Pieces of the Planet

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

And Other Stories, 270pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781908276117

reviewed by Helen McClory

Lightning Rods is deft, dedicated satire of Swiftian proportion, so convincingly written in a faux-relatable, business pitch style that I flinched upon reading it. I needed, for the first little while, to remind myself precisely what DeWitt was pulling off – the magnitude of the ludicrous parody she was constructing. It was that or pulling at my cheeks in anxious resistance to the big sell.

The story is simple: a failing vacuum cleaner salesman, Joe, inspired by a long-running sexual fantasy of his, comes up with an idea he can sell better than an Electrolux. What if, to avoid sexual harassment lawsuits, businesses could set in place a system that would diffuse all sexual tension in the office before unfortunate incidents could occur? A system of 'lightning rods' - women available, by a computer rota, for backwards sexual congress through special apparatuses in disabled toilets. These woman could be placed alongside their co-workers and give no appearance of their status as 'bifunctional workers' as DeWitt puts it, thus erasing any stigma as well as affording them greater job security and employee benefits than could otherwise be expected for a sex worker. The reader is, in the face of this absurd idea, taken by the hand through each stage of planning and implementation, with the third person narration (most closely linked to the salesman, Joe) carefully and pedantically laying out the pros and cons:

Well, just look at how much time people waste because they can't get it without shame! Look how much time people waste in conversation, asking people about their interests. Look how much time people waste fantasizing. And just look at the risks people take! Because he had read about a case where a man had harassed a woman by dropping M&M's in the pocket of her blouse and getting them out, and his firm had to pay her a million dollars. Or it might have been more.

Well, if people are willing to take those kinds of risks you know there's got to be money in it. And if people are going to do things that put their company at that kind of risk there's got to be money in it.

The motivational-speaker voice is, throughout the novel, doggedly consistent, and reminded me of Swift’s 1729 essay ‘A Modest Proposal’ – the sort of wide-eyed satire that doesn’t blink. What do you mean, unfeasible, morally reprehensible? The other comparison, which DeWitt herself makes in a special acknowledgement at the end of the novel, is to Mel Brooks' film, The Producers (1968). Though the film has a zany physicality the novel lacks (by dint of not being a moving image, and therefore absent the electric presence of Gene Wilder), they share the dedication to the step-by-step process of bringing to life an utterly ridiculous idea. DeWitt has set herself up for failure by relying on a visual narrative for inspiration. Though Lightning Rods would surely make a good film, as a text it performs more like a script than a novel. What it lacks is interiority. The narration, because it is so slick and over-worked, has the feel of a voice-over; it's all surface, even when we are ostensibly presented with access to the minds of the characters. This creates a sensation of hollowness – the book lacks something because it has been created in an inappropriate medium.

If you’ve seen The Producers you might remember the Swedish secretary Ulla. She is brought into the office of Bialystock and Bloom simply because she can be - she’s only there for her buxomness and ditzy qualities. It would be odd of her to become a savvy main player in the film, unless that too was part of a gag. So, too, in De Wiit’s novel, the women function as they are set up to function. Renée, an intelligent and fastidious woman, contemplates becoming a Lightning Rod, comparing her body to a receptacle for dog poo, which she is staring at, at the time:

Suppose someone offered you the chance to go to Harvard Law School, but you had to do something really disgusting for two years. Suppose you had to agree to shovel out a stable all day long for two years. Two years of shovelling horse shit and at the end of it you could go to Harvard Law School. Or what if it was something even more disgusting?

[…]

At the end of the day, you’re just talking about pieces of the planet. Your body is a piece of matter on the surface of the planet. The shit is also matter. You use one object on the surface of the planet to move around other stuff on the surface of the planet. And what you buy with moving all that stuff around is the use of your mind.

There is an old-fashioned air to the characters, particularly in their way of thinking about men and women. Although set roughly between 1999 and 2004, it reads as if broadcast from an earlier age. Everyone seems a little uncomfortable with computers, even though most people appear to be under the age of forty. The girls or ‘gals’ as they are sometimes referred to, aspire to being cool, in-control law school graduates while working their way up the ladder as secretaries, assistants, and sexual-frustration eliminators. One of the novel's most problematic assumptions is that women do not actively desire sex. There are no power-women who might need a lightning rod (either male or female) to discharge their own sexual frustration upon. There are, as it happens, no head executives who are women. The men, on the other hand, are still buying pornographic magazines, throwing their hands up in the air about gender equality, and dominating the work force. Of course, DeWitt is entirely aware of what she’s doing – writing a feminist satire of patriarchal dominance in the workplace. But the problem is that her laser vision appears to be aimed at a gender dynamic that no longer exists.

Perhaps I am giving myself away here. I have not worked in an American office place of any sort. However, I feel that it is more than obvious that the issues currently being dealt with by women in the modern world are not those tackled in the book. DeWitt does circle around some questions that are still relevant today – the pay gap is still a shameful proof of discrimination, and men are still routinely employed over women who are equally qualified. But there is a much more nuanced side to the fight. The book lacks an understanding of the intersectionalities of gender identity - that is, how different, overlapping identities inform our experiences of the world, both in terms of privilege and constraints. And, notably, it ignores the question of how we can present and challenge the notion of gender in a world where that concept is so tied up with notions of sexuality, race and class - a world where not only white upper and middle-class men but also white women collude to silence or belittle our diverse voices. Women and girls today, particularly of my generation, the Millennials, are creating platforms of self-expression online, sharing their art projects, selling their creations and discussing science and politics and how much or little autonomy they have over their bodies in their respective countries. They are also the most underemployed, disenfranchised, materialistic, advert-targeted group. It’s a complicated picture.

Lightning Rods presents us with a narrow band of women occupying what feels like a pre-internet world. However savvily they respond to sexism, they act as participants in a fundamentally archaic, imbalanced gender system. It's a shame DeWitt has dedicated her refined skills to creating this particular vision when she could have perhaps subverted it. In exchange for writing a book with sharp corners, a thorough, well-paced narrative and an unswerving gaze, DeWitt has sacrificed nuance, and, more importantly, a proper investigation into the complexities of sexism and the role of women in response to oppression.