Over ten years have passed since Helen DeWitt‘s first novel, The Last Samurai, was published to both critical and popular acclaim in 2000. Surely a case of writer’s block – publisher must be crying out for follow-up novels from successful debutants? Not so – Lightning Rods was , in fact, originally written at much the same time as The Last Samurai; ironically DeWitt felt the latter was too complex for a first novel and so began a number of other books to publish first. As she has said herself, “There was no mad rush for the second book because it was COMPLETELY UNLIKE the book everyone loved.” That its subject matter was controversial (i.e. it involved sex) and its intent satirical didn’t help. However, thanks to New Directions in the US and & Other Stories in the UK it has finally seen the light of day.
A simple summary might suggest why so many publishers shied away. The novel tells the story of an unsuccessful salesman, Joe, who, frustrated at his lack of sales, spends his time indulging his sexual fantasies. These fantasies are detailed and specific:
“His first fantasy was about walls. The woman would have the upper part of her body on one side of the wall. The lower part of her body would be on the other side of the wall.”
Sex is entirely disconnected from any kind of relationship – Joe is not even interested in the top half of the woman’s body never mind her sentience. An important part of the fantasy is that “for some reason or another she would need to pretend that nothing was happening.” It is his sexual fantasies, however, that lead to his ‘eureka’ moment when he considers the sexual frustrations of the work place and the sexual harassment that can lead to:
“…if you could give people a way to get it out of their system they would be a whole lot more productive. They’d be happier about themselves. Because there had to a lot of guys like himself, guys who didn’t want to be spending the amount of time they were spending thinking about sex, guys who given the chance would rather get it out of their system and concentrate their energies on achieving their goals.”
His scheme for achieving this involves an opening in the Male disabled toilet which allows the lower half of a woman to appear (while her upper half remains in the adjoining Female disabled toilet). The man (randomly chosen) can achieve sexual release via the aperture (I’ll let you decide which aperture I’m referring to) and then return to work. Joe’s stroke of genius (as far as he’s concerned) is that the woman too would then return to work; she would be a normal employee of the firm but paid an enhanced salary to provide this extra service.
As with all good satire, DeWitt takes this disturbing idea, normalises it (largely through Joe’s voice), and follows it as far as it will take her. What prevents it from being simply a cheap shot are its successes: an inveterate sex pest is able to form a relationship; two of the women save for law school, one also improving her French by reading Proust while ‘working’. And while it clearly has something to say about the commodification of women, I felt its real target was the American Dream.
It’s no surprise, then, that the main character (and narrator) is a salesman. DeWitt has commented that:
“America has tended to be ahead of the rest of the world in elevating salesmanship to a kind of science, something with pretentions to explaining the human condition.”
The novel also utilises the language of self-help books, from an abundance of clichés (“He wasn’t the kind to let grass grow under his feet…”) to trite mantras such as, “When you’re in sales you’ve always got one thing to sell, and that’s yourself,” and, “Any salesman knows that you have to deal with people the way they are.” Joe is willing to sell anything to be successful. Companies are willing to adopt his system to hold on to their big earners. Capitalism, as we know, doesn’t have a conscience, something this book demonstrates without being at all preachy or bitter. And as for those who might dismiss its hypothesis as unlikely, to quote the novel’s final line:
“In America anything is possible.”