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A blog for everything bookish

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt


I wish there were more books written by Helen DeWitt, then I could read them all and recommend them enthusiastically to every reader, writer, every random passer-by, probably resulting in my eventual arrest and incarceration in a mental institution. That’s how much I like Helen DeWitt. Sadly, for me, she has written only two books but those two books are amazing. Read on for crazy enthusing.

Lightning Rods was published in UK by And Other Stories, an independent publishing house which is National Lottery funded and operates to strict principles (called its ’11 Commandments’) including the intention to publish not for private profit. You can read all about And Other Stories here: http://www.andotherstories.org. Like many independent presses, And Other Stories seem focused on providing a quality product both in terms of the binding, paper quality, look and, let’s not forget the most important part, quality of writing. They also appear to be focused on publishing the more ‘challenging’ fiction which, perhaps, the mainstream publishers would be less likely to pick up, including the highly successful Booker nominated Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, which I also read and enjoyed and will no doubt get around to blogging about at some point. They operate a subscription service (which I obviously had to sign up to), and even thank their subscribers by name in the back of the book (which is almost unbearably wonderful). And Other Stories strike me as a very interesting publisher to watch, and I hope to be exploring their back and future catalogues more.

So, that’s a bit of publisher enthusing over, let’s get to the book. Lightning Rods tells the story of Joe, a hopelessly optimistic salesman who becomes an unlikely hero. Joe fails to sell any Encyclopaedia Britannica and, try as he might, he fails to sell any Electrolux vacuum cleaners too. After moving to Eureka, Florida, in search of a salesman’s paradise he finds, instead, one which has been cleaned up already.

By the end of the week he realised this was not going to be as easy as it looked. Because every single house he went to had the same story to tell. They already had an Electrolux, they’d bought it just after Hurricane Edna, and it was one of the best things they’d ever done. The customer would then insist on dragging out the faithful Electrolux and singing its praises. Yessir, the customer would say, reckon I’ll break down before this thing does.

As a consequence Joe spends a lot of time eating pie, not making sales, and sitting alone in his trailer fantasising. In fact Joe has one particular fantasy which involves a sexual encounter in which a woman is leaning against a wall so that her upper half is visible from one side but her lower half is not. Her lower half is being pleasured by a suitably equipped man whilst her upper half appears calm. Perhaps she has a conversation with someone, and that someone would never know what was happening behind the lower half of the wall.

Joe, in his spare sales free moments which are many, develops this fantasy into a game show in which the player has to guess which of three ladies is being pleasured from behind the wall. Joe’s problem comes when instead of focusing on his fantasy, drawing the maximum pleasure from it, he starts to wonder if the game is rigged. This, coupled with his failure to sell a single Electrolux, is when Joe realises he has a real problem and decides to do something about it.

He had hit rock bottom. Because, 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. He is not the kind of guy who lies around obsessing about whether some kind of completely imaginary game show is rigged.

Joe realises that what he has been focusing on is the wrong problem. He has been trying to sell something which people had no need for and blaming himself for being a poor salesman whereas the success or failure centred around the product. Instead he needed to focus on what people need and it will sell itself. And this is where his fantasy comes in.

Joe invents ‘Lightning Rods’ as a method of dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment, he reasons, is rife and women have good reason to expect to not be subjected to that in the workplace. However, highly successful men are likely to be testosterone driven and conversely will be more likely to commit incidents of sexual harassment. This is a problem, he decides, for HR personnel who wish to protect their highly successful male staff whilst knowing that a sexual harassment case against them is nigh on inevitable. However, Joe decides, if he can deliver a safe outlet for those highly testosteroned staff to relieve their sexual urges in the workplace then this will reduce instances of sexual harassment, creating a safer workplace for both men and women.

The Lightning Rods themselves (women, delivering sexual services) would also need means of protection in order to ensure they didn’t suffer adverse effects on their reputation. Joe’s idea is to place his Lightning Rods into standard workplace roles and implement a system whereby they could be selected at random and provide their service whilst remaining anonymous. This involves conversion of a room into a space whereby the woman’s nether parts can be accessed whilst her face and any distinguishing features remain hidden.

Having had this idea, the rest of the book explores Joe’s journey in making his Lightning Rods product, against all odds, a success. Joe buys himself a thousand dollar suit, creating the right image, and armed with some dubious research and statistics works his way through a series of obstacles including racial discrimination, tangles with the FBI, and an unhappy workforce to deliver Lightning Rods into every major employer in US. Joe becomes the unlikely hero in the middle of a bizarre story which seems so unlikely it couldn’t possibly be for real.

This is not a book for the easily offended, nor one to be read superficially. It’s not even really about pornography or sexism. At the heart of DeWitt’s book is the idea of the American Dream, that everyone can make it if they work hard enough, coupled with the idea that, with the application of pure reason, everything appears logical. What is bizarre about the success of Lightning Rods is how it is Joe’s skill at sales-focused reasoning that makes everything he does appear kind-of-right and kind-of- normal when it patently isn’t. Had DeWitt used a less controversial ‘product’ then the story just wouldn’t succeed. In Lightning Rods DeWitt explores the boundaries of what we might accept if only someone sold it to us hard enough, something that is all too painfully reflected in real life when we see how easily people will hand over their civil liberties for the mere illusion of protection.

What is so awesome about DeWitt is how clever and brilliant and entertaining and funny her writing is. I cannot emphasise enough how often I found myself chuckling away on those long, lonely journeys to and from work on the train, then went back and read a passage again just for the sheer joy of it. She has that kind of wise-cracker easiness to her writing which draws you in, and with this light comedic touch she is able draw open taboos without falling into the trap of caricature or abuse. This following passage highlights how one short encounter on a bus seeds in Joe what turns out to be his greatest invention, the adjustable toilet and which could, so easily, be considered offensive:

The thing was, never having actually come across a dwarf in real life before, and only having seen Time Bandits a long time ago, Joe had never realised just how short a dwarf can be. The shuttle bus had a fairly low step, but it was way too high for the dwarf. Well, obviously the guy had to deal with this type of situation before, he just took hold of the pole in the middle of the door and swung himself right on up, no problem. He had to hand the driver money to put in the fare dispenser, which was also way too high, and then he went back into the bus and he had to swing himself up again just to get into one of the seats – what kind of a way was that to go through life?

Joe paid his fare then he went back into the bus and sat down a long way from the dwarf. One of the first lessons you learn in life is to avoid men of below average height. There’s something about being short that makes a man feel he has something to prove, say he stopped growing at 5’6”, a couple of extra inches would have made all the difference, instead of going with the flow he tends to be aggressive if not downright mean. Take away another couple of inches, and you’re into mean son of a bitch territory. Take it right on down to 3’11” and God only knows what you’re up against. Best to keep a safe distance.

Anyway, the bus pulled out, and Joe’s mind reverted to its bĂȘte noir: the disabled toilet. And the thing he suddenly realised was that the disabled toilet would be way too high for someone like this dwarf. No better than any of the other toilets, in fact, except that it had a rail he could use to climb up onto the seat. And if you stop and think about it for a minute, when was the last time you saw a toilet with a dwarf icon on the door? Well, what kind of world do we live in when we give people no option but to climb up on the seat whenever they need to answer the call of nature?

Where DeWitt avoids this is by observing without judgement, coupled with the boundless optimism and problem solving capabilities of Joe. Ultimately DeWitt exposes how one man thinking through various problems, with a little twisted reasoning, can take you to an unexpected conclusion that somehow, inexplicably, seems logical. It is all very funny and entertaining, but underneath it all there is a message that we can all be sold pretty much anything as long as we’re willing to accept authority from someone who merely looks the part and is able to spin the logic in such a way that has us all agreeing and wondering why we hadn’t seen it for ourselves. It is a brave, challenging novel which could quite easily be misconstrued as sexist, inappropriate or just plain dirty, but it is, in truth, none of these things. It is, plainly speaking, brilliant.  

Lightning Rods receives an implausible 10 out of 10 Biis.