Review of The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt

In a key early scene, the narrator of Helen DeWitt’s new short story sits in a London restaurant with her ‘Mum’, who is acting ‘serious’ – possibly because she just received a disturbing phone call , or maybe because “it was his habit”. be serious when ordering wine. Mom then gives lessons that she wants our narrator, Marguerite, to recognize the meaning of. Among them: “The French understand wine, cheese, bread”; “the Germans know precision, machines”; and “Arabs understand honor”. Mom explains that she doesn’t mean that these qualities are “instantiated in every individual” of a culture, but rather that “it’s as if certain qualities flourish in certain social conjunctions.”

The next day, mom will disappear, leaving Marguerite, 17, to discover that this woman is not her mother but rather her kidnapper and the thief who stole a fortune which the child Marguerite should have inherited when her parents died.

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But why, if you steal $100 million from a baby, would you also steal the baby? Why raise the child in style in Marrakech, Morocco – with distinguished music teachers, Savile Row couture and lessons at the Royal Tennis Academy – and why scrupulously inculcate its aristocratic standards of excellence and generosity?

Because to do otherwise, we understand, would be “bad tone”. Basically it means ‘bad taste’, although Marguerite insists that no English translation will suffice, just as no other wool matches the wool of the Outer Hebrides tweeds. Avoidance of bad tone it is the principle according to which Mama and Marguerite live. Its applications are not only aesthetic but also moral. And he will be put to the test when the abandoned Marguerite – in possession of a sensational story and in need of money – signs a book contract. The main plot of the story is Marguerite’s attempt to stay true to herself in the face of the very bad-tempered cabal of New York agents, lawyers and publishers with whom she now has contractual relations.

Part of a series of New Directions “storybooks” intended to be read in one sitting, “The English Understand Wool” is a little treat for (often ardent) DeWitt readers and an inviting introduction for newcomers. readers. DeWitt is one of our most resourceful writers, a witty master of fable, and she pulls it off here with wonderful voice specificity and a plot that buzzes like German machinery.

As in DeWitt’s first novel, “The Last Samurai,” we have a multilingual child raised under an unusual and demanding code – and a story that asks if that code, if widely adopted, won’t leave us all better off. Marguerite’s particular sensibility causes serious creative differences with her editor. One problem is that Marguerite won’t bear witness to the betrayal she’s supposed to feel. This apparently degrades the sales prospects of his memoirs. “Maybe there were people who would like to hear about feelings,” Marguerite explains, “but I didn’t think they were people I would want to know.” But she was traumatized, her editor insists; his “Mom” stole his money! To which Marguerite replies that she has no grievance, because “at 18 months I could not have used these hundred million dollars to be brought up by the equal of mom”.

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Such conflicts between the inescapable particularity of individuals and the inescapable commodifying forces of commerce are another specialty of DeWitt. They drive both “Lightning Rods,” his relentless corporate satire, and many stories in his “Some Trick” collection. Those familiar with DeWitt’s frustrations in bringing books to market may mistake the publishing industry for the main target of this news. But DeWitt’s real subject was never New York publishing, which Marguerite tediously considers “provincial.” It’s more broadly how market incentives – and people who are overly beholden to them – can undermine decency, truth, art and craft.

Unlike the dummy hacks she encounters in New York, Marguerite sees Mom as a model employer and patron, an ethical snob who uses her (stolen) fortune to ensure nobility on both sides of every exchange. In other words, mom demands perfection by generously overpaying for it. She insists that her servants in Morocco “speak perfect English and French”. Yet it also travels abroad for six weeks every year around Ramadan, as it would be bad form to ask its salaried staff to work on or immediately after that holiday. She buys a showroom in Paris for an inspired Thai seamstress. She offered accomplished musicians a private residence, asking only in return that they instruct Marguerite for an hour a week, on the condition that Marguerite could demonstrate skill and that they “did not find the instruction intolerable”.

Of course, such terms of employment seem as fanciful to most people with jobs as such expenses do to most people without $100 million. But for young Marguerite, mum’s manner seems the minimum that good taste requires in order to shell out an immense surplus. She doesn’t see these crude, commodifying forces as so inevitable, and she wonders why “New Yorker” proverbs, with their own surpluses, would perpetuate them.

How will Marguerite behave among those of us who conspire to accept mediocrity? Has fugitive mother really abandoned her? I won’t spoil the final twists of this playful and implausible parable, but I will allude to one of its lessons. If perhaps “certain qualities flourish in certain social conjunctions,” then we see that to live outside the law you have to be honest – and to live in New York you apparently have to be something else.

Julius Taranto’s first novel will be published in 2023.

The English understand the wool

New Directions. 64 pages $17.95

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