The Short Version: After a one-night stand, Sibylla – an American first studying at Oxford and then surviving on odd jobs in London – finds herself raising Ludo, a precocious young boy with a hunger for knowledge. She turns to the classics (languages, works of fiction and non-fiction, and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) to craft his education and by age 11, he is beyond ready to find his father. So he sets out to do so.
The Review: The Last Samurai has developed a kind of mythic quality over the last 15 or so years since it was originally released. For one thing, it has no relation to the Tom Cruise movie of the same name that came out in 2003 – although it was published by TalkMiramax (which sort of disappeared back into the corporate entity that is Miramax at some point in the intervening years), so you could be forgiven for blindly thinking there might be a connection. For another, the book went out of print until only just recently, making the “cult classic” term far more applicable than it usually is. And I read Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, her second (and much shorter) novel, shortly after it came out – and very much disliked it. I didn’t understand the hype or why people spoke in sort of hushed tones about the promise promised by this novel – largely because I couldn’t find it anywhere and why would I want to read a book about a white guy joining the Japanese army in the late 1800s?
DeWitt refers to some if not all of these things in her Acknowledgements to this “2nd Edition”, right at the front of the book. Although one usually doesn’t consider Acknowledgements to be a part of the novel, I found that they oddly were for this particular one. The experience of coming to a novel long out of print, now reissued, with a new introduction by a somewhat more world-weary/embittered author is not a new one – but here, one has the sense of coming to the novel almost as though it were brand new. Because largely, it is; an entire generation of readers has come into maturity since the novel originally went out of print and the world has changed in rather dramatic ways. So DeWitt is not only reintroducing the novel but introducing it, if that makes sense.
It makes more sense, anyway, when you start reading the novel proper – for the novel is packed to overflowing with references, quotes, meta-narrational flourishes, other languages, and an all-around zest for the intellectual. If ever there was a novel to be reintroduced as for the first time, this is the sort that takes the mantle upon itself and becomes something more than it ever was before simply by virtue of its displacement in time. Perhaps – as her Afterword seems to hope – it will find a different, larger audience now, as though dropped through a portal in time from 2000 to the present, lost like the book in MYST. Or, if not a larger audience, perhaps one that will be able to affect change in the right ways.
The novel is structured largely from two points of view, Sibylla and Ludo. It could be three if you count the semi-omniscient voice of the historical recaps, although those are often being recounted via either of the two main characters. Sibylla, fleeing a somewhat dismal American life, comes to Oxford and then drops out, managing to find a job and work visa but ending up stuck with a baby. Rather idiosyncratic in all things, Sibylla takes to heart the child-rearing methods of J.S. Mill and Yo-Yo Ma – which basically says that a kid can manage anything if given it in small enough parts. To this, she adds her own twist: putting on The Seven Samurai regularly, as it is her favorite movie and, she believes, it explains much about life. By age 4, Ludo is reading The Odyssey in Greek and his hunger for knowledge is almost too much for Sibylla to manage. They carve out an existence that can best be described as on the fringe: they often don’t have heat, so they ride the Circle Line for hours at a time or go spend the day in museums. Much of their money (or what’s left after paying bills) goes to books and things for Ludo – and Sibylla’s adoration of her son is perhaps never clearer. She is astonished by this child, this thing that she hath wrought, and although the bleakness of their lives creeps in, this love is the burning center of the novel that keeps anything from seeming too bad.
When Ludo gets older – when he turns eleven – the novel’s narration fully shifts to him, after an interlude where we got his diary entries mixed with Sibylla’s narration. His burning desire, for years, has been to know his father or at least his father’s name. Sibylla sets tests for him, hoping that he’ll come to understand why she doesn’t want him involved in Ludo’s life at all, but he outwits them and discovers the truth. He then sets out on what could’ve been a novel in and of itself: a series of journeys, almost mythic in quality, to essentially interview a series of potential fathers. But not in the Mamma Mia! way – Ludo knows full well who his father is. He meets him, talks to him, and decides that he maybe isn’t totally satisfied. And so he sets out to meet with other potential candidates, often bluffing his way into their homes and confronting them with the line “I’m your son.” This works, to varying degrees, and the journey becomes its own kind of coming-of-age story as Ludo realizes that he can both pick his own father figure as well as never totally escape the reality of biological parentage.
In between all of this, there’s simply an overwhelming mass of information. Texts of philosophy and mathematics and physics are quoted, sometimes at length, and I think I counted at least three languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet (as well as at least four, aside from English, that do). The backstories of various characters – the potential father figures as well as figures from Sibylla’s life – could all stand alone as short stories. There are odd flourishes of humor, like off-brand Fried Chicken places named for pretty much every state except Kentucky, and there are (as I previously alluded) moments of heart-clenching sadness/joy. There is insightful analysis of one of the best films ever made, extended musings on music and musical theory, and a wonderful element of fish-out-of-water American-experiencing-London to the whole thing as well.
Could a four year old be reading The Odyssey in Greek? Perhaps – perhaps many could, given the opportunity. Does a parent have the right to withhold information about a child’s other parent? Could be argued in either direction, I suppose. What’s the best way to live in this world? DeWitt doesn’t set out to answer that or any question, really, so much as she does just deeply explore these two ever-entwined lives. The result is unlike anything else I’ve ever read, but that feels deeply connected to everybody from David Foster Wallace to Mark Z. Danielewski, Aimee Bender to Zadie Smith. I feel like a part of a pretty special club now.
Rating: 5 out of 5. It’s a truly kaleidoscopic book and one that defies expectations and categorization. It sprawls a little too much at times – there were moments that dragged or that could’ve used a more judicious editor – but her ambition outshines any failures of execution. This is a book that celebrates intelligence of any and all forms, that espouses the realities of living a life decidedly your own (as opposed to any laid out for you by family, friends, or society), and that does not intend to be easily grappled with. It practically crackles with its own kinetic energy when you open it up and the world has maybe never seen anything quite like it – maybe even including when it first arrived on the scene. Regardless, it’s a second chance at a first impression and it’s a book that well and truly deserves every chance it can get.