Articles by

<Jason Hinkley>

11/29/11 4:00am

Lightning Rods
By Helen DeWitt
(New Directions)

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.

05/11/11 4:00am

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and reviews

By Geoff Dyer


Of the many journalists, critics and novelists who try their hands at essay form, there are relatively few for whom the meandering style is the natural form of expression. However, a small group of writers as varied as E.B. White, George Orwell and John Berger produced much of their most memorable work in their essays. The British author and genre-bender Geoff Dyer is another such writer. As he admits in his introduction to this selection of his essays, “If something occurs that moves me deeply—the kind of experience that might provide inspiration for a poet—my first instinct is to articulate and 
analyze it in an essay.”

There are two relationships that are ever-present in Dyer’s reviews and dispatches: the relationship between life and art and the relationship between author and subject. Part of the liveliness of Dyer’s essays is his willingness to abandon the concept of objective criticism and slip into his subjects’ shoes. For this reason, many of the most insightful pieces are the ones where Dyer actually inhabits the physical space of his subjects. Some of Dyer’s journeys, like his time in the desert with photographer Richard Misrach or his search for the lost Algiers of Albert Camus, feel almost like pilgrimages. Others, like the piece on time spent in an East Asian hotel with Def Leppard, mix social critique and ironic humor, illuminating and mocking the commercialization and replicability implicit in our epoch. In these moments Dyer’s essays do what the essay does best—help the reader navigate the world, both real and imagined.