IF YOU'RE A TOP producer, and a heterosexual man, the testosterone that gives you your drive may also make you, well, reckless about how you approach female coworkers. Suddenly, your employer is faced with a sexual harassment suit. But Eros the mischief-maker, as Freud called him, isn’t all that hard to distract, at least temporarily. Sexual harassment isn’t the only way to discharge high sexual tension, plus it’s pretty ineffective anyhow, for all concerned. A better way might be through the anonymous, eponymous “lightning rods” of Helen DeWitt’s hilarious novel. Management provides “lightning rods” — anonymous female office workers — to its top male employees as both a reward for their productivity and an efficient way to dissipate the sexual energy that accompanies that productive drive. While straight men finally get to have the quick anonymous bathroom sex they enviously imagine their gay colleagues enjoying, the other female employees in the organization are no longer being sexually harassed, and the gay men are either amused by these antics or use them as cover. Everybody’s happy; that’s the theory at least, the logical outcome of the managerial worldview that treats workers as fungible, interchangeable, essentially anonymous cogs in an organizational machine.
The whole set-up is amusing. If you contract with Lightning Rods, they’ll fit out the shared wall that separates the disabled stalls in the men’s and women’s bathrooms with a sliding panel through which the naked lower half of a female employee will be trolleyed backwards. The man won’t know who she is, but will be able to safely satisfy those productive urges, maybe as many as five or six times a day, from behind. Both participants in this event are guaranteed anonymity because they can’t communicate with each other: the male has access only to the female’s bottom half, and she could be any woman in the organization.
The characters who populate Lightning Rods don’t all think the same things, but they do all think the same way. They also all think about the same two things: sales and sex. Joe remains the protagonist for most of the book, until, as we’ll see, DeWitt shifts her focus a bit toward the end of the book as she did in her first novel The Last Samurai. Joe knows from his own experience and his failures as a former door-to-door salesman (first of encyclopedias and then of vacuum cleaners) that thinking about sex can get in the way of thinking about selling. Just as bad: thinking about selling can get in the way of thinking about sex.
Until he realizes that he can combine these things. After all, selling and sexual fantasizing both involve scenario spinning: here’s a way that this amazing thing could come to be! Joe spends a lot of time trying to come up with plausible ways that his fantasy of sex from behind with a woman leaning through a window or a hole in the wall could come true. Trying to imagine credible situations in which this could happen, he ends up imagining a product he himself could really get behind.
The book, narrated in free indirect style, shows characters telling their story in language they themselves would have used to tell it if they were the kinds of characters who wrote fiction (which they never are: they wouldn’t dream of having anything to do with a novel, let alone one written in free indirect style). This style often becomes, as in Lightning R...read more