Rewinding Helen DeWitt

The return of her remarkable novel The Last Samurai is perfect for our streaming-video moment.

last samurai book.

Matt Cummings

Published to tremendous acclaim in 2000 but out of print for much of the past decade, Helen DeWitt’s massive novel The Last Samurai is being reissued this month by New Directions. With any luck, the acclaim for DeWitt’s 2011 tragicomisexual satire Lightning Rods will encourage readers to return to this unjustly forgotten big book of the turn of the 21st century. If they do, they’ll discover that it’s surprisingly relevant to the way we consume art today, the perfect novel for the age of streaming. How do we control our media? How does it control us?

It might seem odd to suggest that a novel as aggressively analog as The Last Samurai has much to say to the Netflix generation. As DeWitt describes her complex plot, with a kind of hilarious deadpan, the novel is “the story of a single mother who uses Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to provide male role models for her fatherless boy.” As much as the novel does in its 576 pages, this is a pretty succinct and accurate description. Indeed, the only consistent thread weaving its way throughout the multilingual, multiperspectival tome is the scene of the book’s two protagonists—Sibylla and her boy-genius son Ludo—watching a VHS copy of Seven Samurai over and over and over again.

Kurosawa’s epic film is started, paused, rewound, talked over, and pored over throughout the book until it becomes a living part of the narrative, with star Toshiro Mifune uttering lines of Japanese within the text and the book’s plot taking on the structure of the samurai epic. But even as DeWitt’s novel fetishizes video, it provides an elegant—and newly useful—meditation on what it means to feel so intimately close to what we watch on TV.

Helen Dewitt.
Helen Dewitt.

New Directions

As much as The Last Samurai is a novel about a mother’s struggle to raise a son on her own, it is also a novel about art—not making art, or inspiring it, but consuming it and engaging with it in a million informal, inappropriate, but profoundly meaningful ways. For DeWitt, the most interesting style of consumption is repetition. The repeat viewer, in this novel, is a new kind of hero, a character whose psychological complexity is challenged by and forged in concert with the media she consumes. And it isn’t just Kurosawa. Repetition is both the novel’s topic—familial inheritance figured as an endless cycle of repeated mistakes and sins—and its style.

Sibylla reads and rereads sections of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith. Sibylla and Ludo ride the same route through London on the appropriately named Circle Line every day, sometimes multiple times. Glenn Gould records nine or 10 different versions of every piece. The fictional pianist and performance artist Yamamoto plays and replays the same variations in concert so many times that the members of his audience miss their trains home. Phrases like “masterpiece of modern cinema” are repeated in Vonnegutian style throughout the text of the novel. And, of course, Sibylla and Ludo watch, pause, rewind, rewatch, and pore over the aforementioned “masterpiece of modern cinema,” Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, until Ludo appropriates the plot as a way to track down and test potential father figures in London. By and large, characters in this novel don’t just read a book, listen to a song, or watch a movie. They reread, replay, rewind until the book, song, or movie transubstantiates into something almost indescribable. They make ordinary art transcendent through repetition.

Video, like the remote control before it and online streaming and video on-demand after it, is what media scholars call a “control technology.” These technologies all share the ability to take power out of the hands of the network programmer or TV station and put it in the hands of the viewer. They symbolize the emergence and triumph of active spectatorship, the promise, however illusory, of control over a medium that is so often criticized for holding its viewers in a kind of dumb, passive thrall. With the ability to choose her spots, to replay the scenes she finds most significant, the VCR allows Sibylla to transform the film into something else entirely. (Inasmuch as it provides a road map for her son’s quest, it’s significant that we only ever see Sibylla and Ludo watching scenes from the exciting, men-on-a-mission first half of the film, and not its triumphant yet tragic second half.) From one angle, this is a silly project; from another, it’s almost unspeakably profound.

So while The Last Samurai focuses on VHS, its real focus is on the style of control that VHS offers Sibylla, and, as a result, it opens up naturally into our contemporary moment. (Michael Newman’s book Video Revolutions points out that “video” itself is a malleable term, referring at different points in its history to everything from broadcast TV to cassettes to digital downloads.) In our streaming era, film and television and video are so accessible, so close as to occupy a blurry contact zone in our lives. We can reproduce the theatrical experience in our living rooms, but we can also chop up, fragment, and compulsively replay, as well. When I fly, I watch the same five-episode stretch of Parks and Recreation over and over to distract me. When I need to psych myself up, I rewatch YouTube videos of triumphant public performances: Beyoncé at the Obama inauguration, Mister Rogers arguing for public television funding in front of a Senate committee. I watch “The Suitcase” from Season 4 of Mad Men when I am lonely. I sync media, in other words, to the ebbs and flows of my life, making it look more like me.

It’s an illusion to imagine that control technologies like VHS or streaming give us actual power over these media forms, that they enable interactivity in any but the most superficial ways. But the ability to control our media even to the extent that we can is also an ability to give it new significance, to integrate it into not just how we live day today, but who we are. This is happening whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. The Last Samurai is neither a warning about nor a utopian celebration of this fact. But it is an argument that, sometimes, it can be beautiful.

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. New Directions.
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