Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods is a workplace satire for the age of sexual harassment
by Helen DeWitt
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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