Monday, January 30, 2012

Lightning Rods

I snapped up a copy of Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods when it came out a few months back, and now that I have had a chance to read it I am and am not a little disappointed. The novel departs so dramatically from the reading experience of the brilliant The Last Samurai that it is hard not to see it in a negative comparative light—even though I was fully prepared by reading some of the advance discussion of the book, including her interview in Bookforum. But really the novel is the astonishingly rare gem of a successful satire—one that it is hard to believe is a satire at first because it would be easy to imagine a similar novel being published with a completely straight face (Jennifer Szalai's review in the NYTimes suggests this as well, though more obliquely, when she imagines a male satirist writing this).

The novel follows Joe, a failed salesman who comes up with the highly unlikely idea of ending sexual harassment in the workplace by incorporating “bifunctional” female personnel who work as temps in companies and fill a secondary role as “lightning rods.” A few times every day a computer program generates a random choice of a high-salaried male employee, who then may accept the offer and proceed to the disability toilet, where he will meet the sexually available lower half of a woman’s body backed through the wall of the women’s toilet on the other side. As a result, Joe promises, sexual harassment in the workplace will disappear because men will have their natural needs fulfilled in a way that doesn’t require bothering the female staff.

What could go wrong? The book tells us all of Joe’s justifications and answers to those who would protest: the narrative is Joe’s, told largely in language he would use in future years to discuss his noble rise in business and justify the shortcuts he took along the way:

What Joe would explain, when later confronted with this kind of criticism, was that at the outset the success of the facility was by no means the foregone conclusion it might in hindsight appear. In an ideal world he would obviously have wanted to spend more time making sure no one was doing anything she didn’t feel comfortable with.

In other words, the novel is told mostly in the language of marketing: Joe selling the idea of what he is doing as justifiable not just to potential businesses that might engage his services and the female employees who would provide those services, but also himself. Once he has decided to go forward with his plan, he looks tirelessly for reasons why it is not just not a bad idea but a good idea: from the dubious idea that this could help sexual harassment in the workplace to the idea that he is a force for good in developing disability-accessible toilets.

Still, having read that Bookforum interview, I found it hard at times hard not to remember DeWitt’s explanation that this book was written in order to build a popular following that would allow her to publish The Last Samurai, which wound up being published first after all. When, in the novel, DeWitt satirizes the market logic that drives Joe’s business, is she also criticizing herself and the publishing world that she sees as requiring her to write a more accessible book? Ultimately, I think she has found the perfect way to take that necessity and turn it into a strength: she adopts a simpler form, a more linear narrative, but she turns it inside out and against itself to question a world that is willing to buy Joe’s line of thought. If a certain self-doubt about the value of her enterprise underlies the book, she takes that doubt head on instead of talking her way around it as Joe might, making a worthwhile novel out of something that could have been simple evasion.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Unconsoled

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled was a surprise to me in its deviation from the other novels of his I’ve read—The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go—in that it abandons the narrator reflecting upon a long history leading up to more recent circumstances with increasing revelations of how much around him or her the narrator has missed. Here the narrator is confined to recounting a period of just a couple of days, and the events unfold according to a dream logic rather than the retrospective reflection that makes for a more easily read unreliability in the other novels. Typical examples include the narrator talking to someone for a while only to notice they are wearing or holding something quite distinct that would have been hard to miss, or realizing that the person he is talking to is someone he knows from his childhood or a member of his family, or realizing that the building he has been driven to far from his hotel is actually part of the same building connected by a short passage.

The events begin as the narrator arrives in an anonymous city in order to give a performance: he is a renowned pianist—and yet for some reason has also been asked to speak as an expert orator (perhaps another of the dream-like elements, then: being asked to do some task you don’t normally do). He has three days to make a series of appointments, get to know the issues of the city, and rehearse for his performances of both varieties. But he keeps getting sidetracked by people wanting favors and by issues with his wife, son, and father-in-law who, again in this dream logic, seem to live in this place that is not his home but rather just a performance stop.

Most of the events that drive the narrative have to do with someone refusing to say something in various situations where doing so would save a lot of grief over the long run: the narrator doesn’t want to tell a woman organizing events that he doesn’t know or have his schedule because it would be embarrassing; a father won’t console a child. These two examples typify the kinds of things that aren’t said—those that the narrator avoid out of a desire to please and those out of a desire to not intrude—but they are tied in that they are both ways of avoiding immediate unpleasantness whether or not it might in the long run be beneficial.

Many of these scenes are very moving, but I confess to feeling that something does not quite work for me about this novel: I am very interested in the surreal logic to the narrative, and interested to see Ishiguro do something a little different, but that surrealism also feels a little flat for me. For all of the dramas that the characters are engaged in, I found it hard for me to get too engaged with them: as soon as I began to get a little frustrated with someone, or empathize with some moment of regret or mourning, the form of the novel pulled me back. After all, in this dream logic, it is hard not to see most of the events as projections of the narrator’s mind, so the other characters are only acting as they are as figments of his imagination. I’m not even sure we are meant to read the events as a dream—the surrealism could rather be a metaphorical device indicating something about a particular kind of lifestyle mixed with the experience of a particular kind of European city. Nonetheless, the structure speaks so handily to what we think of as dream logic that it is hard not to come back around to the sense that all this is the unconscious at play. I almost feel that this novel would work better as a film—particularly a David Lynch film (if he scaled back the sex and violence). Unlike his other novels, which I don’t think have been served particularly well by their screen adaptations, this one seems to be attempting to capture a feeling through its surrealism that might work better on screen.