Sex Sells: Helen DeWitt's "Lightning Rods"

By William FleschNovember 16, 2012

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

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 Rods, a friendly parody: one that not only tells the story, but also imitates its characters through the telling.

So the language of Lightning Rods is mainly that of the genuinely optimistic salesman, filled with the italics of salesmen who really care about the product, who really believe in what the product can do for those who buy it. Sustaining that optimism requires a kind of programmatic shallowness. If you’re in sales (this is a formulation repeated every few pages), you have to be pretty much like other people to be able to understand their needs and desires. Everyone’s on a first name basis in Lightning Rods — including Edna and Ethel, the hurricanes that frame the story. This universal shallow-but-real friendliness not only makes selling possible, but a genuine social good too: one that promotes such friendliness and mutual understanding. It’s a particularly American friendliness that highly values tolerance of different perspectives, without much thinking about tolerance as a principle or moral maxim, without thinking about anything very deeply at all. Like Facebook, it substitutes and compensates for the inoffensively cheerful lack of depth it represents and to which it contributes. The book’s first words — “One way of looking at it” — are repeated, in one variation or another, dozens of times, both in the narrative’s free indirect style (“the way he saw it was”; “the way she looked at it was”) and in conversations whose diction is of course the same as the narrative’s (“the way I see it”; “the way I look at it”). This is the kind of conversational gambit that characterizes good, low-pressure salesmanship: amicable offers of plausible perspectives that buyers will find pleasant.

We never hear about how people think about the world in which they find themselves. That’s because they don’t think about the world much at all; they “look” at “it,” the world referred to by that dummy, idiomatic pronoun which is the most low-maintenance of things. “It” could refer to anything at all, really, depending on how you look at it. A few of the characters in Lightning Rods will sometimes have ways that they “think about it,” but always in an internal dialogue with themselves, so that thinking becomes just another route to how to “look at it,” just a way for them to sell the plausibility of an idea — this time to themselves.

Salesmanship is all about acknowledging, about seeing, that there are different ways to look at the world. When you tell other people how you see the world, you can hope to encourage them see it your way. Encouragement becomes the medium of social interaction. Tolerance and friendliness become synonymous, which means that not too much strain is put on tolerance. And the lightning rods — by dissipating sexual tension, turmoil, anxiety, and disgust — contribute to the sense of tolerant friendliness.

DeWitt isn’t contemptuous of that tolerance, which her novel often frames as a social achievement. We see Joe making real moral advances in the course of the narrative. There is progress to his story: “It’s important to remember that there’s more to life than being a success. Sure, if you do something it’s important to give it your best shot. But it’s also important to be a good person.” Though the lightning rods are a literalized commodification of women, these women, just as much as their uni-functional peers in the office have ways of looking at things too. Some even prove themselves to be good salesmen.

There’s a continuum here, not an opposition, between the prefab fantasies all these people in sales offer and the serious business of writing.  Salesmen and fictionists alike invent and sell worlds to their audiences, and what happens in this book is that Joe’s struggles to make his fantasies make sense — to extend them in such a way so that by the end of the book the whole world has bought into them. Because he’s got integrity, he needs to find some plausible route to his wildest sexual fantasies, and it belongs to the essence of the Aristotlean demand for a plausible story that most people will agree that it might happen. Since Joe can’t help demanding this plausibility from himself, he has to work out his initial idea, even in the heat of fantasy, in ways that he can sell to himself and others, sell to himself because he knows that he can sell them to others. DeWitt does the same thing, like Joe imagining and solving all sorts of complications which could not all be foreseen at the moment that the lightning rods idea occurs to him, complications that arise from the nature of the idea itself as it is worked out. Joe’s idea of the salesman’s job could just as well be a description of the writer’s:

A salesman has to see people as they are. Most people spend their lives trying to avoid doing that very thing. Most people see what they want to see. But a salesman can’t afford to see people the way he might like them to be. He has to see them the way they actually are. And he also has to see them the way they’d like to be. Because no matter how badly people want something, if they don’t want to be the kind of people who want that kind of thing you’re going to have an uphill battle persuading them to buy it.

A writer has to sell people on a description of what people are like. Do it right, and a whole social system can arise out of a series of inevitable interactions that eventually affiliate and unify the whole fictional world.

DeWitt originally wrote Lightning Rods in the late nineties as an act of salesmanship, a way of trying to sell the more challenging Last Samurai. The idea was to publish this novel and a couple of others and become known and salable enough that someone would take a chance on the more important book. But someone did take a chance on it (Miramax), without her having published any other novel, and, as she puts it, this had the strange and unexpected effect of blocking publication of Lightning Rods until now. It must have looked like too slight a second act after The Last Samurai, like her version, maybe, of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice or Roth’s Great American Novel.

But to be too ready to see any of those works, including DeWitt’s, as unimportant confections would be to undersell them. Lightning Rods, as an allegory of social networking, and despite being manically reminiscent of Saturday Night Live commercial parodies or of Mel Brooks’s The Producers (which DeWitt cites in her brief acknowledgment), sees social networking as finally, a sad substitute for real life. As in The Shop Around the Corner or You’ve Got Mail, Lightning Rods is about having partial, mosaic, pieced-together relations with people. Here various people do not unknowingly correspond with their coworkers, but actually unknowingly have sex with them. They literally can’t communicate: that’s what preserves anonymity.

You could say this novel imagines Assbook rather than Facebook, but the difference isn’t very great. The attenuated, not-too-bad society that Joe manages to establish and (for the first time) to feel fully a part of isn’t a terrible place at all. His innovations, and his upgrades, make life more pleasant. The book ends reasonably happily. Happily enough that we may forget its first words: “One way of looking at it is that it was just an unfortunate by-product of Hurricane Edna.” Why “unfortunate”? We’re never told, but the way I see it, that’s because DeWitt has given a powerful, plausible, right neighborly depiction of the absolute triumph of social networking as the only medium of human interaction. It’s great that Joe’s point of view opens out to the point of view of others, particularly of the strong female characters in the book. But this happens because really they all have the same point of view: friendly tolerance of those who can show or be brought to show friendly tolerance. The triumph of social networking ends up feeling like the triumph of the interaction of cellular automata. Social networking sites treat us like bots, and we willingly become bots in order to interact with each other pleasantly, swiftly, and with no unnecessary friction.

But DeWitt also suggests another possible case: the occasional, spectacular descriptions of a world outside the network, the off-shore world that the network doesn’t reach. Joe takes just the wrong lesson from his genuine visions of this world (which, like the two hurricanes, bookend the novel). He thinks social networking can transcend the alien grandeur of what he sees when he looks out into the ocean. But whatever ameliorations he brings to the world, an unfortunate by-product of those ameliorations is their tremendous cost in human experience.


LARB Contributor

William Flesch teaches English at Brandeis. He is the author of, among other books, The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry: 19th Century (2009), and of many articles on poetic form.


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