I accepted an advance copy of Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt for review for one reason and one reason only: the publisher. It's from And Other Stories, the small press that everyone is talking about since Deborah Levy's Swimming Home made the Booker Prize shortlist. I heard of their unabashed literary ethos when their first ever publication - Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos - was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and won praise at Savidge Reads. (You won't be surprised to hear that both of these books are on my TBR...) It was impossible to resist the offer to sample their wares when it came. I knew nothing about Helen DeWitt or the book, but what the hell, I thought, And Other Stories must know what their doing.
It seems unlikely that I would have read Lightning Rods under any other circumstances. There is absolutely nothing about its premise that appealed to me; and almost nothing about its premise that didn't disgust me. Which just demonstrates that the power of a publisher's name and reputation can still be trusted sometimes, and that they sometimes know better than you do.
Discomfort, disbelief, distaste, disgust, disillusioment: the register of responses this book inspires is dis- from beginning to end. I read with my mouth slightly ajar in dismay. I found myself unable to read it in public, in case I couldn't control the expressions on my face; or in case someone should look over my shoulder and think 'that woman is reading porn on the train'. (Since most people are reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the train without turning a hair this makes me sound like a prude, but there it is.) When Esther asked me what it was about I considered, just for a moment, papering over the truth. All of which says a lot more about me than about the novel; but that, I think, is Helen DeWitt's endgame. This novel reads the reader inside out. 'Provocative' is a cliche in such cases, but Lightning Rods gets to the root of that word.
Three paragraphs in and I've so far managed to avoid saying anything specific about the book itself. Deep breath, here goes. Prepare yourselves. Eve's Alexandria has recently been blocked on the local library wifi for 'adult content' - it's the quotations of sex scenes apparently; this post is not going to help that problem.
It starts with a dream; the kind of dream more commonly called a fantasy. The fantasy belongs to unsuccessful vacuum cleaner salesman Joe, sitting alone in his trailer home, masturbating:
His first fantasy was about walls. The woman would have the upper part of her body on one side of the wall. The lower part of her body would be on the other side of the wall... Sometimes the woman would be naked from the waist down. Most of the time she would be wearing a short tight skirt that could be pushed up and underpants that could be pulled down. Sometimes he would have trouble deciding whether it was better with or without the pants. The high point was pushing the skirt slowly up to reveal a firm, tight, unsuspecting ass. Later a cock would go in and the vantage point of the fantasy would shift to the other side of the wall, where you would not know from the fully clothed upper body of the woman that a cock was hard at work on the other side of the wall. For some reason or other she would need to pretend that nothing was happening.
This is on page 8. DeWitt clearly subscribes to the view that it's important for a writer to set the tone early on. There is a tantalising boldness to the way she slides in this passage with its flat, unambiguous styling, that nicely characterises the novel as a whole. If you'll pardon the unpardonable pun: she doesn't beat around the bush, ever. The competant (and quite beautiful) blandness of the prose is tickling when you consider the unbelievable things being said. But here I am again, being sidetracked from the synopsis.
Since there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to sex, I'm sure Joe is not the first to fantastise along these lines. When not selling vacuum cleaners (which is most of the time) he makes the effort to finesse his dream; he experiments. His favourite is a game show format, where there are three woman lined up and contestants have to guess which of the women is being penetrated from behind while only their upper bodies are visible to the audience. He develops favourite characters amongst the participants; then struggles to come to terms with the fact that the show is 'rigged' by his own brain so his favourites win.
Out of these obsessive compulsive struggles with his own fantasy comes a Eureka moment. What if he could commercialise his 'idea'? What if he is not a sadly underperforming vacuum salesman after all, but an inventor of genius? What if he could sell the 'woman behind the wall' on an open market, as an anonymous outlet for the pent up sexual energies that cause otherwise normal, good people to get into all sorts of trouble with mistresses and prostitutes and sexual harrassment cases?
From this kernel of a crackpot idea - the kind of idea only a novelist could articulate without being hounded from polite society as a complete weirdo - comes Joe's multi-million dollar international company Lightning Rods. Since the book is the story of dips and curves of LR's development I won't over-describe it. But basically Joe convinces a medium sized local business that it could deal with the problem of sexual harrassment in the workplace by employing women to have anonymous sex with their top performing salesmen. This will channel the men's inevitable sexual urges through acceptable channels; and they won't feel the need to be inappropriate with female colleagues. Hence the 'lightning rod' name. The disabled toilet cubicles in the mens and ladies bathrooms (which sit adjacent to one another) are modified: a concealed hatch is made in the wall and a mechanism built that allows the lower half of a woman's body to be shuttled through. The man on the other side can see nothing above the waist because of the intervening wall, meaning that he has no idea which of the women in the office he is having sex with.
DeWitt takes her premise as far as she can. With a single-mindedness that equals Joe's own one-track thinking, the novel pursues all the practicalities of the Lightning Rod idea. We already know that Joe is a perfectionist - the game-show fantasy really vexes him - and so he is the perfect CEO to navigate the technical hitches of the new business. How, for example, is he going to get around the Equal Opportunities Act? It is much more difficult to keep Lightning Rods of colour anonymous in the office when their skintone gives them away. How is he going to solve the problem of the disconcerting toilet in the corner of the room?
It is all technicality, detail, mechanism, product. This novel in which sex is so insistent is not in the slightest bit sexy or titalating. The whole idea of Lightning Rods takes the excitement, the frisson and the attraction out of the sex act. At first you think this is a novel about the commodification of sex - the ultimate in corporate prostitution - but from the beginning Joe sees that this is something different. It is the unshaming of sex, by taking from it any sense of shared intimacy or longing. By making sex perfunctory, a part of your working day as banal as going to the photocopier, he has (at least partly) reduced its allure. And by reducing its allure, he has reduced the obsessiveness of it. When he recruits his women he tells them they should think of it like 'going to the bathroom'. You don't spend all day beating yourself up about going to the bathroom. Encountering or being a lightning rod is just like going to the loo.
This devaluation of human contact, of intimacy, is quite tragic. But something strange happens to you while reading this book. It weasels its way into you. You start to think about how something like this could actually work. You see how the way our society functions - the way we accept that men are more sexually motivated than women; the way we see sexual need as a signal of ambition and drive; the way we accept certain 'boys will be boys' behaviours - and you start to wonder. Is it so unlikely? And then you slap yourself and think: Don't be ridiculous! It's powerful though, no denying it, not only because the idea skirts so close to what is acceptable, but because it taps into the paradigm of the American dream. Joe makes a packet out of his idea; he's driven, highly motivated, a go-getter, who always picks himself back up again when he is knocked down. We find out in the book that he is a regular speaker on the business conference circuit later in life and you can see why. He is the myth of the American dream made flesh. He serves its principles to a fault: exploit your market to its fullest potential, be realistic and always keep improving your product. There is no such thing as being too big; there is no such thing as too much success.
A couple of reviews of Lightning Rods on GoodReads called DeWitt out for writing such a sexist and heteronormative book. Several were upset that this isn't a thing like her previous novel, The Last Samurai (which I will certainly be reading now). I feel this misses the point entirely. At the centre of the novel is just about the most anguished howl of outrage at inequality you could imagine: this image of a woman being fucked from behind, trying as hard as she can to pretend it isn't happening. DeWitt herself said she wrote the novel because she keenly felt an analogy with the way the publishing industry treats writers. It could be a metaphor for any number of unequal power relationships in our world: between women and men, the rich and the poor, heterosexuals and homosexuals. Lightning Rods makes the metaphor real. The dynamic of exploitation and disrespsect isn't just the subtext of a successful business, it is the successful business.
It's offensive, sickening and ludicrous. but also quite, quite brilliant. It's not a roaring plot, it starts to feel a bit boring after a while, but the monotony is the point. It left me feeling flayed, exhausted with dismay. I could laugh at first, but then I couldn't laugh anymore. And what makes it really good is the way that not everyone is destroyed by the Lightning Rods concept: it actually works, about as well as any business in this world works. Some of Joe's women go on to pay their way through college, some of the male clients are able to have fulfilling emotional relationships with women for the first time. Sexual harrassment cases do decline. It's terrifying. I'm glad I read it, and I'm glad its over.