Corporate Concubine Culture

Dan Kois praises Helen DeWitt’s 2011 novel Lightning Rods – the first selection for the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List – as “a sex comedy that pursues a single dirty joke much, much further than it ought to and, in doing so, skewers American capitalism with a purer, more invigorating hatred than any novel I can remember.” The satire figures female employees as “lightning rods” specially hired to relieve the libidos of their male coworkers:

Women were being molested in the workplace,” [character] Joe reasons, “solely because their colleagues did not have a legitimate outlet for urges they could not control.” Worse, due to expensive sexual-harassment complaints, “men who worked hard and had a valuable contribution to make were being put at risk, through no fault of their own.”

Once per day, a male employee with privileges can press a button on his computer to order a lightning rod. One of the firm’s lightning rods will then receive a discreet message on her computer; she is expected to report immediately to a stall in the ladies’ room, where she will replace whatever she’s wearing on her lower half with a short skirt and no underpants. She will then lay in a specially-designed contraption which will slide her lower half through the wall into a stall in the adjacent men’s room, where the male employee, condom on, will sate his carnal desires, the better to go back to his office refreshed and focused and ready to make money. The women, too, handsomely remunerated for their additional tasks during the workday, go back to their desks, where they can plan for the glorious futures their fat paychecks will help them enjoy. (One former lightning rod, the book tells us, is now a justice on the Supreme Court!)

In a 2012 review, William Flesch described the novel’s take on a sales-minded society:

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.

In an earlier review, Garth Risk Hallberg applauded DeWitt for “luxuriat[ing] in the eloquent dumbness of the corporate idiom.” He suggested that the novel’s satire extends far beyond corporate culture:

Lightning Rods is no more “about” sexual tension in the workplace than A Tale of a Tub is about the tub. But if Joe’s “Lightning Rods” are the vehicle, what is the tenor? What, exactly, is being skewered? By the end of the book, the answer, wonderfully, seems to be “everything”: bureaucracy, sexual politics, the objectification of the female body, the sanctification of same, political correctness, political incorrectness, etiquette, boorishness, ambition, laziness, late capitalism, and even logic itself.

DeWitt brings to satire what Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 brought to the detective story: purity of means, ineffability of ends. This is not to say that Lightning Rods shares that novel’s epic sweep. It is, by design, a minor work. (DeWitt says she began writing it, and several other books, in 1998, “to pave the way for” The Last Samurai.) But it so emphatically aces the tasks it sets for itself, and delivers such a jolt of pleasure along the way, that it reminds me of just how major a minor work can be. I wish the other leading American novelists would produce more books in this vein. Come to think of it, I wish Helen DeWitt would, too. At any rate, as one of her endearingly flummoxed characters might say, I literally cannot wait to see what she does next.