Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods (2008)

Dewitt's second novel is pretty far removed from The Last Samurai. It's short, and it has a plot that, when described, sounds like this weird dream you had this one time: Joe is not having much luck as a vacuum-cleaner salesman, so, by a series of mental associations, he comes up with a new idea: a service aimed at corporate clients where men in a company can have anonymous sex through a wall with a certain subsection of female employees hired specifically for this purpose--the idea being that this will increase productivity and eliminate sexual harassment and attendant costly and time-consuming lawsuits. All of this is described in blandly liberal corporate terms. The novel chronicles the introduction of this service and its evolution as it starts to catch fire.

Well, yes. The novel is deftly written, and it can be quite funny, especially towards the beginning. Thing is, though, I kept finding myself asking: okay, so this is a satire. But seriously, what's it a satire of? It's tempting--or so I found it--to think of it as a riff on Marcuse's Eros and Civilization: the idea that humans in a natural state would spend all their time in the single-minded pursuit of pleasure (ie, sex), so civilization, perceiving that this is a threat to its very existence, works to channel these urges into limited, socially-acceptable outlets, even when this is in excess of what is actually necessary. You could see DeWitt's idea as a clever riff on that--the logical conclusion to the idea.

BUT...not really. If that's what's meant to be going on, the central problem is that the novel's lens is zoomed in pretty far; we never really see anything outside its focus, never get an idea of how this actually relates to anything that exists in the actual world. We certainly never get any glimpse of sex or relationships as they exist there, thus providing some contrast and showing how this new system changes things. But fair's fair, it's just my extrapolation that the novel is aiming in that direction. The other option that I can see is that this is just an illustration of the way outrageous ideas can gradually be normalized by couching them in the right terms. I have sworn a solemn oath to myself that I won't talk about politics right now, but if I hadn't, I could certainly make associations.

I'm not especially taken with this idea either, though. It's probably because the entire narrative is just so completely blank and affectless throughout. It doesn't really show anyone being hurt by this scheme, nor does it really do anything to even hint at what might be wrong with it, and I just kept thinking, this is SILLY and it would NEVER WORK, which I know full well is missing the point; it's just that when you're not wholly sure what the point is, you do that. So, for instance, the fact that even if you did implement this scheme, it wouldn't actually work as intended, given that sexual harassment is at least as much about power than it is sex (do you really imagine the sexual predator we've just elected President committed his crimes out of nothing but lust? (sorry)). Or the rather obvious fact that, if it's common knowledge that some percentage of women in the office also have this other duty, all of them are going to end up stigmatized? DeWitt tries to create a realistic sort of mimesis--important for the kind of book she's trying to write--but these points just go unaddressed. There's also a weird draining away of female sexuality: all of the "lightning rods" that we see in the novel treat the whole thing very matter-of-factly, just something to get through, might as well read a magazine to kill time during--but, although I'm certainly not suggesting that most of them would be likely to find this particularly stimulating, I really must insist that there would be some reaction here, which in DeWitt's telling, there just isn't.

I dunno. I do have to accept that, on the basis of The Last Samurai, DeWitt is clearly a lot smarter than me, and that therefore I could just be missing a lot here. I don't really think so, though. In addition to the above, there are places where it's clearly just narratively sloppy, with mini-stories involving secondary characters just sort of abandoned soon after they're introduced. I feel like it's sort of trying to trick me into liking it by saying "hey! Here's a satire about capitalism! You hate capitalism, right?" and I'm supposed to just respond "yeah! Fuck capitalism!" But, while that is a sentiment I subscribe to, I did not find Lightning Rods to be a particularly effective vehicle for this message. Doesn't mean I won't continue to follow DeWitt's career with interest, but to me, this one is a swing and a miss.



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