Lightning Rods ~ Helen DeWitt

In Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt’s long-awaited follow-up to her sprawling masterpiece The Last Samurai, she reigns in her scope but certainly not her imagination. In fact, her narrative is if anything more fantastical, yet written in a simple, straight-up style. I say ‘more fantastical’, but anything is possible. Let me relate a story…

When I pulled in for self-pumped gas a few days ago, I got more than I bargained for. After my credit card paid fill-up, I punched the button for Receipt: Yes and got the message that it was available inside (I never know why this happens). When I went and asked for the receipt for Pump Three, the clerk told me that would be “One dollar”. Though I was taken aback, I wasn’t particularly surprised, thinking it was just another nickel and dime fee to burden the paying public. I asked is she was kidding, though mostly sure she was not. Turns out she was and we had a good laugh. But thinking on it, the $1 fee certainly in my consciousness was now in the realm of possibilities.

DeWitt’s ‘fantastical’ story is not really so fantastical. Bookended by two fictional hurricanes (Edna and Ethel), we follow the rise of Joe, a thirty-three year old American male with no particular ambition. He’s a failed Encylopedia Brittanica salesman then a vacuum cleaner salesman. Then he moves to entrepreneurship comes up with the concept of “Lightning Rods”. The idea germinated from his own obsession with sexual release sans human contact, from the fantasies that he dreamed up for his own ‘pleasure’. And from the belief that the male human animal, especially those ‘driven’ personalities, need a sexual outlet to perform up to their full potential in the workplace. Joe saw a need and went about fulfilling it with an increasingly tweaked invention that he began selling to businesses which were placed in the handicapped stall of the Men’s Room. Marketed by Joe not only as a way to increase the productivity of the more driven salesmen, the high earners, it had the added advantage of seriously reducing sexual harassment in the workplace. “Experts had determined that the male animal performs best if certain physical needs are given release.” You’re shaking your head? Remember. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility these days.

‘Lightning Rods’ was the term that Joe came up with for the female employees that he recruited for his workplace installations. Likened to mistletoe, Lightning Rods were devices “installed in the office environment” which “had previously been generated by…unwelcome advances…and unanticipated rejection.” These employees were integrated into the office as assistants and secretaries. The concept was based on strict anonymity for both the male user and the ‘lightning rod’. How was this anonymity possible? The device was a mechanical invention which had the male enter the female from the rear by backing up a platform to an opening in the bathroom stall. “The man is only ever in contact with the body below the waist.”  Really!

Joe’s central philosophy of life seems to be the “we’ve got to deal with people the way they are, not the way we might like them to be.” This allows ‘moral’ judgements not to be a part of the process. In fact Joe, constantly tweaking and expanding into new markets eventually began marketing his installations to Christian based firms. As word spread, he was even approached by the FBI to partner with them at certain government facilities (the White House for instance). When a woman of color interviewed for a job, Roy had to address the dilemma of anonymity. He couldn’t hire Renee since there were no other African-Americans in the workplace he was hiring for. This prompted Renee to threaten an Equal Employment Opportunities lawsuit, which caused Joe to tweak the concept once again.

the country as a whole…was set up from scratch by people who managed to overlook minor details like slavery and a whole sex. Naturally enough, with that level of glaring oversight to fix, it was easy for people to overlook the faults that remained. Because the thing is, we grow up with the laws we’ve got, and we assume they’re right, they’re what we’re used to. What we don’t realize is that some of these laws were written by people like Joe, and the rest were written by people trying to clean up after people like Joe.

Renee would years later become a Supreme Court Justice and one of his earliest hires whom he relied upon for advice became a multi-millionaire litigation lawyer.

The partnership with the FBI and his new-found profile as a defender of family values brought Joe unimaginable success. The FBI in particular was extremely pleased. The Lightning Rods

…took the lid off the pressure cooker. Insiders at the Department of Homeland Security, moreover, have voiced unqualified admiration for this safeguard to our imperiled democracy.

…What critics fail to recognize is that if a demand exists for a service, and you criminalize that service, the only people who benefit are organized crime. As it happened, however, Joe was working hand in glove with Walter Pike [his FBI handler] and as everyone knows organized crime doesn’t stand a chance when the FBI in on the job. [remove tongue from cheek]

DeWitt’s commentary on the laws of the land is chillingly apt, yet, as is DeWitt’s style, subtly and subversively so:

To insist on a strict observance of the written law over the laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger would be absurdly sacrificing the end to the means…Nobody at the FBI likes breaking the law unnecessarily. In the long term, if inappropriate legislation happens to be in place, the simplest thing is to just get rid of it and replace it with something feasible. It’s just a matter of knowing who to call.

After all, as DeWitt concludes: In America anything is possible.

DeWitt’s novel is dead-pan funny which nevertheless had me laughing out loud at several points. Having worked at a nationally known company for the past decade and a half, I quite relished her take on personnel departments and the acceptance of dishonesty in the workplace in the sub-chapter TROUBLE:

If you’re in personnel one of the things you learn is never to be surprised by anything people do. Because it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the business, you think you’ve seen everything, and they can still surprise you.

This applies even more if you have been in personnel since the days when it was called personnel. If you have spent a lifetime dealing with people, at first in the context of a personnel department, and later, moving with the times, in a human resources task force, you get to the point where you think there’s nothing new they can throw at you. You’ve seen the nicest people you could imagine engaging in systematic theft of supplies, you’ve seen the shameless use of the office phone to distant parts of the globe, and again it’s often the nicest people who are the guilty parties. The fact is there is something about an office environment that tempts people to operate within a completely different moral code from the one they were brought up with. If they actually were brought up with a moral code, which to be honest sometimes you really have to wonder.

Then there’s the sketch of Roy, the head of Human Resources, with DeWitt’s detailed and oddly recognizable portrait of his peanut M&M obsessiions. Roy would tear open a large bag of them and start with the green ones, then move on to Red. When all were gone except the hated blue ones, the “newfangled shade”, he’d bring the bowl out to reception for visitors.

Elaine is a lightning rod who begins to see one of the users outside of work and they hit it off. She feels no pressure to provide on demand sex which  relationships, especially marriages, are prone to.

If someone can get hot meals at the canteen, why the hell should his girlfriend have to cook? Especially if she happens to actually work in the canteen?

Besides there’s the consideration of her kid (she’s a single mother – a recurring situation in DeWitt’s ‘body’ of work). It’s really inconvenient to have the boyfriend over and have things devolve into sex.

No kid wants to worry about coming downstairs in case some guy is getting hands-on experience of her mother’s Wonderbra.

Lightning Rods is a much quicker read than The Last Samurai, and if not as deep and wide as the earlier work, LR is a stab at the heart of who we are today: simple, incisive and entertaining as hell. It’s odd (one man’s perverse fantasies are another man’s salacious corporate perk) and perhaps offensive to many, but as a satire on corporate America, that marketed sex sells, it is rapier sharp. The concept that once seemed innocuous and the foundation of our capitalistic democracy (anything is possible if you strive, apply yourself, work hard) has teetered into dangerous territory: yes, anything is possible, and nothing should surprise us anymore.

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