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BOOK REVIEW

In novel, con man’s unique idea for worker productivity

By Alice Gregory
October 12, 2011

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LIGHTNING RODS By Helen DeWitt

New Directions, 275 pp., $24.95

Joe feels jinxed. He lives in a Florida trailer park, and nobody around seems interested in buying the encyclopedias he peddles door-to-door. He idles away hours spinning weird sexual fantasies (think game shows with Byzantine rules, detailed spatial logic, and recurring contestants). Finally, though, after what seems like months of anguish, onanism yields epiphany. Joe comes up with an idea for how to reduce workplace sexual harassment while increasing office productivity.

He calls them “lightning rods.’’ They’re women, whom corporations will employ to provide male employees with sexual release. These workers will be accessible by way of specially outfitted handicap bathroom stalls, and Joe has devised a way to ensure absolute anonymity for both parties. But as anyone in sales can tell you: If something appears too good to be true, it probably is.

Like her first, critically acclaimed novel, “The Last Samurai,’’ Helen DeWitt’s “Lightning Rods’’ is funny and ambitious, if not quite so overtly esoteric. More than most books, it benefits from multiple reads. And - this is important - the first one should be quick. DeWitt’s is a plausible world to occupy, so long as you aren’t torn from it. Leave for too long though, and coming back can be frightening, as though you’re returning to a psychotic manifesto. But of course that’s the best compliment you can pay a work of fiction.

In the beginning, Joe places elliptical ads in local papers and cites fake baboon statistics in his spiels; he’s as much aware of his own fraudulence as he is intoxicated by executives’ confounding willingness to hear him out.

Soon enough, Joe achieves some success and becomes convinced that his idea is world-changing. The company expands to include adjustable height toilets (inspired by a dwarf he sees on a Kansas City bus), and then when it looks as though his enterprise is in dire straits, Joe saves his company by securing the patronage of the Christian right. He’s constantly conflating altruism and capitalism.

The self-seriousness of DeWitt’s premise is crucial. However fantastic the proposition seems - invisible prostitutes with 401(k)s saving the American work ethic - never does it seem all that far-fetched. She works out the logistical kinks of her plot just as we begin to anticipate them, and the attention to practical detail telegraphs just how much faith she has in the reality of the world she’s created. When it comes to the believability of outlandish fiction, DeWitt herself is one great saleswoman.

It’s partly her command of corporate babble that helps suspend our disbelief. Like the best satirists, Dewitt can throw her voice. The novel is full of declarative, indirectly diagnostic sentences that tell us what’s wrong with society and ourselves. Joe spouts the semantic cocktail of a mid- level blowhard talking to a pretty girl: part boozy looseness, part grandiose rhetoric, part unsolicited advice. Enemies are “sleazeballs’’ and “cheapskates’’; a woman’s erotic capital is a “highly time-sensitive commodity’’; and the Internet is a “false economy.’’ Joe sounds almost exactly like the novel’s omniscient narrator who interjects his own third-person account with second-person pronouns and casual commands. The lack of differentiation between narrator and protagonist isn’t distracting or confounding though; it’s more like the two are fused into a single, sovereign storyteller.

Skeptical consumers know that we don’t need most of the things we buy; we are convinced that we need them. But entrepreneurism, like politics, involves the art of the possible. And so, of course, does fiction. As Joe emerges as a champion of counterintuitive corporate ethics, DeWitt is able to offer a sort of philosophy of salesmanship, which arguably is needed more than ever. We’re sold!

Alice Gregory, a freelance writer, can be reached at aliceagregory@gmail.com.

LIGHTNING RODS By Helen DeWitt

New Directions, 275 pp., $24.95