‘It’s not for me to make moral judgements. I’m a businessman. I deal with people as they are, not as they ought to be.’
When I explained the plot of Lightning Rods to my wife she was horrified. That was my aim and my dear wife’s mortification amply demonstrates how remarkable it is that Helen DeWitt has managed to write such a stunning satirical novel about one man’s fantasy-derived solution to the sexual harassment problems of big business in America. With the relentless warped logic of the failed vacuum-cleaner salesman Joe manages to place lightning rod ‘facilities’ for the release of tension. They amount to an anonymous naked woman (the lighting rod) poking her rear-end through a hole in the wall of the disabled toilet in order for the results-orientated male to release (earth) their tension and get back to generating business for the company. DeWitt captures perfectly the tone and logic of sales and the boardroom; a tone Joe has mastered.
“Speaking as a businessman,” he went on, “I know that it is often the most valuable individuals in a company who present the greatest vulnerability to sexual harassment related issues. We know that a high level of testosterone is inseparable from the drive that produces results. Speaking of people as they are rather than as they should be I know that a high-testosterone-level individual has a high likelihood of being sexually aggressive; if the individual is working twenty-hour days as a drive results-orientated individual often does, that sexual aggression will find an outlet in the office.”
Anyone familiar with business-speak (or 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy) will recognise the tendency of businesspeople to evade the language of moral responsibility in favour of realpolitik goal-orientated nonsense which begins with an apparent truism, but ends who knows where. Joe’s catchphrase – which soon catches on – is ‘At the end of the day, we got to be realistic. We’ve got to deal with people the way they are, not the way we might like them to be.’ Joe’s apparent realism contrasts nicely with the fantasy which underpins his invention.
Whilst remaining very funny indeed the novel demonstrates the extent to which those at a disadvantage will rationalise actions they would never normally consider to get through college, provide for a family, or just survive, and the way people can approach almost anything if it will allow them to get ahead in an unsympathetic corporate landscape. Lucille and Renée, who are as driven as any of the men they cater to, take on their role and make it work for them. The easy desire to reproach that point of view is undermined by the success lightning rods go on to achieve.
‘Besides, the thing to remember is there are two ways of looking at things you don’t like that life throws at you. One way is to emphasize the negative and just fall apart because every little thing isn’t exactly the way you like it. The other way is to look at it as an opportunity to practice dealing with things you don’t like. It’s a chance to practice not letting things get to you.’
However, as David Flusfeer points out in his introduction, Lightning Rods is far more than a satire on commercial institutions and sexual mores. DeWitt’s language is irrepressible, full of energy and control, as she takes Joe’s idea and pushes it forward on his terms, and with his faults, through one challenge after another. Flusfeder writes that ‘despite its ostensible subject matter it is set in a world utterly without sin. Everything originates from Joe’s world view, with its vocabulary and metaphors derived from self-help manuals and management guidebooks, its salesman tone of convivial yearning, where people are always on first name terms, even when they’re talking to themselves…’
This prelapsarian tone is undermined by Dewitt’s use of it and allows her to present office developments resulting from facility-use as near exotic: ‘Something that had looked completely uncomplicated, a purely physical convenience, turned out to have far-reaching psycho-social repercussions.’ Joe’s grasp of psychology extends as far as his fantasies take him, which is why he must reconcile each development with his own libido, but that does not hold him back. Especially once the more enterprising lightning rods start to take advantage of him, selling their expertise dear and improving their experience with constant suggestions. It is an odd sort of empowerment, but it is empowerment nonetheless.
Be in no doubt that this is a very strange novel indeed. It’s also brilliant. Subscription publisher And Other Stories is having a very good year indeed, what with Swimming Home shortlisted for the Booker Prize and novels of the quality of Lightning Rods on their list. There has already been talk of Lightning Rods featuring somewhere in next year’s Booker Prize. It might be a bit early for such things, but I would not be at all surprised. DeWitt’s writing never falters in its tightly controlled exploration of one man’s idea to make the world a better place. All that and a dig at the FBI as well.
Lightning Rods is published today (1st October 2012) by And Other Stories.
My thanks to And Other Stories for this review copy.