Archive for January 17th, 2013

January 17, 2013

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

I was writing all these Christmas and children’s lit/YA-themed columns and thought it would be a good idea to write about sex in toilets instead. One doesn’t want to get into a rut. Erm.

From Sunday’s column:

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Friends and well-wishers have over the past few years occasionally expressed shock that I haven’t read Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. I’ve been both intimidated and a little sceptical about the sheer brilliance they claim for this novel; at any rate, it was enough to make me curious about DeWitt’s latest work. Lightning Rods was written a decade ago. If the delay in publication was due to the difficulty in finding a publisher, considering the novel’s subject matter it’s not hard to understand why.

Joe (he has no surname and the most everyman-ish first name he could possibly have) is a not-very-successful salesman of vacuum cleaners who has previously worked as a not-very-successful salesman of encyclopaedias. Almost the only thing he seems exceptional at is masturbating, which he complicates through the imagining of erotic scenes which have to sufficiently adhere to their own internal logic before they can serve their purpose. Joe’s great moment of inspiration comes when he decides to use his strengths to get ahead, utilising his own masturbatory fantasies as the basis for a scheme to get rid of sexual harassment in the workplace; a scheme that essentially involves the installation of high-tech glory holes in the disabled toilets. The “lightning rods” programme soon spreads to offices across America, running into all manner of problems that Joe had never anticipated (the difficulty of preserving anonymity where race is involved; the complications that arise when people use the toilets for their stated purpose), yet somehow this utterly ludicrous idea is a rampaging success.

Told in a tone that is equal parts uncritical biography and business report, Lightning Rods documents the phenomenal success of Joe’s project. One of the targets (and there are many here) of DeWitt’s satire is the language of corporate culture, and all the meaningless platitudes of Human Resources, all the euphemistic rubbish that any of us has ever put on our CVs, are employed here in the most artfully-unselfconscious of ways. Some of this language has become so normal a part of the way we communicate that we barely notice it here – which is, of course, part of the point.

It’s hard to entirely dislike Joe, even as the novel tears him, and everything he stands for, apart. There’s a sense throughout that he’s earnestly working all of this out from first principles, as if there were no studies of sexism in the workplace, no research of psycho-sexual urges, nothing for him to cling to. He even buys himself a Programming for Dummies textbook in order to develop the rudimentary software the programme requires. Naturally he gets things very wrong, but it’s easy to believe that he genuinely wants men to harass women less at the workplace (or at least, not to risk getting into trouble for it; Lightning Rods is as much a skewering of workplace gender norms as it is anything else), or that he really believes that his height-friendly toilet is going to revolutionise the lives of little people and people with disabilities.

By the end of all of this, Joe’s ideas begin almost to sound plausible, even healthy. Men stop calling in sick to work. Productivity is increased. We read of one male employee whose ability to relate to women on a personal level is enhanced by  his sexual satiation in the workplace, another couple whose relationship proceeds independently of their anonymous sexual encounters with one another. Naturally everyone cannot benefit equally – only one woman in a thousand, Joe claims, has the temperament to face this job with equanimity.

Corporate language and culture, workplace sexism, pornography; Lightning Rods has a wide range of targets, and it manages to bring them all down. More, it does this in a detached, deadpan style that is a joy to read. I’m not sure how she’s done it, but DeWitt has managed to write a cliché-ridden, bloodless book, and have this somehow be the greatest possible proof of her skill as an author. I’m left delighted, and also shaking my head in disbelief.

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