Category: DeWitt Helen

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 20-11

Welcome to the fourth part of my countdown of reading memories from the 2010s. You can read the previous instalments here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21.

Something I’ve found interesting about this instalment in particular is that a couple of the books here (The Wake and Lightning Rods) just missed out on a place in my yearly list of favourites when I first read them. But they have stayed with me over the years, and their placing on my list reflects that.

This is one of my reasons for making this list: to see how my feelings about different books have (or haven’t) changed.

On to this week’s memories…

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The Emperor’s New House: The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić

FollyThe South African writer Ivan Vladislavić now has the most titles of any author on And Other Stories‘ roster; and when they keep plucking gems like this from his bibliography, it’s not hard to see why. The Folly is Vladislavić’s first novel, originally published in 1993 towards the end of apartheid; it’s as delicious and disturbing a tale of one succumbing to another’s illusions as you might wish.

We are introduced to Mr and Mrs Malgas, who live a mundane suburban existence:

The frog-mug had been bought at a sale of factory rejects, and for that reason it was Mrs Malgas’s favourite, warts and all. Mr Malgas thought it was in bad taste. He stirred the coffee, scraping the frog on the murky bottom maliciously with the spoon. He fished the tea-bag out of his own mug, which was chocolate-brown and had I ♥ DIY printed on it in biscuit. He thought this one was gimmicky too, but it had been a Father’s Day present from his spouse and he used it out of a sense of duty.

The couple watch a shanty burning on the evening news, but the distance of the television (and the cosseting effect of that Vladislavić’s prose) ensures that this doesn’t intrude unduly into their lives. They are known to us only as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’, which increases the sense of them as cartoonish figures, but also – subtly – denies them the dignity of their own names.

A mysterious figure called Nieuwenhuizen moves on to the plot next to the Malgases’ house and sets up camp, using the rubbish around him for furniture. After a spell of observing him for a distance, Mr Malgas goes up to Nieuwenhuizen to find out what he’s doing. It turns out that the newcomer is building a house, though he hasn’t started yet. The owner of a hardware shop, Mr Malgas is inspired by this, and is soon helping Nieuwenhuizen out: clearing the ground to lay down a grid pattern, hammering in nails for cat’s-cradles of string that somehow correspond to the great plan… Actually, Mr Malgas does rather more than help out, and since Nieuwenhuizen insists on being called ‘Father’ (and Mr is quite happy to oblige), you can imagine what sort of relationship is established between them.

To recall another And Other Stories novel, Nieuwenhuizen is like Joe, the salesman from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, in his ability to manipulate others through language and rhetoric. Vladislavić’s approach is a little different: where DeWitt immerses her readers in Joe’s business-speak and does not allow them to gain purchase outside it, in The Folly we see Mr Malgas’s willing capitulation; Nieuwenhuizen’s contempt for him; and Mrs Malgas looking on aghast. As a result, we don’t quite get caught up in Mr’s enthusiasm, but we are swept along in the wake of its unstoppable tide, and we fear where it might end up.

As the novel progresses, the idea of Nieuwenhuizen’s house grows stronger – stronger than (or perhaps indistinguishable from) the reality. Here, The Folly put me in mind of The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila, in the blurring of its imaginative and physical space. But the transformative power of The Folly is all its own. Let this novel whisper in your ear, and listen closely.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Folly (1993) by Ivan Vladislavić, And Other Stories paperback

Lightning Rods (2011) by Helen DeWitt, And Other Stories paperback

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013) by Iván Repila, tr. Sophie Hughes (2015), Pushkin Press paperback

New Fiction Uncovered column: The Language of Fiction

This is it: my fourth and final column as guest editor of Fiction Uncovered. For this article, I decided to write about how tone and style can shape the world of a piece of fiction. I think it’s all to easy to overlook language and prose when reading and thinking about fiction (certainly I’ve overlooked them in the past) – when, actually, they’re fundamental to what fiction is. So I’ve chosen four novels with a distinctive use of style, and looked at what they do and how.

The new column is here, and you can find all of my reviews and columns for Fiction Uncovered here. And, if you want to read more from me on the books mentioned in the column, step this way:

Finally, I’d like to thank Fiction Uncovered for inviting me to be guest editor, and for hosting me this last month. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I can only hope that others have found my columns interesting, and maybe even discovered a few new books that they’d like to read.

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods (2011)

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.

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