LIGHTNING RODS by Helen DeWitt (& Other Books, 2011)

I’ve heard of toilet humour, but this is ridiculous!

This bizarre novel has been billed as a satire, but I’m at a loss to know of what exactly.

When you learn the rudiments of the plot, you might expect it to ridicule men’s predatory and predictable sexual fantasies but, if anything, it is women who are presented in the worst light.

Or perhaps, you could envisage it sending up the modern way of marketing products, particularly those with limited benefits. Yet, near the end, successful brands like TCBY (The country’s best yoghurt), KFC, 7-Eleven and The Waffle House are lauded for their success and for demonstrating that, in America, anything is possible.

The Lighning Rods are another, albeit fictional, product to add to this list.

On the whole, DeWitt merely seems content with spinning a highly improbable yarn and seeing how far she can run with it.

When we first meet 33-year-old Joe, he’s at a low point in his life working in a “festering swamp of market saturation”. We follow him as he tries, unsuccessfully, to flog first encyclopedias, and then vacuum cleaners. This is before he hits upon his big idea which changes the course of the novel and his life.

I can’t say I’m surprised that it took DeWitt a while to find a publisher for this book; selling the plot can be compared with the main character’s struggle to get his ‘lightning rods’ installed in offices.

In abstract terms, these are part of a “sexual harassment management scheme” by which (there’s no delicate way to put this) women are employed to be screwed from behind.

The reasoning behind Joe’s scheme is that he perceives that there is a need to manage the rampant sexual urges of high-ranking male employees who release their tension by harassing female staff. Not only are these actions degrading to women but they can also be costly as law suits are taken out against the most persistent offenders.

You can only imagine (hope) that DeWitt is deliberately playing devil’s advocate when she writes things like: “If a guy, through no fault of his own has not been brought up to treat women with respect, is it fair that his whole career should be put in jeopardy?”  This statement is essentially arguing that immature, sexist men should be given special privileges.

Joe’s master plan is to provide the controlled and anonymous release valve this type of male so patently craves.

Recruitment is, of course, a delicate matter since: “He was looking for the woman in thousand who was dumb enough to think it was a smart career move to stick her fanny through a hole in the wall and let someone give her the old Roto-Rooter from the rear”.

Despite the fact that the sex act is a central element of the plot, this is a profoundly un-erotic novel. The fact that the fornication occurs in an adapted toilet cubicle means that sexual union is likened to “answering a call of a different nature”.

The “Partonesque” Lucille Lucille, Joe’s hottest ‘rod’, reasons that the adapted facility means that it has “made the physical act about as close at it can get to just going to the bathroom”.

An early lightning rod? – Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s Red-Headed Nude Crouching (1897)

After they overcome the initial shock, women seem, on balance, to have no qualms about providing this anonymous personal service.

They are paid for their efforts but don’t treat is as a form of prostitution. One comments that is “no different from what you put up with when you go to the gynaecologist”.

Another decides to use the time productively, reading Proust while the men go about their business.

The men, for their part, regard this as a “hygienic outlet” and are under strict instructions to use condoms when taking advantage of this “randomly accessed pussy” (an alarm sounds if anyone tries to ride bareback!).

A story which is so politically incorrect and in deliberately bad taste means that the writer has to tread a fine line between low culture and high farce. Unfortunately, DeWitt doesn’t have the discipline or technique to pull this off.

This is one of the sloppiest edited novels I’ve read in a good while. For instance, you will lose count of the times she repeats the salesman’s maxim that “you have to deal with people the way they are, Not how you’d like them to be”.

The author makes half-hearted attempts to examine what happens when the staff embark on normal sexual relations but such sub-plots fizzle out lamely.

She also seeks to raise the level of tension by constantly suggesting that the secrecy surrounding the projects is about to be exposed and become a massive public scandal. Nothing of the kind happens and this is just one of the numerous improbable aspects of the highly contrived plot. In this day and age, this type of scheme would certainly garner negative publicity in the media.

Near the end the FBI get wind of what is happening but play an unrealistically benign role as they see the lightning rods as a means of keeping top personnel in check given that “the sexual drive of men in office is one of the biggest nightmares national security has to deal with”.

I suspect Helen DeWitt is trying to be funny and challenging but only succeeds in achieving the rare trick of writing a dull, unsexy book about sex which manages to be equally offensive to men and women.

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