Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Last Samurai: Parenting as Risky Business

This week begins the new group read of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. Scott Esposito over at Conversational Reading is leading the effort: you can find the schedule here and Scott’s initial thoughts here. Scott’s post does a nice job of introducing some of the various threads of the novel. After saying a little about the prologue, I would like to expand on the discussion of chance he started, a motif that so far seems to draw together everything else for me.

Very briefly: so far, we have a prologue that tells the story of Sibylla’s father, and a first chapter that introduces her life with her gifted son Ludo. Sibylla’s father (I think unnamed so far, but maybe I just missed it) was an atheist genius admitted by Harvard at 15 but conned by his minister father into going to theological school instead so he could “give the other side a fair chance.” Sibylla tells this part of her story with much more continuity and cohesion than she can later. Indeed, the beginning reads almost like a fairy tale, with a twist of realism, when her father meets the three Deans, both because of the relatively straightforward and simple style of this section and the “rule of three” structure that leads to his admission at the third school. Again, though, more realistically: his is no “just right” fit, but one that comes from finding an administrator relatively less intellectually honest and more interested in the tuition money he can charge. More amusing, and with a happier (apparently) outcome, is her father’s run-in with an archetypal pool-hall confidence man, in which he actually beats the confidence man. Another twist on myth: the overcome opponent or obstacle that results in a magical gift—insider investment advice.

Much of this already introduces the idea of chance: give the other side a chance, con men, investments. The grandfather’s insistence that the father “give the other side a chance” may at first glance seem to be using the word chance in a different way than would apply to the narrator’s obsession with numbers and odds: the grandfather really means that the father should treat the debate over religion honestly by grappling with the best minds in the field. However, the grandfather himself is playing a con game, as the father later realizes to his own dismay. Indeed, the reason he accepts this challenge has nothing to do with the logic of his grandfather’s statement but with emotion: “Something looked through my grandfather’s beautiful eyes. Something spoke with his beautiful voice.” The use of “Something” here is a way of indicating something non-logical, perhaps sadness or desperation or just a sense of paternal obligation, and this Something, along with “a very delicate sense of honor,” drives the father. Here, and in the way the grandfather successfully convinces the father that the first two Deans are wrong that he could give a fair chance while still going to Harvard, we see the grandfather loading the dice, playing the father’s sense of honor so that it short-circuits logic (“The beautiful voice pointed out…that of course my father must decide for himself”).

Or perhaps the father knows all along: given that he never goes to class once he gets to theology school, his honor may have less to do with giving a fair fight than with a sense of filial duty: either way he gets conned, and so it is interesting that the story’s next major turn comes with his triumph over a con man. In return, what does he get from the con man? Insider advice on land investments: a way to hedge against chance that he does, apparently, then use to make a fortune on a motel chain. Sibylla herself borrows from this tradition when she lies to improve her chances of getting into Oxford, so perhaps one of the things that most ties the first three generations of this family together is not just an obsession with numbers and odds, but a willingness to skew odds in their own favor.

The obsession over chance leads, for me, to some of the funnier passages in the book. For example, here is another brief story told about the father:

In later years my father sometimes played a game. He’d meet a man on his way to Mexico and he’d say, Here’s fifty bucks, do me a favor and buy me some lottery tickets, and he’d give the man his card. Say the odds against winning the jackpot were 20 million to 1 and the odds against the man giving my father the winning ticket another 20 million to 1, you couldn’t say my father’s life was ruined because there was a 1 in 400 trillion chance that it wasn’t.

This is absurd, even given the situation of the game. In what way can you say someone’s life is ruined if they don’t win the lottery, or even if they don’t get the money when someone else wins the lottery on their behalf? The logic, or illogic, becomes clearer at the end of the next paragraph, which describes a variation on the game for European travel. Sibylla writes,

Whatever [the odds] were [of getting the money from the stranger, etc.] it was not absolutely impossible but only highly unlikely, and it was not absolutely certain that my grandfather had destroyed him because there was a 1 in 500 trillion trillion chance that he had not.

My father played the game for a long time because he felt he should give my grandfather a sporting chance.

Aside from its humorous and rococo logic (or even because of it), this passage is revealing—and surprising—because it (along with a more vague passage two pages later) suggests the father’s obsession with chance really has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with a continuing filial piety after realizing his father’s betrayal. First of all, he wants a reconciliation with his father enough to hope that getting rich through some unlikely series of events will mean that his grandfather didn’t ruin him by derailing him from Harvard (an easier path to, or better chance for, financial success). But this passage also seems to suggest that he thinks the occurrence of something extremely unlikely but still possible would vindicate his grandfather’s religious belief. The thinking here echoes religious arguments, particularly the kind you hear about intelligent design (the chances of the development of the eye or some other organ).

All of this echoes with Sibylla’s story once we get into the first chapter: her own guilt about not telling Ludo’s father he has a son and her recurrent idea to bring them together, her obsession with chance and the way certain events seem to shape later ones (I say seem because some of her chains of cause and effect feel rather like fancy). Moreover, I think the motif of chance may have something to do with what Scott called the suspicion that “the narrator tries too hard not to block the genius in her own son.” Is this novel, ultimately, going to be about the obsession with creating chances for children? Certainly Ludo seems to have better chances than most to be a genius on his own merits, but is the way Sibylla relates to his potential really so different than many parents (c.f. Baby Einstein or whatever the current fad may be)?

I think you can turn this to a more historical interpretation too: we aren't just reading about parenting, but parenting in a very modern economy of risk unlike, say, the world of the grandfather, who has no interest in his son’s chances for economic success. I will be interested to see how these themes develop as the novel goes forward.


  1. I really like your analysis of the role chance plays in the first section of the novel. I'm loving the book so far, and the discussion and analysis is increasing my enjoyment.

    I have a theory that the "Something" in “Something looked through my grandfather’s beautiful eyes..." is the "Alien" who appears on pages 49 and 81 and seems to represent Sibylla's idea of what society wants her to do. What do you think?

  2. Lisa--Thanks, and what a great idea! I hadn't considered that possibility, and hadn't tried to think through the whole Alien issue much yet. The idea that the Something and the Alien are the same makes perfect sense as far as I've gotten in the book.

  3. Hi. I think it’s my first post here. I re-discovered your blog via Madhuri’s. I remember stalking it earlier this year in the 2666 group read. So I must be the one who drummed up the statistics for the Philippines.

    Anyway, great post. I’ve finished the book earlier than expected. I couldn't tear myself from the last sections of the book where it gets better and better in developing its themes.

    You astutely identified the significant role of human emotions in subverting/extending chance here at the start. Which is perfect counterpoint to what happens in the latter parts of the book where the young genius Ludo makes his own "gambles."

  4. Rise--Thanks for dropping in and saying hello. Glad to see someone else who read along with 2666. If I hadn't been so busy the past few weeks, I think like you I would have read through the end of the book already. I'm already starting to get a bit into next week, so perhaps I'll end up finishing a week early.

  5. I'm a big fan of the book, just wanted to give my two cents. I don't think the point is that, if the father does not win the lottery, his life is ruined for that reason. To the father, his life is ruined already. He does the lottery game because it creates a chance that something good might happen. And you can't say someone's life is ruined if there is a small chance something incredibly good might happen.

    I hadn't thought about chance as a vindication of his grandfathers religious belief. That's possible and interesting. I suppose I thought of it as an instantiation of the book's focus on depression and how to deal with it. On my reading, this darkly humorous game is how the father does that.

  6. Thanks, Anonymous.

    I can see why you would read it like that (i.e., he can't ruin his life because it is already ruined)--and in fact that would make the most sense for her to say, but I can't quite bring myself to believe she is saying it just because of the logic of the sentence as she lays it out.

    In other words: if his life were already ruined and thus couldn't be, shouldn't there be a 100% chance (400 trillion/400 trillion)that it wouldn't be ruined by the bet? Yet, he (and/or Sibylla, as she tells the story) reserves the chance of not being ruined to the 1/400 trillion chance of winning the lottery and having the money returned...