The best story in this the first collection of short stories by the author of The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods is “Entourage.” Like many of the collected stories, which range in date of composition from 1985, when DeWitt was a student at Oxford, to the present, it is the portrait of an idiosyncratic personality. It begins with an eccentric man who flies to Krakow, Poland, on a whim, bringing with him a suitcase of books to which he feels too attached to leave behind.
He wanders into a bookstore, and while looking at books he becomes seduced by the unusual alphabet he discovers in their pages, especially the frequency of the letters z, w, and y.
He has to have these books. This irresistible urge to collect things is a common theme in the collection. The compulsion can be found in “Climbers,” for instance, a story in which a character named Gil simply must buy five copies of his favorite writer’s books in a language he cannot read, just because “he might never be in Amsterdam again and he had to have them.”
To carry his unexpected collection of Polish books, the man in “Entourage” acquires a second suitcase and hires someone to accompany the luggage to Berlin. Sometimes collectors get carried away, Pierre Bourdieu said. They take a legitimate impulse – “Oh, I just have to have this book” – and carry it “to the extreme, i.e., to absurdity.” DeWitt was thinking about Bourdieu when she was writing “Entourage.”
Because the man is a frequent traveler, he begins to take the precaution, in case he runs into more must-have books, of buying a second ticket and hiring a second someone to carry a second suitcase.
On a trip to Istanbul, he discovers “all sorts of books one simply never sees. Books, you know, with a dotless i. Umlauts up the gazoo. It would be necessary, obviously, to purchase a new suitcase and hire someone locally to fly back with it.” Bourdieu said that when the “stockpiling avidity” goes too far, “accumulations of culture” can become a “perversion.”
The man, who remains unnamed, soon needs more books, more bags, and more handlers. He realizes he can hire ten people to fly EasyJet to Bilbao, each with a suitcase, for under 35 euros a pop. Ten turns into twenty, and now he is traveling with an entourage. “Each member of the entourage was a native speaker of the language in which books in the accompanied suitcase were written.” Soon the entourage is complemented with replacements and a manager.
At this juncture, an opportunity presents itself. Up to this point, the story has progressed along lines of seemingly realistic eccentricity. OK, sure, a man likes books, he likes them a lot. Sure, he hires people to fly around with him carrying his favorite books. Fine, why not. But as in so many of DeWitt’s narratives, at some point things cross an invisible line and the reasonable blurs into the absurd, producing a Lynchian mix of the banal with the surreal.
In a New York bar, while conducting interviews for the entourage, he meets a woman who needs to sell a restaurant with a sushi train, which is basically a conveyor belt like the ones you see at the airport baggage claim, only this one circulates dishes from the menu.
Presented with the opportunity to become the proud owner of such a gimmick, the man, recalling his boyhood fondness for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and bearing in mind the findings of the marshmallow test regarding delayed gratification, suddenly sees that there might be something to be done with this carousel. “Twenty children could be placed around the perimeter of the conveyor belt!”
His vision becomes a reality, and the man is swept up in his new pursuit. He uses the principle of delayed gratification to train the next generation of the entourage.
But the man has lost sight of his initial attachment to books. He is now devoted to developing a system for training human beings, specifically children. He can be said to be in possession of a bureaucratic personality. The bureaucrat, as theorized by Michel Crozier, gives priority to the means – in this case, his entourage — over the ends – his books.
Like a good neoliberal subject, the man shows an “entrepreneurial interest” in using the tools he now finds at his disposal “in whatever way is most effective in the moment.” He begins to fantasize about the ends to which his invention might serve as a means: “A sushi train presumably costs less than incarceration. Might the device serve as a preventive to juvenile delinquency?”
While the initial sushi train can accommodate twenty children, he soon realizes he can slot in eight small tables perpendicular to the conveyor belt, each table supervised by a member of the entourage. From twenty children he gets to a hundred and sixty.
At this point, “the notion of what is immediately useful and profitable,” in other words neoliberal thinking as Rachel Greenwald Smith theorizes it, has overtaken the man’s prior commitment to books.
The man succumbs to the lure of utility maximization. This sense of being enthralled by an opportunity recurs throughout the collection. Moments present themselves to characters as irresistible. In “Climbers,” an agent convinces a reclusive writer to seize his moment, as it were, even if it means giving up control of his work. In “Brutto,” an art collector pressures an artist living hand to mouth into doing unthinkable things in exchange for a big show.
With his sushi train operation up and running, the book-lover-turned-entrepreneur mischievously decides to put together a session made up entirely of children named Josh. This sets up one of the funniest scenes in the book:
The Josh session could not have come at a better time.
If one is going to do the thing properly, one wants Borges read by an Argentinian, Vargas Llosa by a Peruvian, Garcia Marquez by a Colombian. And so on. Sometimes, though, one doesn’t want to clutter up the mind. It was simpler, he realized, to settle on a single, easily memorable name for the Hispanophone contingent. He chose Julio. Within a short time he had Julio Argentino, Julio Chileno, Julio Boliviano, Julio Peruano, Julio Venezolano, Julio Colombiano, Julio Salvadoreno, Julio Mexicano (and so, of course, on) at his disposal. Similarly, one wants an Egyptian, of course, to read Mahfuz and el-Ghitani, a Syrian for Adonis, and so naturally on, but an entrepreneur needs to prioritize, it was simplest, he found, to recruit a cohort of Hassans. Who could then be distinguished as Hassan al-syriani, Hassan al-libnani, Hassan al-maghribi, and what have you. Every once in a while a squabble would blow up among the Julios or the Hassans, but he now had an entourage manager (thank heavens!) to pour oil on troubled waters.
Just as in the Wizard of Oz Dorothy goes from somewhere over the rainbow, in Technicolor, to Kansas, in black and white, in “Entourage” a bibliophile goes from traveling around Krakow and Bilbao and Berlin collecting untranslated books to running an empire of assembly lines that bear an eerie resemblance to child labor. And with that, the story collection that began with an enigmatic Oz-inspired poem comes full circle.
DeWitt’s stories have the texture of fairy tales. Kandice Chuh might classify them as “gleeful departures from the ordinary.”
But her fairy tales have a brothers Grimm-like underbelly to them. In “Entourage,” an idiosyncratic passion for foreign-language books — only three percent of books in the United States are in translation — turns into a demented fervor for the manipulation of human behavior.
The sense of possibility represented in that innocent love of books, all those umlauts and dotless-i-s, morphs into a banal propensity for workforce development. How do we get there? Some trick.