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Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

I started reading this book around ten days ago, and was shocked and amused in equal measure – but I paused around a third of the way through to give in to the hype and read JK Rowling’s latest (see previous post here) – and  by the time I picked the book up again, a major sex scandal had broken, involving the now tattered reputation of a dead man who had been thought an unlikely hero, and rippling across the world of entertainment as more sexual harassment was revealed.

Sexual harassment is at the heart of this innovative satire, so it’s been a timely read.   However, it’s the means to an end, not the primary target in this novel.  Let me explain…

It’s back in the 1990s, and Joe is a salesman who has lost his mojo. He knows he can be the best, but only if he has the right product to sell in the right place. ‘He had hit rock bottom,’ and is reduced to living in a trailer alone with his masturbatory fantasies, when he’s not philosophising to himself about the art of selling.

…What he was thinking, as he watched the sea and the birds, was Look how strong the impulse is! Because you can sell people just about anything if you can convince them it will give them a better chance to get sex. You can sell people just about anything if you can convince them its a substitute for sex. The only thing you can’t sell is the actual thing itself. That is, obviously people sell it, but you can’t sell it without shame.
… if you could give people a way to get it out of their system they would be a whole lot more productive. They’d be happier about themselves. Because there had to be a whole lot of guys like himself, guys who didn’t want to be spending the amount of time they were spending thinking about sex, guys who given the chance would rather get it out of their system and concentrate their energies on achieving their goals.

Joe comes up with the idea for forward-thinking companies (that are full of hot-blooded, testosterone-fuelled heterosexual salesmen) to outsource their sexual harassment policies. He will recruit special employees, each ‘a woman in a thousand’ who will be paid a lot extra for anonymously providing services when required, via a specially equipped bathroom cubicle which will present her naked bottom half to the selected male.  They are the ‘lightning rods’.

It’s outrageous!  It’s totally hair-brained!  You won’t be surprised though to hear that Joe finds a company brave dumb enough to try it out. It takes off, but things are never going to be simple, they’re only going to get more and more complicated.  How will Joe cope? Will it work? What sort of woman would want to be take part?

Corporate practices, management programmes, and outsourcing are what this novel is really about.  Nearing the end of the novel, you’ll almost believe it could really happen. You certainly sense the proprietorial pride in Joe, that despite his cod-philosophising whilst watching the birds, he has found an essential truth, (in the immortal words of M.Jagger & K.Richard, which seemed to fit):

“You can’t always get what you want 
But if you try sometimes you just might find 
You just might find, You get what you need” 

What makes this novel rather special is the language, as has been identified by the other reviews I’ve read too (see below).  Although it’s full of sex of a sort, it’s never prurient, the descriptions are deliberately non-sexy, dead-pan, typically in business speak. Having been through some management schemes in my former life working for a multi-national company, I could recognise some of the types involved in delivering the programmes, and it made me laugh, and be thankful that I don’t work there any more (apart from missing the salary that is).

What I found most interesting though, was the fact that the novel, which despite having a focus on oversexed straight men, was not a male fantasy, but a female satire, written by a woman.  The most powerful characters in the novel were the lightning rods who had their finger on the pulse of Joe’s scheme, and manipulated it and him for their own benefit. There are no easy answers to the questions that the story raises, and the author doesn’t attempt to provide them, she just helps us imagine what if …

This novel was very clever and extremely funny. I loved it. (10/10)

See also reviews by John Self, Alex in Leeds, and Follow the Thread.

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I was sent this book to review by the publisher – Thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. Pub in the UK Oct 2012 by And Other Stories, posh paperback, 297 pages.

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