Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt’s second novel, is a deadpan triumph that pulls off one unlikely miracle after another. It is a tirelessly sustained satire that is delivered without the usual easy, self-aware sarcasm and remains genuinely funny even at its most disturbing moments. Despite being a book about sex, Lightning Rods is written in prose rigorously purged of titillation, and the interrogation of sex, stimulation and power is laid out in a way flatly lacking in eroticism. The novel’s most shocking attribute—a certain bullish candidness bordering on defiance—is a precise and brilliant mimicry of voice of the culture it explores: corporate, commoditised, career-centric America. Helen DeWitt has written a hugely intelligent and fantastically bold indictment of the modern tendency to view the body as a tool and a consumable, and she comes to some frankly terrifying conclusions.
The novel begins with the story of Joe, a failing door-to-door salesman, helplessly driven by the American work ethic and haunted by his increasingly elaborate masturbatory fantasies, who hits on the secret formula of salesman everywhere: “What you’re selling is the idea that if they don’t buy that one thing there is something wrong with them. They could put something right that needs fixing and they chose not to.” The product itself is not the pitch, but a freshly awoken sense of inadequacy; so, Joe reasons, for every problem, there is a saleable solution in the form of a consumable good. Take, for example, the very real problem of workplace harassment – what goods aren’t being provided? What gap isn’t being plugged? The answer is a series of double entendres so obvious that they don’t need to be written down, and the “lightning rods” are born.
Lightning rods prevent sexual harassment in the workplace by providing anonymous sex for male office workers in toilets. It is vital the women are themselves office workers, or else your company is taking the risk of running afoul of anti-prostitution and pimping laws (although of course, these girls will be paid extra for their ‘professionalism’). Anonymity is ensured by a literal wall between the participants: the male participants will see a pair of buttocks, the vagina and the legs of a woman through the hole in the wall; the woman won’t see anything except the wall of her cubicle. The man can ‘de-stress’ without the woman ever knowing who he was, and she, placed in a situation where she can sever penetration from emotional and sensual investment, can read Proust in French or paint her nails. It’s as simple as that.
Unfortunately for Joe, the logistics are a bit more complicated. How do you persuade a potential lightning rod that this sort of office work, admittedly with a premium bonus, is roughly the equivalent of silver spoon waitressing with your genitals, and nothing more? What do you do when one of the lightning rods is black and therefore easily distinguishable? What happens when the most chauvinist, most predatory man in the office is neutralized by the lightning rods facility, but develops a desperate animal craving for the sight of breasts? All this, and more, is answered within the pages of Lightning Rods!
Make no mistake: this isn’t a piece of biological essentialist propaganda, nor a stirring rally cry for the sex industry, although an unwary reader could easily be fooled. DeWitt drives us inexorably on to her bizarre logical conclusions with the same illusory sincerity as a salesman; the very earnestness of the prose should be viewed as suspiciously as a man in a cheap suit trying to sell you a chair that cures slipped discs. The most subversive trick in the book is couched in a guileless question: if we believe in the redemptive power of hard work, and we believe in absolute freedom of choice in matters of sex, why can’t we accept the idea of lightning rods? And that, of course, is what salesmen call a hook.