Field Notes: The Last Samurai, The Film Club


SYNOPSIS: Helen DeWitt’s 2000 novel about a single mother who tries to give her genius son a proxy father figure (give or take a half-dozen) by showing him Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai over and over.

CONDITION: Vintage paperback, bought from Value Village in 2010.

THOUGHTS: The story goes that DeWitt started somewhere around 50 novels in her lifetime before finishing The Last Samurai. I can’t help but wonder how many of them feature prodigies like the mother-son team at the heart of this book, because DeWitt is obviously a genius herself, inhabiting her characters’ robo-hummingbird minds with unerring clarity and ease.

Yet it’s also, miraculously, a page-turner. DeWitt is smart enough to anchor all these tales of young Ludo’s intense, rapid study of (among other things) Homer, aerodynamics, and dozens of languages to a rock-solid story. He wants to find out who his father is. Then, earlier than a reader might expect, he finds him. But he’s less impressive than expected. So Ludo applies what he learned from Kurosawa’s movie, and tracks down men who he wishes were his father, and tests them, in brilliant ways only he would think of.

I can’t remember the last time I powered through a 500-page book as quickly as I did The Last Samurai. It’s elegant, and immaculately structured, and absolutely crackles with energy. When I finished reading the prologue, a short flashback in which Ludo’s grandmother meets his grandfather for the first time, I remember muttering to myself, “Holy fuck.”

DeWitt has a long-anticipated second novel, Lightning Rods, coming out next month. Get excited. I am.

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SYNOPSIS: David Gilmour’s 2007 account of letting his teenage son drop out of high school, no questions asked—as long as he watches three movies, of his father’s choosing, every week.

CONDITION: Thomas Allen hardcover, bought from the Lonsdale Salvation Army on vacation last week.

THOUGHTS: Not feeling this one at all. I picked up The Film Club after reading Gilmour’s incendiary interview with the National Post, wherein he comes off as either (a) a hardscrabble writer who can’t catch a break in the poisonous, envy-soaked world of Canadian literature (he publicly vowed to “beat the living shit” out of a critic who gave his last novel a bad review); or (b) a total asshole.

And even if he were a total asshole, that wouldn’t matterat least not in the context of his fiction. Plenty of great writers are unpleasant people. Who cares? But The Film Club is memoir. And even though Gilmour does his best to make himself sound cool and humane, there are whiffs of assholery way too strong to ignore. When your teenage son breaks down and wonders out loud why he’s still scared of youand since you remember this conversation well enough to be able to write it down, years after the factmaybe it’s time to rethink a few things.

Yet Gilmour’s stated subject is movies, and that’s where his book’s attention is (kind of) directed. There’s also a lot about his son Jesse’s girlfriends, as well as his nascent career as a rapper—but strangely little about the underlying conditions that made him want to drop out of school in the first place. Why does Jesse’s mother (with whom Gilmour does not live) agree to this idea? What does Gilmour expect Jesse to get out of watching the movies? Does it work? And, given his son’s obsession with hip-hop, wouldn’t a primer in the history of music make more sense?

Punctuation pundits may also want to avert their eyes at sentences—at dialogue!—like this: “Do you want to go outside for a cigarette; cool down.” That second part isn’t a command. It’s part of the question. Then again, given the period at the end, it’s not even technically a question at all, though it pretty obviously ought to be.

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