Monday, October 24, 2011

Keeping the Guys Grounded: DeWitt’s Lightning Rods

Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods isn’t an easy book to discuss: despite the odd humor and tremendous promise of a satirical novel about a vacuum cleaner salesman, Joe, whose sexual fantasies inspire him to design an institutional system for anonymous workplace sex, Lightning Rods left me a little underwhelmed. I think my biggest problem is context, which has nothing to do with Helen DeWitt’s writing: the book was written in the late 1990s, before bailouts of companies deemed too big to fail, before the Anthony Weiner scandal. What passes for reality now makes the absurdities of Lightning Rods look almost delicate.

With Occupy Wall Street in the news these days, Lightning Rods particularly reminds me of bailouts because Joe’s idea is to give alpha males—those same guys who just can’t help it—a way to satisfy their physical urges while improving their workplaces by preventing sexual harassment and raising productivity. Better attendance records are a positive side effect. Entitlement, a popular word these days, is a big part of Joe’s thinking, and one part of his sales pitch is this:

I believe that those in a place of work who do not welcome sexual advances should not be subjected to them. I also believe that a man who is producing results in today’s competitive market place has a right to be protected from potential undesirable side effects of the physical constitution which enables him to make a valued contribution to the company.

These guys become another type of “disadvantaged employees”—I won’t even begin to describe the role and symbolism of the disabled bathroom in the book—a perspective that helps Joe get through the difficulty of meeting with “one prize asshole after another” to sell his product. I should add that Joe’s system is anonymous for everyone involved. Joe becomes his own employment agency, hiring “lightning rod” women for skilled office work and lower-body-only sex, and he uses his modest programming skills to create automated e-invitations for men to visit the lightning rod facility during working hours. Joe goes to great lengths to improve the system for the women who work within it, taking recommendations from ambitious lightning rods who use their extra pay to fund law school educations that lead to spectacular careers.

From a technical perspective, language may be one of the most successful aspects of Lightning Rods: DeWitt writes in a consistently folksy business voice, creating a peculiar, fictional case study of Joe’s successes and failures. She uses lots of exclamation marks and clichés. Two bits from the first page: “How much better to sell something people knew they needed anyway! Something that didn’t make people give you weird looks!... He wasn’t the kind to let grass grow under his feet, so he walked straight into the nearest Electrolux office.” Joe’s thinking is clichéd, too. After he’s developed the idea for lightning rods and prepares to sell it, “He made a point of going straight to the top. People who have worked in personnel for a number of years, he felt, tend to think in clichés and be resistant to new ideas.” Later, Joe eats “a char-grilled burger” and drinks “an ice-cold Bud.”

What’s most interesting about Lightning Rods¸ though, is that, underneath the intentional, institutional blandness of the narrative voice and the cuts at political correctness, corporate life, and ambition, lies a novel about the lack of meaningful human interaction in modern life… which is caused by factors including political correctness, corporate life, ambition, and the intentional, institutional blandness of everyday speech. Of course the genesis of Joe’s money-making idea comes from his fantasies of anonymous sex. And male employees don’t talk with lightning rods, so “That meant that however often you found physical release for your needs, you were never going to be any further along in terms of talking to members of the opposite sex.” Near the end of the book, when Joe invites a woman to his apartment to listen to music, we learn more about his social awkwardness: Joe has only two CDs (Miles Davis and Carlos Jobim) and a bar filled with drinks that, improbably, lacks the Diet Coke the woman wants. Joe lucks out again, though. He still has an Encyclopedia Britannica set from his salesman days, and this woman loves the smell of its leather and new pages.

For more: Lightning Rods is a new release so I’ve avoided detail, but if you want more, here are two positive reviews and an interview with Helen DeWitt:

Bookforum Interview by Morten Høi Jensen

Bookforum Review by Rhonda Lieberman

Open Letters Monthly Review by Morten Høi Jensen

There are also readings from Lightning Rods on YouTube, presented by n+1 and the Center for Fiction. Here’s Part 1; here’s Part 2, in which Helen DeWitt answers questions.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of Lightning Rods from New Directions Publishing at BookExpo America, thank you! I always enjoy speaking with New Directions about literature in translation.

Up next: Probably Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption (this one’s been waiting for weeks!), then Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, about the wonders of tobacco.

Lightning Rods on Amazon
(I am an Amazon associate and receive a small percentage of purchases that readers make after clicking through my links.)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mawkish Sentimentality: Cather’s Lucy Gayheart

An observation after reading Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart: unsatisfying novels by classic writers often provide the very worst reading disappointments. I found Lucy Gayheart particularly unsatisfying because I read and enjoyed two or three of Cather’s books, including My Ántonia and Death Comes to the Archbishop, in high school and college. That, of course, was so long ago that I’m not sure if the problem is with my changing tastes or with Lucy Gayheart itself. Probably both.

Lucy Gayheart is the story of a young woman who leaves a small, cold Nebraska hometown to study music in Chicago. Lucy leaves behind her widower father and older sister, both of whom sacrificed to raise Lucy, and her banker beau Harry Gordon. In Chicago, Lucy finds work as an accompanist for singer Clement Sebastian, a well-travelled older man who has a condescending streak. They fall in love. Separate tragedies, which I’ll try not to reveal below, ensue for Sebastian and Lucy.

I’m sure many of my problems with Lucy Gayheart derive from my own reading history: themes of tragic love and music figure into Russian stories like Aleksandr Kuprin’s “Garnet Bracelet” and Lev Tolstoi’s Kreutzer Sonata. Neither of those pieces appeals to me much, either, though I’ve always had a soft spot for Russian sentimentalism, particularly Nikolai Karamzin’s Poor Liza. Liza and Lucy share plenty of themes, too, like tragic love between a younger woman and a more sophisticated man, and a wagon-load of sentimentality. I think those themes work much better, though, in Karamzin’s eighteenth-century story than in Cather’s 1935 novel.

I think my biggest difficulty with Lucy Gayheart is that it feels mawkishly sentimental—oddly, I was thinking of the book as “mawkish,” a word I rarely use, even before I read Harry Gordon reminiscing about Lucy by thinking “She had ruined all that for a caprice, a piece of mawkish sentimentality.” Worse, Cather never convinced me that Lucy and Sebastian could fall in love: Lucy hearing Sebastian sing “When We Two Parted” and then sensing impending doom just wasn’t enough.

Lucy Gayheart has a neat structure with motifs, like ice skating, that run through the whole novel, and Cather creates some fitting contrasts between town and city. A Chicago passage about “the crowded hour in the crowded part of the city” felt particularly lively. Lucy and Sebastian, though, felt anything but lively, too flat and empty as characters to develop into a true couple. Lucy, with her strong stride and love for cold weather, just doesn’t seem the type to melt for a man like Sebastian, in his velvet jacket. Poor Harry Gordon, who marries another woman after Lucy pushes him aside, feels like the most complex figure of all, thinking of Lucy’s choice as mawkishly sentimental but going to great lengths to preserve his conflicting memories of her.

Up Next: Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which is definitely not a sentimental novel. Or maybe I’ll finally post about Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption.

Image credit: Carl Van Vechten's photo of Cather in 1936; photo received via Wikipedia.

Willa Cather on Amazon

(I am an Amazon associate and receive a small percentage of purchases that readers make after clicking through my links.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Shades of Gray: Petterson’s In the Wake

Per Petterson’s portrait of Arvid Jansen, the first-person narrator of In the Wake reminds me of my visit to Vardø, a small town on the very top of Norway. I came to Vardø on a Hurtigruten coastal steamer ship, and the landscape looked brown and gray from the water. But when I walked through October fields and went to see the island’s one linden tree, I found bits of brightness among the gray rocks and brown earth.

In the Wake, translated from the Norwegian original I kjølvannet by Anne Born, feels equally dreary at first glance, telling the story of Arvid’s difficulty coming to terms with the death of his parents and brothers in a ship fire. Arvid’s mortality is an issue, too. Arvid drinks too much and keeps a distance from most other people, including his brother David, who attempts suicide early in the book. Still, Arvid perks up at human contact with, among others, that same brother, his Kurdish neighbor, a nurse who offers cocoa, and a potter at a small store. The last scene in the book, which endeared the book to me, uses dark humor that seems to show a transition from “Why bother?” to “Might as well” when confronted with the hard conditions of life and death.

In the Wake is loaded with interiority and minutiae, hardly accidental since Arvid reminds us that Bashō, whom he enjoys reading, says “Everything was something.” The reader learns details about a cottage, knows what Arvid eats, and almost feels the rhythm of windshield wipers and Arvid’s heartbeat. And then there are memories of childhood, of cards showing boxing, of skiing expeditions, and so many other things that Arvid says his life “was filled to the bursting point, and it had been like that the year before and the year before that, and as long as I had been thinking with the better part of my brain…”

It’s difficult to describe the effect that Petterson’s book had on me: Arvid is a quintessentially not-so-pleasant anti(hero) for an existentialist novel and the beginning of the book is confusing. But the lonely northern snow, rain, and fog, and Arvid’s dislike of the telephone eventually drew me in. So did his neighbor’s habit of saying “problem.” Perhaps what drew me most, though, was Arvid’s habit of shutting himself off. Don’t we all—or at least most of us—want to interact with others on our own terms? And then there’s this perfect bit, as Arvid lies on his back outside in the cold:

I look up between the tree trunks to the sky, which is completely clear and full of stars, and it slowly turns around, the whole world turns slowly around and is a huge, empty space. Silence is everywhere, and there is nothing between me and the stars, and when I try to think of something, I think of nothing. I close my eyes and smile to myself.

This, too, reminds me of my day in Vardø, though my memories are of sitting and looking out at the ocean in the afternoon, not the stars at night. When I left town the next day, the taxi driver who brought me to the airport told me he’d like to take the Hurtigruten someday, too, but he would only do it the same way I did: alone and in the off-season.

For More: Adam Gallari’s article “In the Wake: Per Petterson and the Notion of Contemporary Existentialism,” on The Quarterly Conversation.

Up Next: Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption. Then Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart.

Image Credit: Photo of wake behind a ferry in the Baltic Sea from user "Wanted," via Wikipedia.