Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, May 27, 2013

Helen DeWitt, _Lightning Rods_

THE PREMISE OF this novel, on first blush, seems that of an airport newsstand farce, destined to become a direct-to-video movie: an enterprising young man decides the solution to sexual harassment in the workplace is, in a word, prostitution: having specially hired female personnel who receive double pay and who in addition to their ordinary duties are available for anonymous sexual intercourse at set times during the day.

Initial prospects are discouraging, but the entrepreneurial spirit prevails; he finds women willing to work on this basis, a company willing to try "Lightning Rods" (safely discharging potentially dangerous sexual energy, you see), and after a few struggles and unanticipated problems, the business  is sailing into profitability.

Knowing only that much, you would expect a lot of bawdy humor in the first half, then a second half where the entrepreneur falls in love with one of the "lightning rods," sees the error of his ways, settles into monogamy, and so on.

But this is Helen DeWitt, author of The Last Samurai and one of the nation's most fiercely intelligent fiction writers, so nothing of the sort happens. Most of the novel is written from the perspective of Joe, the entrepreneur, in a scarily accurate reproduction of motivational-speaker-ish business talk (e.g., the title of first section, "Failure Is Always the Best Way to Learn")--so relentlessly upbeat and so intent on solving problems, meeting challenges, overcoming barriers and the like that all the moral and ethical questions of the business are kept well out of sight. You would have to go back to Swift's "Modest Proposal," I think, to find another speaker so wholly attuned to some aspects of his subject and so utterly blind to certain others.

DeWitt shows a perfect ear for the classic rhetorical moves of the business profile--the ominous-minor-chord chapter ending, for instance, setting the stage for the next challenge to be met ("In fact, his problems were just beginning").  She is a past master at the Jaw-Dropping Prolepsis:

What he didn't realize was that all that time he spent twiddling and worrying about the roll-down blind would one day lead directly to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.

Years later, when Renée was making constitutional history as a Supreme Court Justice, she was sometimes asked to identify the thing that had made the single biggest contribution to her career.

Since the novel is satirical, we ought not to expect DeWitt to come up with "characters we care about," to adopt a phrase from my students, but DeWitt nonetheless conjures up some compelling singularities here: Roy, the M&M-peanut-popping human resources officer who accidentally discovers what his superiors have put into place at the office and doesn't know whether he can trust his eyes; perfectionist Renée, unflappable Lucille; even Joe becomes individualized for us when he makes it his mission to develop the adjustable-height office toilet.

I found myself laughing often, but as with "A Modest Proposal," you feel like you're laughing all the way up to the edge of an abyss. For most of the novel, you are (as it were) seeing the world through the eyes of capital, and it's outlandish until you realize how much of our world this perspective explains.

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