Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods: A Review

Sun Nov 13, 2011

The premise of Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods is simple enough: a traveling salesman, who suffers from a plague of fantasies, transforms those fantasies into successful business. The self-help ethos of American salesmanship is what gives this unsuccessful purveyor of the Encyclopedia Britannica the confidence to keep approaching various potential clients until he is able to convince one of them to try it. (Though there’s a mention of Wikipedia in the text, I believe this book was written in a pre-Wikipedia era, and the idea of such a comprehensive encyclopedia being rendered obsolete by a collective internet endeavor, as funny as it is in the context, doesn’t seem present.)

What is the nature of the salesman’s fantasy? Satires of the gameshow are familiar enough, and the first commercialization of the fantasy, which involve bisected, ventro-dorsal coitus with the camera of the mind’s eye moving between both sides of the wall, has contestants on a game show answering questions while the piston-like activity of the anonymous copulator is shown in an inset. The pivot, such as it is, of the fantasy, is that the copulatrices have to act as if nothing is happening and answer the questions normally. From there, Joe the unsuccessful salesman, realizes the next stage of commercial actualization: what better way to defuse the sexual tension in the workplace that leads to expensive sexual harassment litigation than to provide “lightning rods,” or anonymous, randomized sexual encounters to take place in a converted rest room fitted a clever mechanism to actualize his original, bi-sected, a tergo fantasy.

Joe finds a customer, one of a thousand companies he contacts after buying a thousand-dollar suit (in one of the repeated scatological images in the book, his original suit was bilirubin-ish). This large firm has a problem with the inappropriate behavior of their best salesman–a somewhat Todd Packer-like figure, and the rest follows naturally. Joe even does his own programming for the mechanism that would allow for the scheduling of lightning-rod encounters, though, curiously enough, we are never told what language it is in (perhaps an attempt to make the narrative as undated as possible–Visual Basic would be the most likely guess). A special ADA-bathroom, unused in the firm, is outfitted with Joe’s technology. The only problem was finding the relevant employees.

It was an important insight to make the lightning rods normal employees whose special duties would be supplements of their regular salary. The idea is that no one would know who the lightning rods were. Human Resources is removed entirely from the process, which leads to an amusing development later. DeWitt pursues most of what happens later to the logical conclusions of the premise. When I first read about this book, I assumed that it would remind me in execution of Wallace’s fictions of white- and pink-collar life, but it was written before most of those were published; and it is stylistically very different. The narrative is focalized through Joe, an homme moyen sensuel* without much going on mentally independent of his entrepreneurial vision.

DeWitt has indicated in interviews that she was inspired by The Producers and Aristophanes. I see the satire in Lightning Rods as more pointed than those rather broad traditions. Two extremely professional lightning rods, for example, go on to become successful graduates of the Harvard Law School—one becoming a commercial litigator and the other a Supreme Court justice (this latter case provides an interesting test of Joe’s principle of anonymity). The satire here—or at least a prominent element of it—is that such success is itself an element of the idealized extension of masculine fantasy to the liberating quality of such degradation. The only authorial or reader-like stand-in the books is a briefly mentioned librarian whose moral disgust is quickly forgotten in the larger narrative.

*With all of the satirical implications, etc.