Ben Merriman at The Quarterly Conversation:
Fifteen years after its first publication, Helen DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai is back in print. Its long absence has owed to the messy legal history of Miramax Books, rather than lack of interest from readers: many have remained devoted to the novel, which is still a fresh and startling work. In the intervening years, DeWitt has published a good deal of other writing, including two novels (one co-authored) and a book’s worth of short prose. The republication of The Last Samurai provides a useful occasion to assess this body of work as a whole. DeWitt’s work consistently brings off a striking double movement: her fiction is at once a very modern examination of the relationship between art, science, and commerce, and an exploration of enduring philosophical and moral questions. It is also entertaining, lively, and darkly humorous.
The Last Samurai presents the story of Sibylla and her son Ludo. Sibylla emigrated from the United States to study at Oxford, and remains in England as a form self-imposed intellectual exile from American philistinism. Sibylla is a woman of extraordinary intelligence, yet she makes a very marginal and dull living: she spends her days at her (pre-internet) home computer, where she is paid a piece rate for transcribing the complete runs of magazines like Weaseller’s Companion and Carpworld.