October 1, 2012

Helen DeWitt: Lightning Rods

Posted in DeWitt Helen at 8:00 am by John Self

Helen DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, was published in 2000. Seven years later, she self-published Your Name Here, an odd collaborative work with Ilya Gridneff. Meanwhile, I learn from an early review of the US edition of the present book that it was written ten years ago but unpublished until now. Was it unpublished through choice? Or was DeWitt unable to place it? In either event, DeWitt now has two excellent publishers: New Directions in the US; And Other Stories in the UK. The latter has been punching not just above its weight but in another league since its launch last year, not least with the all-conquering Swimming Home. If there’s any justice, Lightning Rods should repeat that success.

Lightning Rods is a book about one thing which pretends to be about another thing. What it is really about is language, but it disguises all this in a satire of sexual politics. It tells us about Joe, a failing salesman in Missouri, whose unsatisfying masturbation fantasies lead him to a novel idea. “He was thirty-three years old and he had zip to show for it. And here he was lying in the bed in the middle of the day not even masturbating effectively but just twiddling until he got the fantasy set up to his satisfaction. He didn’t feel good about it at all.”

I hope you see what I mean about the language. The narrative voice is a curious and canny mix. It has the casual tone of Joe’s interior monologue (“zip to show for it”), a strange utilitarian blankness (“not even masturbating effectively”) and childish words that clash with the subject (“twiddling”). But the overall effect throughout the book is of a cross between a business report and an uncritical biography. As the story progresses from eccentric to outrageous, we get to see the full effect of this masking language.

Joe’s idea – … well, I hope I can discuss it. I think I can. I can’t imagine how to impress upon you the effect of the book without going into some detail – which the blurb on the US edition does, and the introduction to the UK edition. (In any event, this book is likely to become sufficiently talked about that the basic premise will pass into general knowledge, as with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.) Read the next two sentences without pausing. Joe’s idea is that sexual harassment in the workplace can be prevented by providing men with an outlet for their urges. Those outlets will be colleagues – women – hired to the firm by Joe’s proposed company, and who are in every sense normal employees, carrying out administrative duties; except that when they get the call, they will take up a position in a frame which backs them anonymously into a secret cubicle in the men’s toilets, lower half only showing, and the male colleague will take his pleasure.

‘Take his pleasure’ is how DeWitt might put it in the book. This is a novel of evasion and manipulation. The whole thing is delivered in such measured tones that the process Joe starts on begins to look like logic, and the logic begins to look unarguable. The way of telling is so filled with familiarity – even cliché – that the contents sound first half-reasonable and then even more ridiculous. There’s a homespun folksy wisdom that becomes hypnotically comical.

If you don’t have what it takes, you can waste a lot of time asking yourself “How can I get what it takes?” The question you should be asking yourself is, “Is there something else that takes what I have to offer?”

After all, what Joe has to offer is a monotone masturbatory fantasy, which “would one day lead to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.” Of course, not everyone in a company will get to benefit from the services of Joe’s lightning rods (yes, you see now?). “It is often the most valuable individuals in a company who present the greatest vulnerability to sexual harassment related issues. We know that a high level of testosterone is inseparable from the drive that produces results.” And so begins for Joe the painful task of working out the problems in the system in meticulous detail, and the problems that the solutions give rise to, and the problems arising from that, and so on. And the logic of working for the benefit of “high-testosterone, performance-oriented individuals” infects Joe’s own thinking, until the reader approaches straight-faced lines like this: “For the kind of money she was getting you’d have thought she could throw in a slap on the fanny every so often without getting into a big song and dance about it.”

The deadpan coolness which is so crucial to the success of Lightning Rods is not so much ironic distance as an exemplar of the ways we can fool ourselves into believing the preposterous, and mask the instinctive response when doing so. It demonstrates how intuition can be outwitted, how steady step-by-step argument can persuade us to insane conclusions. It is so clever that when other entrepreneurs set up rival companies to Joe’s without all his protective mechanisms, the reader might even start to share Joe’s view of himself as one of the good guys. (“He pointed out that Playboy had never been seen as all that tasteful and intellectual until Hustler came along.”) As a corollary, the author is both entirely absent – her views immaculately subsumed into service of the story – and unmistakably there on every page, calmly directing the ingenious farce.

But is it farce? Or satire? Or something else? There is plenty here that takes specious thinking down a peg or two – the notion, for example, that sexualisation constitutes empowerment, or that working in a controlled sex industry is something to be celebrated just because it could be worse. Equally, it does damage to softer targets like society’s priorities towards money-creation and its limited understanding of ‘success’, and the accommodations we will make for these things. There are interesting questions raised over to what extent Joe is responsible for his own success, in a system built to buoy up people like him. But the point, again, seems to me to be language and communication, and the only thing that prevents me from describing Lightning Rods as unlike anything you’ve read are the similarities to aspects of the work of George Saunders.

In 2005 Saunders wrote a piece which stands as a manifesto for much of his work. Read it yourself, but one of his conclusions is that “all attempts at world domination begin with weak, evasive, impersonal language.” But you don’t need to go to the SS for this: it’s around us every day, when companies obfuscate, when governments try to make bad news sound good. It applies here too. The language in Lightning Rods is sneaky, tendentious, and deceptive; and it is that which makes it such a triumph, so funny and so frightening. It is likely to be a book which, for content and tone, nobody who reads it will easily forget.

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