Lightning Rods is a satire on American corporate culture and social mores, which traps its readers and characters alike in mazes of rhetoric. Helen DeWitt’s protagonist is Joe, a salesman who failed at selling encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners, but has his brightest idea when hope seems dim. Retreating into his private fantasies, Joe theorises that sexual harassment in the workplace could be dealt with if men had a legitimate outlet for their desires. He devises a system whereby a select group of male employees (the ones a company wouldn’t want to lose if they were accused of harassment) can, discreetly and anonymously, satisfy their urges through a hole in the wall of the disabled toilet. The women on the other side of that hole are the ‘lightning rods’ – staff supplied by Joe to perform normal office functions most of the time, and additional duties as required. Complete secrecy is assured: what could go wrong?
This is hardly the most appealing premise for a novel, granted; but the way DeWitt uses it is not tawdry, and she has serious points to make. Perhaps one of the key points is how easily we can delude ourselves and others with words. For example, in his first successful sale, Joe is quick to pounce on the company boss’s comment that they provide a disabled toilet, though they have no disabled employees:
There’s absolutely no reason why this space should not be put to use to promote the well-being of employees actually on the staff [says Joe]…I think it’s up to those of us who are more fortunate not to put any unnecessary obstacles in [disabled people’s] way. At the same time, when all’s said and done, I think it’s possible to go too far the other way (p. 65).
The boss, Steve, promptly agrees (‘It’s not that I’m unsympathetic, but this kind of PC crap really gets my goat’), and allows Joe to outline his plans for the space – at which point, the salesman changes his tune:
‘You know, I really gotta hand it to you,’ he said, surveying the cubicle. ‘You really provide a first-class facility. You may not know this, but not all disabled toilets provide a sink at the right level’ (pp. 65-6)
The disabled stalls are a waste of space, until Joe opens up a new possibility for their use; at which point they become something of which Steve should be proud. So Joe creates and manipulates ideas to make his sales – and he does it throughout the novel, modifying not so much his product as the rhetoric around his product.
But this is more than sales patter: the whole of Lightning Rods is peppered with Joe’s cliché-ridden business-speak – this is how he thinks. And it’s not empty: this rhetoric has power, creates different and damaging ways of thinking. For instance, it takes some mental contortions for one to start considering high-flying executives to be ‘socially deprived’, but Joe manages it, and convinces his customers – and the needs and feelings of people outside that ‘deprived’ group are soon forgotten. In sales, ‘you’ve got to deal with people the way they are. Not how you’d like them to be’ is a common refrain of DeWitt’s novel – but Joe discovers how easily he can make people be as he would like them to be.
In his review, John Self identifies language as the main subject of Lightning Rods; as you’ll surmise from this post, I would agree that it’s important. But I wouldn’t go quite so far as to relegate the satire to second place; I think the social commentary and language of DeWitt’s novel are too intertwined for that. The characters who get ahead the most in Joe’s world are marked out by their own command of rhetoric; but they’re also ambitious and see ways to profit from circumstance. The deadening tone of DeWitt’s prose/Joe’s thinking turns an intimate act between two people into something cold and clinical; but other factors feed into that, and there are social phenomena to consider even if you disregard Joe’s words. The language and satire of Lightning Rods are aspects of the same thing.
The whole edifice of Joe’s success in Lightning Rods is fragile; all that it would take to destroy it is for people to stop and think, and they’d see how absurd the idea was. But Joe’s trick is never to give people the time to do that. It’s not until the last chapter that DeWitt lets the narrative tone lapse, which allows us to ask, ‘But what about..?’ without receiving a pat answer. It’s jarring when this happens, and it shows what complete mastery of tone the author has in this novel. You will look at the world differently after reading Lightning Rods – and you can’t really ask for more from a novel than that.
Helen DeWitt’s website
Interview with DeWitt at Boing Boing
The publishers: And Other Stories / New Directions
Some other reviews of Lightning Rods: Words of Mercury; Alex in Leeds; Jenny Turner for the Guardian.