AFTER A TEN-YEAR HIATUS — not counting her 2007, PDF-only second book, Your Name Here — Helen DeWitt is back. It shouldn't be a surprise that it's taken so long. Her only previously published novel, The Last Samurai, was rejected for years as too difficult, until a lucky strike with Miramax Books made it a cult phenomenon. After a long silence from DeWitt, Your Name Here (co-written with Ilya Gridneff) was released as a PDF download from her website, surely the first such book to merit a review/essay from the London Review of Books. (It has since been picked up by Noemi Press, although still lacking a release date; readers who bought DeWitt's PDF for a suggested $8.00 will be allowed to deduct that from the price of Noemi's edition.)
Which brings us to book number three. As might be gleaned from the foregoing, DeWitt specializes in novels that trouble today's commercial mainstream standards, and this has a very important connection for her new novel, Lightning Rods. As she explained in an interview with Bookforum, Lightning Rods was originally supposed to be published before The Last Samurai. It was to be a more accessible DeWitt, intended to calm anxious editors and accrue a following-something that would eschew her preference for fragmentation and multiple languages and instead give the reader an accessible, linear narrative. Although the book was written in the late '90s, only now is it seeing the light of day, published by the estimable independent stalwart New Directions.
If this sounds like a brilliant author needlessly dumbing herself down, Helen DeWitt fans (at least 100,000 of us, judging by Last Samurai's sales) needn't fear. While Lightning Rods is flawed, its shortcomings are not related to its relative simplicity, and they are of the interesting variety. The book has worn well despite sitting on the shelves for a decade, though some of the flourishes designed to bring it up to date appear tacked on. Whatever its shortcomings Lightning Rods is a real achievement, a fun, brainy, provocative work. It's one of the more rewarding new novels I've read this year.
Here's the plot: Joe is just another down-on-his-luck salesman with a porn fetish when he strikes on a brilliant idea. Sexual harassment suits are costly, and they usually lead to the termination of a firm's top employee. Those same instincts that lead to an unwanted come-on also enable the killer instinct that gives a man the edge to succeed in the corporate world. So why not give these valuable chauvinists a way to let off steam once in a while? With an occasional anonymous fuck in the bathroom — all of course under the sterilized, normalized imprimatur of the human resources department — a firm can avoid costly litigation while protecting (some would say, "rewarding") its top properties. Unsurprisingly, Joe's scheme finds takers — lots of them, leaving DeWitt to root around in the absurdities of having "lightning rods" (as the women come to be known) in a corporate setting.
By far the book's most imaginative set-piece occurs near the beginning, when DeWitt depicts Joe's "eureka" moment. While still a lowly salesman, Joe spends his nights inventing fantasies because he doesn't find the standard centerfold shot adequately inspiring. His favorite scenarios involve women whose tops can be seen, but whose botto...