A.S.H. Smyth

More dystopian futures

A bleak near-future dominates fiction from Catherine Lacey, Oisín Fagan and Ben Marcus, among others

Only Helen DeWitt would start a book with an epigraph of her own pop-culture mash-up poetry and end with an appeal to buy the writer coffee. The author of just two previous published novels (about a multilingual child prodigy, and an encyclopaedia salesman turned sex-peddler, respectively), DeWitt keeps a pure flame, and doesn’t want to hear why others won’t.

She and her characters inhabit an intellectual, emotional and physical triangle between New York, Berlin and Gloucester Green bus station, Oxford. ‘It would mean a lot to me to work with [an editor] who admired Bertrand Russell,’ one of her narrators remarks… about her children’s book. Another one has ‘views on the Kaddish of Mr Leon Wieseltier’. And DeWitt’s endnotes reference the cost of pigments in Renaissance painting, the clever-clever comics website xkcd, and a proof found in another of her own unpublished novels, on the distinction between X and x.

The abiding theme of Some Trick: Thirteen Stories (New Directions, £22.95) is thwarted genius — especially where that genius is female. The art world features heavily, as do publishing, music, languages, maths and computer programming. In a story full of distribution graphs, a typical DeWitt sentence runs:

Peter had written a book of robot tales with a happy beginning which had made, as it turned out, what seemed a lot of money, and yet not enough money to mitigate contractual relations with persons who had professed to love it yet sought to remove references to ewiπ.

Beneath this is a four-paragraph-long note, rolled over from the previous page, on information design. Yet it’s all perversely readable, and entertaining. Some trick.

In Certain American States (Granta, £12.99), Catherine Lacey’s first protagonist is a man knocked for six by a short story his ex-wife has just published. Another woman clears out her dead husband’s closet.

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