By Helen DeWitt
Eleven years after her highly original but understated debut, The Last Samurai author Helen DeWitt launches a satiric assault on the American workplace, the entrepreneurial spirit, and human desire. Exploring the space where sex and commerce converge, Lightning Rods boils human interaction down to the most basic bodily functions and profit motives for which its characters develop ever more elaborate rationalizations.
After failing to sell a single copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, protagonist moves to Florida, rents a trailer and begins pushing Electrolux vacuum cleaners, though he actually spends more and more of his time devising strangely complex sexual fantasies. In a eureka moment, he realizes that, “there had to be of a lot of guys like himself, guys who didn’t want to be spending the amount of time they were spending thinking about sex, guys who given the chance would rather get it out of their system and concentrate their energies on achieving their goals.” From this insight is born the lightning rod: a sophisticated mechanism for curtailing workplace sexual harassment, by enlisting ambitious young women to provide sexual release for valuable male employees. Joe employs the anonymity and purely physical contact that was an inherent part of one of his fantasies—surprising unsuspecting women whose backsides are cut off from the rest of their body—to rebrand paid sexual contact as an employment service; the anonymity makes it just sexless enough for Joe to sell to his corporate clients as something other than sex. With his radical new product, a brand new suit, and a strong shot of self confidence, Joe begins to build his full-service human resources operation into an corporate empire.
Unlike many works of satire, Lightning Rods features no characters who abstain from the Kool-Aid; no wisecracking Yossarin or prophetic Kilgore Trout to alert us to the absurdity of the world the author has created. DeWitt seems happy to leave such questioning to her readers. Joe never reconsiders his narrow definition of success as satiated desire and positive cash flow—indeed, there’s little reason why he should, based on DeWitt’s shiny, happy characterizations of the lightning rods and their users. Whether this hegemony adds another layer of absurdity and an extra bite or unnecessarily reduces the complexity and humanity of the story is, then, subject for each reader to consider.