Reviewed by Jen Vafidis
By Helen DeWitt
New Directions, 192 P.
Helen DeWitt’s protagonist Joe is running away from debt when he gets an idea for a company. His journey to that idea includes lots of masturbating (funny masturbating, don’t worry) and an epiphany while looking at a heron on a beach. Emboldened, he gives himself this pep talk:
“I’m not saying it won’t be a lot of work. But it should be a lot of fun, too…OK, you may get some funny looks. But just try to see the humor in it. Besides at the end of the day, you’re doing everybody a favor. That’s something to feel good about. So just do the best you can, and remember, if it all goes horribly wrong, you can always shoot yourself.”
DeWitt’s characters talk like this to themselves frequently. Working through platitudes, they figure out how to say yes to life-changing questions, their logic fuzzy but triumphant. Here’s where that logic takes Joe. If you sign your corporation up with his agency, Lightning Rods, Inc., one male employee and one female employee are selected daily to have sex with one another, in a setting without character or ambience: the restrooms. The man is in the men’s disabled stall. The woman sticks herself ass first through an adjoining wall, presumably in the Ladies’, and the man fucks a headless lower half. Joe’s clients see low productivity, absenteeism, and sexual harassment lawsuits become problems of the past while profits surge.
Assessing sexual harassment as the scourge of modern work life is somewhat dated, sure, but there is something else about Lightning Rods: its characters’ relationship with progress. Joe repeats to himself over and over: you have to see people as they are, not as you’d like them to be. And this turns out to be true for him as his success grows. The women traumatized by being corporate prostitutes are viewed as weak or bothersome by the more prominent characters, and they fade to the background as the story of the company’s success moves along. The women who do enjoy their work find no complicated physical pleasure, only financial gains. The people who seem to like sex in this novel are men, and even some of them lose interest as soon as it becomes as typical as a bathroom break. Desire is viewed consistently within the bounds of capitalism, the unquestioned structure of these people’s lives. Social progress (i.e. gender equality, sex positivity and diversity) is less imperative if it has no monetary value.
Joe is the best example of this sterile embrace of business. In one of the book’s best passages, he looks at a strip mall with the same sense of wonder he experiences looking at the heron that helped him understand his purpose. Like most good satire, Lightning Rods tricks you into identifying with its characters in a way that must be questioned. DeWitt manages to make you nod your head as Joe marvels at 7-11’s business model. He believes in a world with options, possibilities — that makes him human (or American — I’m still not sure if I want to take the nationalist leap the novel makes). But how many options truly exist? Not many here, and yet this is a story of success. It happens to be success through compromise: recognizing the kinds of progress that aren’t within reach, knowing how blind we can be to what we want, and desperately trying to monetize what that means.