Crafting a New Tower of Babel

Open Helen DeWitt's debut novel, The Last Samurai, to a random page, and you may think you've stumbled upon some sort of guide to the Tower of Babel. There are bits of Greek and Japanese and Inuit. And, more than once, like weird typographical errors, a list of stops on the London Underground. This is babble with a purpose, though, which is all revealed in the fullness of a very satisfying--not to mention rapturously received--novel about a single mother and her genius son.

DeWitt knows her linguistic playfulness pushes the boundaries of what is ordinary and acceptable in fiction. She knows...

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