NOVEMBER 21, 2011
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 bottoms can’t (leaning out of a window is a favored image). In Joe’s fantasy the woman gets rear-ended, but he can only see her from the waist up; it’s left pleasingly ambiguous just what he finds so desirable about this idea. Eventually he elaborates this into a game show along the lines of Hollywood Squares, where women compete to see who can mask their encounter the best as studs do them off-camera. This notion succeeds on three counts: first, as an utterly hilarious, ridiculous fantasy. Second, it forces us to weigh some thorny questions about the nature of desire. And third, it gives us, by far, Lightning Rods‘s deepest look into a character’s soul. It is a fantastic, promising start.
What follows is an encyclopedic satire of corporate culture. DeWitt hits all the major tropes of the corporate lifestyle — everything from dealing with undesirable externalities to the benign oppression enacted by human resources to corporate logic, gender politics, and, of course, workplace discrimination. By looking at these things through the lens of the lightning rods, DeWitt probes what motivates the corporate entities that so dominate our society. Very occasionally, the book’s corporate realism feels dated (the days of college grads making six figures are certainly long gone), but in large part the peccadilloes and perversions that DeWitt investigates are only more pronounced in a post-bailout, too-big-to-fail era. The central metaphor here is that salesmanship in a capitalistic society is not about the quality of a product, but about the desirability of the lifestyle it enables: as Joe wages endless battles to convince everyone from secretaries to corporate buyers to the FBI of his enterprise’s validity, he continually refurbishes his pitch, always pitching it toward his mark’s aspirational self-image. This affords DeWitt the chance to think about what these various strata of our society really want, while also letting her handily lampoon the shortcomings of those visions.
Ultimately, the book seems most interested in a problem Theodor Adorno once ascribed to what he called “the culture industry”: “it solves conflicts for them [i.e. us] only in appearance, in a way that can hardly be solved in their real lives.” Joe expresses this same sentiment in the mixture of self-help inspiro-talk and salt-of-the-earth common sense that characterizes his thought: “A salesman has to face facts… . Because what you realize is just how many things are the way they are because people could not make a living out of appealing to people’s better nature.”
In The Last Samurai DeWitt showed a strong interest in notions of normalcy and its opposite, and this is a theme that occupies a central place in Lightning Rods. With Joe, she seems to be asking, What inspires someone to go beyond the normal?, as well as, Can hard work alone ever really get you there? “All I want is to be a success,” Joe reflects, but is even a multi-billionaire who triumphs by the rules of capitalistic logic anything more than a steroidal embodiment of normalcy? Pursuing this question, DeWitt pays close attention to desire’s inspirational role in a capitalistic society. For average-joes like Joe, a desire for wealth, sexy women, and, above all, respect are the strongest motivational forces possible. DeWitt is terrific at differentiating these various forms of desire, as well as showing how they, and not notions of career or social good, really drive our economy. Yet aren’t these desires merely average? DeWitt is ever mindful that most people work their hearts out on their “third of fourth or fifth choice because there just isn’t any money in their first choice.” The implication drawn across Last Samurai and Lightning Rods is that the truly different — those who really change society — manage to hold out for that first choice.
What DeWitt seems to be working out here are the origins of social rituals, that mixture of human nature and historical moment that gives rise to the solutions that eventually redefine our sense of morality. The idea of a woman being shared around by high-octane men to keep them performing at peak capacity has an animalistic feel about it, as though we are witnessing the mythic origins of a concept like the scapegoat, or the employment of eunuchs in harems. And indeed, Joe repeatedly frames his invention as removing that one massive hurdle toward true capitalistic productivity: “let’s face it, the kind of guy who gets ahead in the world, the kind of guy who makes a mark, the kind of guy who makes a difference, is the kind of guy who deals with his sexual urges and gets on with the job.”
But as Adorno explains, these cultural rituals can only address fundamental problems insofar as they permit the capitalist machine to run smoothly. Joe’s invention does nothing to fix the objectification of women or the fact that well-meaning jerks like Joe pull society’s levers; on the contrary, it helps these men succeed by offering them a lifestyle that suits their view of the world. And this is one of Lightning Rods‘s main lessons: capitalism will cater to any need — no matter how bizarre, perverse, or dangerous — so long as it doesn’t seriously challenge the men who dominate it. Of course it’s not just men who reap the benefits of Joe’s invention: in exchange for serving as the receptacle for some anonymous man’s penis, women receive enormous sums of money, which allow those who can stand the psychological strain to have education and empowerment. In one of the novel’s more delightfully ridiculous images, a woman nicknamed “Miss Perfect” studiously works her way through all of A la recherché du temps perdu while serving the men. Despite the appeal of such kitschy scenes, they make for a dark, Hobbesian view of a society determined by corporate logic.
As that image of Miss Perfect implies, DeWitt’s generally fascinating treatment of gender can at times feel schematic. The men, for instance, fall neatly into three camps: the ones who scream “hoo boy” at the chance to rear-end a woman as an office perk; the ones who are so vile that such policies had to be instated to compensate for their sexual harassment; and the few who don’t want to participate (it says something that, of the two such men described, one is gay). DeWitt’s women fare little better: there are those aggressive, careerist females who manage to exude male values with a female veneer, and there are those poor things who would like to make use of the opportunity the lightning rod enterprise affords but are too emotionally unstable to do so.
This idealized world offers a suitably frictionless track for DeWitt’s ingenious plot, but it opens up some problems as regards her characters. Granted, DeWitt never frames her book as a psychological novel, and she is quite even-handed in making both genders play the fool, yet the comparative richness of The Last Samurai indicates that she did not reach her full potential here. Like Lightning Rods, that book never attempted to be a psychological novel, yet DeWitt was able to make her people both more interesting and more appealing within that novel’s schematic perimeter. In The Last Samurai DeWitt was dealing with geniuses — an inherently strange, intriguing bunch — whereas part of the challenge here is that in Lightning Rods she is quite clearly attempting to deal with all-too-mainstream people. (She’s also satirizing corporate culture, leaving precious few opportunities for sympathy.) This opens a worthwhile problem: how do you use flat characters to explore the median? DeWitt realizes that this is an interesting problem, and offers many fine moments toward an answer to it, yet one senses the matter has not been fully solved. Catch-22, to which this book has been compared — and which is my gold standard for satires of groupthink — manages the trick by veering farther into the surreal. Unbuoyed by Heller’s absurdist brio, Lightning Rods‘s characters eventually grow dull; by the end their thoughts feel rote and uninteresting, merely adequate vessels for the few remaining plot points.
Lightning Rods makes for a dim view of corporate America. Its most sympathetic resident is the dumbly lovable Joe, but though he’s just bright enough to question the logical and moral flaws in his scheme, he’s also content to assuage himself with facile homilies. “I’ll try to be more considerate in the future,” he thinks, “I’ll try to let my success be a force for good.” DeWitt leaves us with a homily as well, one she attributes to George Washington, surely in jest: “in America anything is possible.” Although this platitude has long since been politicized into incoherence, in the context of Lightning Rods “anything” has a clear definition: it refers strictly to the sorts of things men like Joe think are beneficial to society. That makes Lightning Rods a grim commentary on how America’s vast intellectual capital is largely misspent enabling and correcting corporate excesses, and suggests a warning to would-be corporate caricaturists: with the headlines growing ever more absurd in a post-Enron, post-TARP era, satirists need a very long blade to outdo corporate America’s ability to inflict indignity upon itself. DeWitt has given us a worthy satire of this logic and an interesting exploration of gender, but one feels that she did not go quite far enough.