A Preposterous Proposal, But No, Not Quite

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Helen DeWitt’s satirical novel Lightning Rods turns the quotidian American workplace into a cloaked prostitution ring and makes us wonder if it isn’t already one.

There is a scene in Helen DeWitt’s brilliant satire Lightning Rods in which Roy, the grossly obese head of the human resource department at a successful corporation, ponders his way through three jumbo bags of Peanut M&Ms. He begins with the green ones, proceeds through the red, yellow, and brown—but for some reason shuns the blue. Roy has a curious quarrel with blue M&Ms, which leads to his equally curious habit of leaving them behind as the rejected remainders of his elaborate color-coded engorgement, which he then deposits into a small glass bowl and brings to Reception. He takes the fact that the level in the bowl never goes down as proof that the M&M Company has made a grievous error in departing from its tried-and-true chromatic trademark; what he doesn’t realize is that the secretaries he invites to sample a blue M&M—and who all politely refuse—have been forewarned that his fleshy, sweaty fingers have already picked through the batch several times.

Except for Laura, that is, a secretary with a unique appreciation of blue M&Ms: “You know, when I was a little girl I used to wonder why they never had any blue ones, and then one day they brought them out. It was like, Somebody up there likes me!” Roy, whose lifelong experience in personnel has taught him that people will surprise you when you least expect it, absorbs this in thoughtful silence. Nor does he bat an eyelash when Laura, a former victim of sexual harassment on the job, reports to Roy the mysterious fact that the marketing team members who had been exhibiting less than appropriate behavior towards her have abruptly stopped. “They just seemed to change overnight. I don’t know what brought about the change, but I presume that it was just that the time had come. They realized that somebody was going to have to change, and since I had demonstrated in no uncertain terms that it was not going to be I, they accepted that it was just going to have to be they.”

Roy—seasoned, cynical, and prone to self-congratulation—doesn’t fall for Laura’s ingenuous interpretation for a second. What he’s been pondering all morning as he nibbled his way through the M&M color spectrum is that something is afoot in the firm: he’s overheard mysterious, suspiciously coded-sounded language exchanged in the men’s room, and he’s determined to get to the bottom of it. Absenteeism has plummeted over the past six months and the men are walking around with a jauntier step—but just as his preconceptions prevent him from learning the real reason behind the unanimous lack of appetite for his blue M&Ms, he is unable to put his finger on what that something might be. And then, what he fails to grasp suddenly confronts him in the flesh as he repairs to the disabled toilet, the only facility that can accommodate his mammoth girth.

Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods is a hilarious satire on contemporary American society: sexism, affirmative action, equal opportunity, political correctness—nothing escapes the author’s exacting, irreverent eye. And while Roy and Laura are each oblivious in very different ways, their common cluelessness signals that a key flaw in human insight and reason inevitably factors into every equation:

[and] exactly the same thing applied to the country as a whole. It was set up from scratch by people who managed to overlook minor details like slavery and a whole sex. Naturally enough, with that level of glaring oversight to fix, it was easy for people to overlook the faults that remained. Because the thing is, we grow up with the laws we’ve got, and we assume they’re right because they’re what we’re used to. [And] the more important something is, the less likely people are to fix mistakes. They’re going to assume that if it’s that important, somebody must have known what they were doing. Or they’re going to assume that anything seriously wrong would have been fixed after all this time. They’re not going to realize that the people who fixed it were just trying to bring it into line with an acceptable, 50% level of cluelessness. So if something leaves a lot to be desired, it’s up to you to do something about it. Because if you don’t, you know one thing for sure: nobody else is going to.

But back to the beginning of the story. Joe is a loafer, a failed salesman, and a compulsive masturbator. He moves from Eureka, Missouri to Eureka, Florida in a last-ditch attempt to outrun his debts and to try his hand at selling vacuum cleaners—until his elaborate sexual fantasies finally lead to an epiphany, his defining Eureka moment. Joe’s brilliant idea is to hire female employees to provide anonymous sexual services to male employees in order to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment at the workplace. At a price, of course; fair is fair. Joe’s grand vision, destined to transform corporate America for good, is the lightning rods.

A physical urge is a physical urge. What’s shameful is to look the other way and let the devil take the hindmost, instead of dealing with it responsibly. Because the fact was, these unsatisfied urges were causing an incredible amount of wastefulness and suffering. Women were being molested in the workplace solely because their colleagues did not have a legitimate outlet for urges they could not control. Men who had worked hard and who had a valuable contribution to make were being put at risk, through no fault of their own. And it was shame, false shame, that had kept people from dealing effectively with the situation.

Helen DeWitt, critically acclaimed author of the debut novel The Last Samurai (2000), tunes into the contemporary American idiom and its corporate-speak with perfect pitch; entire paragraphs feel like Readymades that materialize out of thin air. On a sheer formal level, it’s already an achievement to craft page after page of free, indirect speech consisting solely of pre-formulated phrases; nowhere is it more apparent than in this sly, mordantly funny work that the mind can operate exclusively within the shallower depths of the collective subconscious—the ongoing chatter of shared homilies, aphorisms, advertising copy, bromides, and cliché.

But DeWitt’s true genius lies in the skewered logic she concocts throughout this disturbingly plausible book to justify Joe’s preposterous proposition: “The way to look at it was, 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? Is it fair that […] he should have the additional handicap of endangering his career every time he is in the vicinity of female personnel?” This is a man’s world, and in the inherent logic of sexism and misogyny, language is twisted around to put a positive spin on a demeaning proposal: “Instead of a young girl jeopardizing herself by standing on a street in a dangerous neighborhood, putting herself at risk and in all likelihood being exploited by a pimp, you give her the opportunity to work in the safety of an office environment. Instead of acquiring a criminal record she is able to work at filing or some other clerical task and improve her skills.” Thus, the lightning rod scheme provides today’s working women with a unique opportunity to get ahead; the sad thing is, in the world that DeWitt portrays, it’s one of the few things that does.

When DeWitt plays through the myriad rationalizations the lightning rods Lucille, Elaine, Renée, and Suzanne come up with to reconcile themselves with their new position, it is to typify the plight of women as they confront today’s job market. But while institutionalized prostitution is presented as a viable option to rectify the gross differences in pay and opportunity most women face, it’s the “one in a thousand” who can suppress her emotional capacities enough to rise above the unpleasantness of the task at hand in view of a long-term goal, whether it’s having a shot at going to Harvard Law School or assuring her daughter a better life than her own.

While the entire conceit of the Lightning Rods starts out as an absurd male sexual fantasy, it soon becomes apparent that this fantasy extends not only to the workplace, but is endemic to capitalism, politics, society, the world at large. In exchange for extra pay, women are offered the chance to enter this fantasy, but never on their own terms and never to their own satisfaction, sexual or otherwise. Because the line between DeWitt’s satire and everyday reality is so very fine, the book’s premise begins to seem increasingly plausible as the author cleverly constructs a devastating analysis of contemporary times: corporate America, the federal government, capitalism, religion, the FBI—DeWitt leaves no stone unturned. And as this fine line grows thinner and thinner, it’s the proximity between satire and credibility that makes this shockingly innocuous work feel almost surreal.

In a sense, Lightning Rods also describes the double bind each of us faces as we search for a means to survive that affords us enough time and energy to develop our true talents and capacities. When Renée says: “You could argue that a deal that asks you to do something physically disgusting for a limited period, and gives you free use of your own mind in exchange, is actually not such a bad bargain,” what DeWitt really seems to be addressing is the agony of not having free use of your own mind, of being hindered by the exigencies of making a living, trapped in stupefying wage-earning work and forced to perform a mundane function that serves someone else’s purposes. In an America obsessed with success and failure, with getting a shot at the ever-elusive American dream, it’s the plight of a brilliant mind with a set of skills not immediately convertible into currency—damned to being part of the ant colony, the beehive, to eking out the hours in a task far below its capacities—that pains us the most. As DeWitt reveals the hypocrisy at the core of so many social transactions, her proposal becomes far less preposterous than it might initially seem: “after all, the lightning rods were living proof that the boundary between fantasy and reality is nowhere near as fixed as we sometimes imagine.” And this is where DeWitt makes it clear that she’s also writing about prostitution in a much wider sense—the systemic prostitution that pervades our market economy-driven world on all levels, whether they be political, professional, academic, financial, or intellectual.

Andrea Scrima is the author of the novel “A Lesser Day” (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2010), literary critic for The Brooklyn Rail and The Rumpus, and co-editor of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. She lives in Berlin. More from this author →