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.)

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