Helen DeWitt’s second novel explores Oscar Wilde’s advice: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” Lightning Rods is a modest proposal for dealing with the sexual urges of “high-testosterone performance-oriented individuals” in the workplace. And a hilarious mirror of our culture’s ability to rationalize any kind of behavior, as long as it boosts the bottom line.
Our hero, Joe, is a failed encyclopedia and vacuum-cleaner salesman. His territory is Middle America and then Florida, generic landscapes of 7-Elevens, interchangeable neighborhoods, and office parks. Noting that he wastes too much time on his X-rated fantasies when he should focus on “getting ahead,” he realizes there could be a vast demand for sexual satisfaction on the job—the perfect way to increase morale and productivity. He concocts a “product” that can deliver sex in the office—strictly anonymously—via female temp workers called “lightning rods.” “Bifunctional staff,” as he calls them, are mixed in with regular temps and paid extra, and the entire service is “outsourced.” The contraption that allows the on-site screwing is right out of Joe’s favorite fantasy: A sliding platform passes from the ladies’ bathroom to the men’s “disabled” bathroom cubicle, presenting the naked bottom half of a lady for “use.” No need to worry about messy interoffice relationships: A computer program matches coworkers to ensure no one knows who’s schtupping who.
The book is an extended gag—and a brilliant one—that exposes the vexing reality of straight-guy “results-oriented” corporate culture by exaggerating it ad absurdum. DeWitt, also author of the novel The Last Samurai (2000), takes her outrageous premise and plays it straight. She sustains a pitch-perfect, almost Flaubertian deadpan, deploying clichéd business-speak, self-help-isms, folksy slang, and bland banter to set up a vanilla world where something crazy is happening. Outrageous—literally obscene—behavior is normalized in the name of “productivity.”
Joe is more ingenuous than cynical or calculating. His sincere quest to actualize himself as a salesman adds a layer of poignancy to DeWitt’s skewering of corporate culture. He’s a philosopher of sales who just wants to help his clients: “It’s not for me to make moral judgments. I’m a businessman. I deal with these people as they are, not as they ought to be,” goes his pragmatic refrain throughout the book. He pitches lightning rods as an “innovative system of proactive sexual harassment management.” Indeed, very often the “highest-performing individuals in a company” were “a lawsuit waiting to happen,” agrees Joe’s first client, a CEO named Steve. “A man is bringing in $100 million of business. You leave him open to the danger of momentarily forgetting himself with a little $25,000-a-year secretary.” We’ve come a long way, baby! I know.
DeWitt twits our post-Oprah world, where even predatory types appropriate a “victim” stance when it suits them. Joe is quick to summon PC-style sympathy for the “Grade A assholes” who are so “vulnerable” the company needs to “protect” them from their boorish ways. “It wasn’t their fault,” Joe muses, they’re “socially disadvantaged”: “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?” Sexual actor-outers might simply be afflicted by a “testosteronal imbalance.”
We’re never told what Steve’s company does, what it’s called, or where it is. We know the characters by their first names only: Even as we learn their quirks and secrets, they remain a bit cartoonish—like “flair” that personalizes the cubicle farm. The workplace here is intentionally generic. DeWitt has written a corporate morality tale, or, more precisely, an amorality tale, about a go-getter’s tool for managing basic “instincts” in the snake pit of sexual-harassment litigation.
As Joe reality-tests lightning rods at Steve’s company and troubleshoots with Rube Goldberg resourcefulness, high jinks ensue. In one scene, the milquetoast head of HR, who was kept out of the loop, steps into the “disabled” and discovers the “installation”:
A panel had slid open in the wall beside him. . . . In the hole revealed by the panel were the soles of two bare feet pointing downward. While he watched, some kind of mechanism must have been operating, because gradually the feet moved out into the room. Bare calves came into view. Bare thighs. Bare—Holy mackerel.
He was looking at the naked lower portion of a woman. . . . He couldn’t see anything above the waist. . . .
This wasn’t some casual sexual liaison among the staff. Someone had had to build this contraption and put a hole in the wall. How many people were involved? What would the shareholders think? Was it even legal?
Joe’s contraption has big payoffs, and not just in the office. Assured of anonymous dorsal access during office hours, ornery “top performers” develop more patience and a renewed appreciation for the upper and frontal portions of a woman. They become better boyfriends. Meanwhile, two savvy lightning rods use the extra pay to put themselves through Harvard Law School, debt free. (Need I even gloss the realism here—that highly paid sex work is indeed the most plausible way a pink-collar employee could afford sky-high Ivy League tuition.)
Like Joe, the rods are looking to get ahead, however they can. Bending over in the “disabled” to get “the full-service 24-hour Revco from the rear” is a compelling metaphor for the day job and the trade-offs people make to make good. “Wouldn’t you do something kind of disgusting for a couple of years to have a chance you wouldn’t otherwise have?” reasons Renée, a perfectionist who later becomes a Supreme Court justice. “You were selling use of your body for short periods of time in exchange for the chance to make the best possible use of your mind.” Taking this idea one step further, she maximizes her time while “on duty” by using it as “the ideal opportunity to read Proust’s masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, in French.” Unflappable Lucille sells herself on the unorthodox but higher-paying gig like this: “It’s a chance to practice not letting things get to you.”
Joe’s service is a metaphor for corporate culture in general. “The whole point of lightning rods was that it was a purely physical transaction, with no social interaction of any kind; that was what enabled it to keep the atmosphere of the office from being poisoned,” he says. Depersonalizing these “transactions” makes them safe for the work environment. “Not letting things get to us” is adaptive. But at what price? Like the lightning rods, the corporation is set up to dodge “personal” accountability for the fuckery—here, literally—that is business as usual but kept “out of sight,” outsourced and/or compartmentalized.
Joe provides a tool to enable this ethical work-around, and he’s a tool himself, a well-meaning Joe who “just wants to be a success.” DeWitt is too shrewd a satirist to make him a villain—or even a dupe—for us to judge. She simply presents him as a businessman adapting to “reality.” And like a comic milking one premise for payoff after payoff, DeWitt delights by mining his plan for a seemingly endless yield of perversity: Anonymous sex between coworkers fosters an atmosphere of “mutual respect.” “The whole point of the arrangement,” explains Joe, “is to avoid giving anyone cause for offense.”
DeWitt uses the “what if?” capacity of the novel to describe Civilization and Its Discontents 2.0: the more “civilized” the workplace, the greater the need for a “release.” A droll device throughout shows Joe taking his cues from critters: To validate his pitch with “expertise,” he makes up scientific research about baboons (“The office is a form of captivity”); to find his wings as a salesman, he learns from the birds (a pelican does not “experiment with a sandpiper lifestyle”); watching a dog take a shame-free dump inspires him to dump the personal baggage from sex. Animals inform Joe’s thought process the way Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There filtered the world through gardening (the only thing he knew). Both novels use nature motifs to highlight the way civilization has made us more brutal, or more vegetal, as the case may be.
Far edgier than a simple slam against corporate culture, DeWitt’s satire skewers “decency” and “indecency.” She enlists our complicity as we root for Joe—and the rods—to profit from a scenario that formerly screwed them over for free. In the end, he is successful yet wistful:
A salesman has to face facts; that’s one of the saddest things about the job. Because what you realize is just how many things are the way they are because people could not make a living out of appealing to people’s better nature. . . . You have to deal with people the way they are. Not how they ought to be. That’s what being a successful businessman is all about.
DeWitt’s wickedly smart satire deserves to be a classic. As I was writing this review, I came across critic Walter Kirn’s recent rereading of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 on its fiftieth birthday. Kirn writes: “There are no more Joseph Hellers, no more glorious literary crusaders who can ambush and sack, all alone, immense and intimidating social edifices. That demolition job’s been done, that project is complete.” But DeWitt gives plenty of reason to believe that there’s still ambushing to be done. With Lightning Rods, she has done precisely such a job on corporate culture—and on the perversion of PC “enlightenment” in an age that values productivity über alles. Most important, the book is a hoot. In an endnote, Dewitt gives a nod to Mel Brooks’s The Producers. We can only hope for Lightning Rods: The Musical! soon. With a revolving “disabled” set, of course.
Rhonda Lieberman is a regular contributor to Artforum.