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.

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