Helen DeWitt’s novel Lightning Rods just wasn’t for me

I sought out Helen DeWitt’s so-called cult novel The Last Samurai a few weeks ago after hearing buzz about it for the past few years. I couldn’t find it at the library or at my local bookstore, but I did pick up her follow-up, 2011’s Lightning Rods, and began reading. I enjoyed the first 50 or so pages, began feeling fatigued around the 100 page mark, waited patiently for the novel to turn a corner (it never did) up through the middle, and read the last 120 or so pages in a kind of frantic, increasingly annoyed blur. Lightning Rods wasn’t for me.

Here is the novel’s premise, via publisher New Direction’s blurb:

Joe is a down-and-out salesman who spends most of his time sitting around his trailer in Florida fantasizing about women. But one afternoon a particularly strange fantasy turns into a life-changing epiphany. Suddenly he knows how to curtail sexual harassment in the office and increase productivity. His solution? Sexual lightning rods: women who, via a carefully constructed system of anonymity and strict protection, provide “sexual release” for alpha-male employees. As unlikely to succeed as it seems, Joe has finally found a product he can sell with boundless enthusiasm, and he simply refuses to fail, no matter what the obstacles. And of course he encounters quite a few of those on his rise through corporate America.

The lightning rods are basically anonymous female butts hanging out of special holes cut into bathroom walls. Much of the narrative is devoted to describing the mechanics, rationale, problems, and adaptations to this process.

The premise is like something out of an experimental J.G. Ballard short story, and indeed, Lightning Rods might have made for a very fine longish short story. However, DeWitt stretches the material’s satirical premise too-thinly over a nearly 300-page frame. The main conceit is wonderfully-weird and icky, and DeWitt’s extemporizations on it are occasionally interesting, but none of it seems to add up to very much. Intentionally flat characters wander in and out of the narrative, and the story doesn’t so much progress as simply happen.

I’m fine with a novel light on plot and character development, but the style has to satisfy. For Lightning Rods, DeWitt employs a flat, repetitive rhetorical style. This style generates much of the novel’s initial wry humor, but over time it becomes annoying, then enervating, and then finally (at least for this reader) unbearable. DeWitt’s narrator repeats the same stock phrases, iterations of “The way X thought about it was, X,” or “When you’re an X, you X.”  The dry repetitions call attention to the banality of contemporary business-speak, but the effect is grating—especially grating when DeWitt’s narrator attempts to take us through one of her characters’ supposed moments-of-genius. Harnessing consciousness-in-action in language is incredibly difficult. When our narrator describes a character as having a “genius” idea (which happens a few times in the novel), the flattening rhetoric makes neither a case for the character’s genius idea, nor a case for a satirical reading of the character’s genius idea.

Perhaps ironically, Lightning Rods’ flat and repetitive rhetorical style makes it incredibly “readable,” whatever that means. DeWitt’s narrator establishes a formula early on that allows a reader to glide effortlessly through. No strange snags here, which is maybe my big problem with the book.

The wry, dry style glides nowhere but to boredom. By the end of the novel, the characters seem bored with the narrative, the narrator seems bored with the characters, and the author seems bored with the narrator. Or at least anyway, this reader was bored with the book.

While Lightning Rods never matches the satirical rush of its first few chapters, there is a moment worth remarking upon in the book’s final pages. Protagonist Joe’s initial epiphany happens in the natural environs of a Florida beach. At the end of the book, DeWitt’s narrator merges that natural environment with the environment of commerce, with the postmodern environment:

The sky was darkening, but it was not yet dark. In the west the molten gold of the setting sun slipped through the hills, and in the darkening hollow the yellow arches and the 7-Eleven and the Waffle House and the TCBY were glowing in the golden light. High above a flock of geese sped southward in a V formation and on the highway the cars and trucks sped north and south.

The alliteration (“setting sun slipped”) and the painterly evocations (“molten gold”) segue via the “yellow arches” of a McDonald’s into the modern commercial terrain. Geese fly, cars drive, businesses rest in “the golden light”: this is the world. This passage jars in comparison to the narrative’s generally flat, sterile style, and helps to usher us out of Lightning Rods.

Prelude to the Magic Hour, Brandon Bird, 2000
Prelude to the Magic Hour, Brandon Bird, 2000

The language in DeWitt’s passage strongly reminds me of Brandon Bird’s painting Prelude to the Magic Hour, itself an ironic postmodern continuation of the modernist scenes depicted in the previous century by Edward Hopper and George Bellows. As in Bird’s painting, DeWitt’s passage asks us to find art in the artlessness of our contemporary commercial environment, even if that art is tempered in irony.

I’ve been pretty clear that Lightning Rods wasn’t for me, but I think it will find many admirers and defenders alike who may appreciate DeWitt’s rhetorical style and find in it a more satisfying critique of contemporary American business-speak than I did. (Perhaps I wanted a dismantling of business-speak, not a critique). In any case, the premise and initial energy of Lightning Rods are enough to make me want to still take a stab at The Last Samurai.

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