting that it’s rarely (if ever) noted that DeWitt is a kind of failed David Foster Wallace and that the degree of her failure is somehow in proportion to how much smarter she is than DFW was; I wonder if being a jock grounded DFW in the universal sensual realities necessary to pull off  the trick of engaging readers despite the distracting presence of undergrad nonsense-obstacles in the text?

**I addressed (with a dropped jaw) Purity in the third section of THIS post



*(my bete noire triple threat: friendly racism, own-goal Racism from the Black Kapo Class, and  shitty writing)

**(edited to correct an omitted sentence fragment)

My comment:

“With all due respect: ugh. If Sinclair Lewis had written this (not only racist, but not very good, extremely hokey) story, it would be considered an embarrassment… a racist anachronism at best. Zora Neal Hurston did the same thing (as did  Gertrude Stein, by the way), writing for the same audiences: Whites and Bourgeois (“hincty” or “high yellow”)  Blacks. Published in Esquire in 1936? Perfect.

“The main characters in this story are low-grade morons. Does that make them ‘authentic’? Reminding me of the famous set piece in Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in which two very Black gentleman have an argument about whether the Esso (brand name filling station) dinosaur logo is an actual living thing (kept out behind the filling station) and from ‘Egypt’. Ho ho, ha ha (those quaint Negroes)… but who cares? Hurston is an icon. Hughes is an icon. Did either produce hilarious literary vignettes of moronic Whites? I somehow doubt it, as each knew which side of the day-old toast the dirty butter (or pomade) was on. Who was in charge of the Literary Filter that this, and so many other Jim Crow Fantasias, pumped through at such volume that it all filled the trough of the ‘canon’ of Black Lit? Imagine ‘Beloved Classics of Jewish Lit’ commissioned, edited, published in Germany, and taught in German Universities, the same year this story was published. Such a canon couldn’t be any more grotesque.

“Sure, I know, Hughes and Hurston and every other member of the Black Kapo Class very famously advertised their ‘love of the Negro Race’ and worked to ‘uplift’ same. But those public sentiments merely satisfied the conditions of their Kapo contracts with the Dominant Culture; they were terribly divided people (I think I just heard Michael Jackson grab his crotch). There are closets and then there are closets in closets and it’s rare that such rooms feature mirrors. This story is ripe for analysis along those lines… as are the original illustrations (by Eric Lundgren: I’ve known quite a few Black people in my life, being Black, but I’ve never seen anyone who resembled those faceless caricatures… yet check out the dashing, lordly illustrations of ‘Whites’ on the same pages). What a dissertation, in a parallel universe, a class/color-based analysis of this tripe would make. I mean, the racism, in this little fragment alone, is meter-pegging (I like those ‘shiny’ teeth and the savage dames and the bloodthirsty crowd; is there one decent Black human in this fucking story?):

“Folks had to hold Charlie-Mae to keep her from attacking Angelina, for two fights at the same time would have spoilt the fun.

“You women wait,” everybody said.

“Boy, I’m tellin’ you, I mean business,” warned Sling, his eyes red, his teeth shining, and his feelings hurt. “Don’t come a-near me!”

“I done heard so much from you about how bad you is,” said Terry. “I just want to see. You been my pal, but I believe you’s lyin’ about your badness.”

His long face was a shiny black under his derby. He was trembling.

“I’ll cut you down,” said Sling, “like you warn’t no friend.”

“Cut then—and don’t talk,” said Terry, “ ’cause I’m quicker’n greased lightnin’ and I’m liable to get you first.”

It’s almost as good as an episode of The Wire, isn’t it?



[editor’s note: White People, if there’s anything you’d like to know about Black People, just ask me: I’ll tell you. Black People, if there’s anything you’d like to know about White People, just ask me: I’ll tell you. Don’t be afraid to ask.]



  1. Been away from interwebs for a piece. Dealing with a tense hospice situation. So good to return to find erudite (cool?) takes on pop, pomo, and Black Kapos [a new term to me].

    1—I get it. Never knew much about Walker. Mixed feelings about the points about Bowie’s vocal originality though. All art is mimesis and repurposing (for an extreme example see what Robbe-Grillet does with the detective form in The Erasers—which I believe you and I have discussed at some point along the way)(and this is a hill on which I will choose to die), and Bowie is certainly allowed that leeway. Also, his voice is always and everywhere chameleonic: so, good call; point taken. Sort of.

    2—Damn, man. Somebody’s got a bit of a DeWitt vendetta. Not, to borrow from Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with that. Sounds deserved, I say as I struggle through Samurai; and when I say struggle I mean maintain interest, not am intimidated by the erudition. (Minored in Classics in college: had Greek, Latin, and, in another situation, ancient Hebrew). Am similarly bored by the Franzen and will now (or, more accurately, mark for later) read ‘Plus Tard Garde.’ Cheers.

    3—I got nothing to say. So I won’t.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim!

      I wouldn’t harp on Bowie’s complex of Artistic Thefts if he weren’t so often lauded as some kind of trailblazer; it’s the legends/ myths I push against and the aura I like to cut through. Bowie’s overt thievery doesn’t mean I think his project is worthless (I think the Ziggy album is great, Hunky Dory is fun, the Berlin trilogy is very cool and Station to Station and Scary Monsters are masterpieces), I think the thievery is the core of his project and the project can’t be properly discussed without addressing it. Every Artist starts off as a shameless and blatant imitator… Paul McCartney wanted to be Little Richard when he started off. He eventually grew (for better or worse) into Paul McCartney. But, Jesus, when you have Bowie even covering the same songs that Walker covered (Bowie “discovering” Brel)… that’s worth noting, at the very least. And that’s what I do… I note!

      Re: DeWitt: Oh, I’ve done decon work on Franzen, Knausgaard and Murakami WAY more than on poor DeWitt! What I resist is the definition-creep on the term “Great Literature”. This stuff ain’t it.

      Re: the Racist thing: it’s mindbending because so many don’t think it’s racist at all *because that’s how they think Blacks sort of naturally are*… it’s the Racist Preset of the culture. But, again: look at the illustrations in the original article and compare to the illustrations of the “Whites”. The gap is instructive… and still, after 80 years or so, a huge problem.

      Re: hospices: I send my virtual bubble of Imaginary Strength and Real Hugs!


    2. PS The Anthony Newley clip I linked to is even more amazing: the vocal inflections, the timbre, the vibrato, the facial expressions and gestures: what *didn’t* young David steal from Tony? DB gave credit to Scott because Scott was cool… but Bowie didn’t often mention Newley (I think I’ve read him doing so twice).


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