Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

January 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

When the latest White Review arrived in the post, with a new story by Helen DeWitt, I decided it was finally time to post what I’d written about her fantastic, amazing novel Lightning Rods published by New Directions in the US and And Other Stories in the UK. This was the best book I read in 2012. It’s long (the blog post, that is). You have been warned. And the covers? The first one is the UK cover, second is the US version. You won’t be surprised that I prefer the first.

Joe’s door-to-door vacuum cleaners sales job is depressing. The last chap on the beat totally cleaned up, and Joe can’t shift a single unit. At night he retreats, defeated, to his trailer and his solitary masturbatory fantasies. He dreams of an elaborate game-show where female contestants, only their clothed upper halves visible, try to keep a poker face while being given “the full-service 24-hour Revco” by a hidden man.

In the instance that opens the novel, though, he’s distracted from the job at hand. First of all, there’s the horror of discovering that the show is fixed. He also misses his all-time favourite contestant, Suzie, but since “she earned her million fair and square[,] she didn’t have to play the game again and he never brought her into any new episodes.” When he discovers his imaginings have moved on to the back story of three of the male college-student participants, he abandons the fantasy. He’s sitting on the trailer steps as the sky darkens around him when he hits rock bottom: “the kind of guy who gets ahead in the world…is the kind of guy who deals with his sexual urges [instead of] obsessing about whether some completely imaginary game show is rigged. He is not the kind of guy who gets sidetracked […] into a non-masturbatory fantasy about three guys from college called Jeff, Shane, and Duane.”

DeWitt LIGHTNING RODS cover low res

The trajectory of Helen DeWitt’s latest novel, Lightning Rods, is recognisable from populist non-fiction: rags-to-riches tales, recovered-addict memoirs, self-made billionaire biographies. These books combine a voyeuristic pleasure in seeing other people’s failures with the inspiration that we too can become our best selves. The narrators start off unexceptional in their mediocrity, but all they have to do is make a few bad choices and before you know it they’re sitting around in greying underpants drinking beer from the can. Since we only read these confessional stories when they’ve been written by life’s winners, we know that Joe is about to dust himself off and reach for the stars.

Redemption begins when Joe spots a way of combining his own fantasy with a gap in the market. If only there was a way to shield companies from tiresome sexual harassment claims, at the same time protecting employees of the delicate sex who are bothered by unwanted aggressive advances. High fliers ought not to be penalised for their uncontrollable libido, realises Joe; it’s impossible to separate the drive to succeed in business from less socially acceptable urges. He starts to suspect this is a Really Big Idea, so he goes out and buys a thousand-dollar suit (DeWitt never aims for the easy target, so Joe is intelligent enough to appreciate how sleazy his cheap suit looks before he embarrasses himself). Then he sets out to sell the idea of upmarket gloryholes in retrofitted disabled toilets, complete anonymity guaranteed for the users, with services provided by women who, the rest of the time, fulfil normal office duties.

A computer program secretly and randomly matches up the men and the lightning rods. The woman gets into position on a contraption that transports her lower half into the disabled toilet where the man is waiting. Once the deed is done they both return to work, the man with a clear head and renewed focus, and the woman to straighten her clothing before catching up on a few secretarial tasks. Nobody need read those dull memos about appropriate behaviour any more; lightning rods conveniently zap away the urges that lead to harassment in the first place.

Lightning Rods

Joe has to work hard to get started, but it doesn’t take long until somebody bites, a company whose top guy is becoming a problem. Soon business is picking up and Joe’s getting rich. His best employee, Lucille, is also the embodiment of Joe’s fantasy woman, Suzie. The irony, of course, is that although he’s attracted to her, he’s not sure how he feels about someone who doesn’t turn a hair about that kind of work. Renée, the novel’s other tough-as-nails woman, tumbles into this marvellously absurd world when she answers a normal-seeming ad for employment. She is over-qualified and over-competent, and should be a shoo-in for the job. But Joe has to disappoint her. Awkwardly, he informs Renée that it’s not possible to hire an African-American for the position. Renée, alert to the rumblings of an equal opportunities breach, challenges his insistence that he’s merely trying to protect her by not hiring her.

Gradually the nature of the work comes out. A chat with Lucille slowly convinces Renée that Joe’s reason is true, that it would be impossible to preserve anonymity with just one black lightning rod. Sitting in the park, she moves from disgusted to intrigued. “Suppose someone offered you the chance to go to Harvard Law School, and all you had to do was pick up a turd a couple of times a day, wearing plastic gloves, on top of your regular job. […] You could argue that a deal that asks you to do something physically disgusting for a limited period, and gives you free use of your own mind in exchange, is actually not such a bad bargain.” Since Renée, like Lucille, has no other means of getting to Harvard Law School, she smashes the ball back into Joe’s court, threatening him with legal action if he doesn’t find a way to employ her.

This nearly credible volte-face demonstrates one of the central themes of DeWitt’s writing: in the common sense of Lightning Rods, sexualisation really does equate to empowerment. A woman who chooses to sell sex is simply putting in the time on the way to the big money. DeWitt pokes holes our pretence that the sex a woman is involved in is entirely her own business, irrelevant to her future prospects. If some women—hardened to the task, and appropriately remunerated—can protect all women from the worst effects of the men’s unstoppable sex drives, all the while developing their office skills and moving up the corporate ladder, why wouldn’t we embrace such a scheme?

The logic is preposterous but so appealing, laid out one step at a time in Joe’s dangerously innocent clichés, lifted from business manuals and wrapped up in the journalism-lite encouragement of self-help paperbacks. For such a ponderously banal character, Joe is disturbingly likeable. He’s amenable to suggestion, like one of those extremely kind-hearted, unthinkingly conservative people who can be easily persuaded of the rightness of an individual cause before reverting quickly to bigotry. He’s uncomfortable with the idea of people being hurt, either physically or emotionally, by their work, but he’s able to convince himself—and you, perhaps—that since they’re getting so much money for it, they ought really to be just a little more capable of dealing with it.  What makes him such a great character, and what makes Lightning Rods more layered than similar fiction, is Joe’s partially unacknowledged despair at never feeling as though he has a true home in the world, even in his success.

DeWitt LIGHTNING RODS cover low res

This world is the office writ large: people muddling through, doing what they can in the time available, tools and products more or less fit for purpose, all of it set up imperfectly by imperfect people. DeWitt’s genius is to make the lightning rods a solution to just a couple of these flaws, and to then build other flaws straight into the scheme from the outset. Lucille and Renée could help Joe do a much better job, but they’ve both got their eyes on bigger problems and bigger prizes.

Lightning Rods strikes so many targets. The media fantasy of the ice-cold career woman who succeeds at work because she can separate work life and personal life. The increasingly commercialised, even industrialised, nature of sex and how it can be sold to us. The constant exhortation to live life to the fullest. The old madonna-whore chestnut. Our cherished notion of meritocracy and social mobility. The pervasive moral condescension towards men (and this doesn’t come from feminists, but from people who focus on how women should avoid getting raped rather than how men should avoid raping them), some of whom occasionally even turn out to be decent human beings once freed from the burden of their sexual urges. The slick packaging and marketing of just about anything, and our willingness to over-ride our morals if there’s a prospect of profit. Some readers might avoid Lightning Rods because of its subject matter, but it’s not a book for the prurient: it’s hard to imagine how a book so based on sexual transactions could be less titillating (even most of the service’s users start to agree with that, after a couple of sessions with a lightning rod).

Satire and parody can fall flat sometimes. A comic novel that starts off well might suffer from premature ejaculation, with the biggest jokes being given away upfront and the rest of the book merely repeating the same tired metaphors. Or the narrative voice might keep tripping and stumbling over jokes that work as one-liners but aren’t nearly subtle enough for a novel of several hundred pages, until very soon it has to admit that it’s only shooting blanks now. Lightning Rods is much more than satire or parody or comedy, although it is hilarious. The novel works so well because DeWitt lets the characters set their own traps—for themselves, for one another, and for the reader, who must often try to resist being complicit in the logic of this world, not so far removed from one where rape might or might not be legitimate, and where women’s bodies have a handy way of shutting down pregnancies that come from undesirable circumstances. But ultimately, perhaps, Joe has the last word on what DeWitt is mocking: although his solutions might be more unusual than our own, he understands that you have to deal with people the way they are, not the way you’d like (or they’d like) them to be.

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