And she is especially fond of taking a weird, unlikely premise and then developing it rigorously, with the iron logic of a crazy person. Lightning Rods begins with a failed salesman’s eureka moment: Companies can avoid sexual-harassment claims by providing male employees with anonymous sexual encounters in the office bathroom. The social and political comedy inherent in the idea is obvious; but what’s so strangely compelling about DeWitt’s novel is less its message than the extreme care with which the central conceit is worked out. If you were really to put such a scheme in action, you would face all the little problems and obstacles that DeWitt imagines: how to make a hole in the wall between the men’s and women’s bathrooms, how to disguise the women so the men can’t identify them, how to schedule the rendezvous during the workday, and so forth. At its core, Lightning Rods is about the impossibility of making a fantasy come true—the way the compulsive imagination makes unsatisfiable demands on reality.
One definition of a genius is that she is so dissatisfied with the way the world is that she compels it to adjust to her, rather than following the usual course of adjusting to it. The 13 stories in Some Trick are full of this kind of figure, so much so that the book comes to read like a disguised confession. What happens when a person like DeWitt comes up against the world of “the arts,” which is finally an economic sector like any other—dominated by the profit motive, bureaucratic inertia, and polite evasiveness?
The answer, in these stories, is a kind of anguished comedy. Take “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” an account of a disastrous meeting between Peter, a mathematician, and Jim, a literary agent. Peter is the author of a math-related bestseller, but success was poisoned for him by his publishers’ resistance to following his exact wishes—in particular, their refusal to include opaque mathematical symbols in the book. Negotiating for a second book, what matters most to Peter is not money, but his intellectual vision; he wants to convince Jim that he will sign with any publisher who will agree to do exactly what he wants. “The thing that matters is not, ultimately, an understanding of number theory, or the structure of the atom, or the semantic tradition, but an unswerving commitment to the pursuit of truth,” he earnestly lectures Jim.
But the agent, of course, thinks Peter is either joking or delusional—especially when he declares that he will be happy to give Jim 85 percent of the profits. “It is entirely reasonable for me to determine my own ends and offer financial compensation to you for the inconvenience of promoting them,” Peter impotently explains. He is quite aware that he is being perceived as an unworldly nerd, but he doesn’t care; for DeWitt, nerddom is allied to genius in its deep indifference to conventional expectations. In the end, Peter gets distracted by his own thoughts and ends up walking out of the meeting without saying goodbye. He can’t get what he wants from the world, but he is adept at making up a world in his head.