Helen DeWitt Lightning Rods (2012)
Everyone gets crazy thoughts from time to time, it’s what you do about them that counts.
This is a book about a man who installs women as sex-workers in corporate offices. It is also a brilliant and funny satire on sex, salesmanship and corporate culture.
Joe is a down-at-heel and not very successful vacuum-cleaner door-to-door salesman when he is struck by a brilliant idea to counter sexual harassment in the workplace by providing a practical and anonymous outlet for all that pent-up corporate machismo. That the idea is born of his own particular personal masturbatory fantasy only makes him more convinced he is the man to sell it. And so the 'lightning rod' is born, along with a host of other masterful ideas that were not necessary but become a necessity - "a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans."
This book is wonderfully grubby read: what if your crazy 'What if…?' porn brainstorm became embedded in corporate culture - and even law - all the way up to the very top of government?
So, what does a lightning rod, earning money to put herself through Harvard Law, do during the time she is required to "stick her fanny through a hole in a wall and let someone give her the old Roto-Rooter from the rear"?
She spent quite a lot of time thinking about which particular project would give her a real sense of achievement. What she finally decided was that this was the ideal opportunity to read Proust’s masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, in French. The amount of time lightning rods were typically expected to be on duty would be just right for working through a French text. On the one hand she wouldn't be reading a lot at any one time, so she wouldn't get discouraged. On the other hand, it was quite a long book, so by the time she finished she’d probably have enough money for Harvard Law School. She could look at the volumes on her shelf and see how far she had to go. So she went to the university bookstore and bought the complete set, and she started at page one, paragraph one on her first day on the job. Sure enough, the idea worked perfectly. The fact that she had to struggle with the French meant she didn't have a lot of attention to spare for anything else that might be going on. She’d go through as much text as she could, underlining words she didn't know with a pencil. At night she’d look up the words and read through the passage again. The next day she’d read on. Within a month she was having to look up fewer words. Within six months she was reading the French almost as well as she read English—and that was entirely the result of doing it on a daily basis.
In sum: dementedly funny and rather shocking; perfect characterization; spot on narrative tone. Not for the faint of heart. I wonder how I would feel about this book if it hadn't been written by a woman? Do I become complicit in my own objectification when I think that it must be OK because it was written by a woman? Hmmm.