Lightning Rods tells the story of the introduction of women as sexual lightning rods into corporate American office environments in order to ward off sexual harassment lawsuits. Joe, the man behind the idea, bases it in one of his recurring sexual fantasies, and much of the novel concerns what happens when you translate fantasy into real life.
At first, I did not recognise this as a Helen DeWitt novel at all. You may ask with what temerity I presume to talk of "Helen DeWitt novels" when there has only ever been one (however wonderful that one is*), but there it is: I have spent some 10 years or so reading and re-reading The Last Samurai, and had formed some very clear ideas of what characterised this novel, and extrapolated from there to a general tendency. This is a dangerous thing to do.
DeWitt has said that
And for a moment there I really thought I was going to be one of them. The opening of the book really threw me. It did not help, of course, that my rather prudish mind was rather taken aback by being confronted with a failed salesman's failed sexual fantasies. Again and again. In fact, if I were not cursed (?) with an inability to actually give up on a book, I might have given up. This despite the fact that I absolutely adore DeWitt's last book. But I picked up on the platitudes used in the focalisation through the main character, and I clung to them as signs that DeWitt was on a satirical jaunt.
My complete faith in the author helped. I am fairly sure that if a man whose writing I did not trust had written the same, the book would have fallen down the reading pile, making the neutrinos blink as it passed them.
But then, about half-way through, I finally spotted DeWitt's style. I had seen indications of her already after a couple of chapters, but I kept my hopes down in order to avoid disappointment. I think I realised I was on dry land when the smart women started showing up, with their cold rationality and ability to follow a thought to the extreme. That was at about the same time as the story itself took a turn for the absurd and I really started enjoying myself. Because each absurd turn was prefigured by an exercise in the appearance of perfect logic. The truths of what I take to be corporate America is made to serve as the basis on which it is all built. I think my favourite part is when Jo takes his innovation to the Bible belt. Or perhaps the bit with the dwarf.
The idea of using women's bodies as what amounts to simple masturbation aids is of course repulsive, but that is rather the point (I suspect). The very natural and convincing way in which the characters take you from one step to the next makes it necessary to think on your own. Good practice, that.
It is terribly unfair of me to compare this book to The Last Samurai. The former was a magnificent feast of characters and stories and languages, varied and glorious at every turn; this book is a slow and methodical working out of a thought experiment. It is much more linear, and strange, and unsettling in its superficial treatment of it all. And I would say it is a tougher read than the former, mainly because you are not really allowed to sympathise with the characters here. I much prefer the former; but this book is a much more concentrated read, and I know some of you will like that.
It is worth a read, anyway. If for no other reason, then because your mind needs the exercise.
*She did publish another book in pdf form online, called Your Name Here, with Ilya Gridneff; but I have been waiting for it to become a "real book", and it looks like my hopes and patience are finally being rewarded by Noemi Press.