27 February 2012

Tournament of Books '12: Shocked by LIGHTNING RODS

Nicholson Baker's latest novel HOUSE OF HOLES depicted a number of ordinary citizens with the ability to visit a sexual playground where no fantasy is out of bounds -- a sort of really dirty but (spoiler) temporary Eden. Baker's book didn't hold back in description, but suffered from a poverty of imagination beyond its premise stretching to the real-life implications of such a fanciful setup. The map was drawn but the territory didn't come to life. The bizarre corner of permissiveness explored in Helen DeWitt's isn't necessarily any more realistic than the secret territory in HOUSE OF HOLES, but its application of this scenario in a real-world context makes its narrow stripe of thought more engrossing, despite what can only be described as a thoroughly morally repellent scenario.

The novel chronicles the rise and success of the company Lightning Rods Inc., founded by a failed vacuum salesman named Joe who has a brainstorm related to one of his private fantasies and purports to 'solve' sexual harassment in the workplace. The implementation of this company's service is great for the businesses that adopt it (we are told), is good for the careers of some of Lightning Rods' employees, and makes Joe rich although not much happier.

Joe's 'solution' is, and let's not get too fancy about this, a form of company-sponsored sex work. In contracting with another business Lightning Rods hires a number of women in dual roles as assistants/secretaries and sexual partners for the company's top performers. The women are hired knowing about their sexual function (with a substantial pay increase over comparable secretarial work) but with the promise of double-blind anonymity -- that is, no one in the office will know they are "lightning rods," but they also won't know who they're having sex with.


Where to start with this minefield of a scenario? Were it not for the omniscient second-person narration telling us that this business has already succeeded (i.e. before the book has been written), the fact of its success would be hard to believe. This is DeWitt's stroke of genius, forcing us to ask "How?!" instead of exclaiming "No!", engaging with the problems of implementation in a jaunty management-advice tone. (How to choose just one problem? Well, all right, how about the fact that such a scheme is not only sexist but also heterosexist in design, assuming that the companies' top performers are straight dudes. We could have a discussion about that alone, given that the book takes place in the late '90s.)

The narrator couches Joe in these sort of feel-good business cliches about being a visionary and hiring the correct personnel (oh no kidding!), the kind that he probably internalized before starting Lightning Rods. The narration exhorts him not to give up when, as expected, nearly every company he approaches for a test run turns him away. It's creepy how real this makes it. It's Joe's fervor for his idea and the 'solution' it provides that makes it a success -- that, and a certain degree of venal human nature to be determined later.

I can't in good conscience recommend LIGHTNING RODS to most of you, because most of you have already been put off by what is often a jauntily immoral business case. (More by the immorality than the business part, I assume, but I could be wrong.) And those of you I would recommend it to, I don't want to single out, see previous. I don't want to make it some kind of audacity test, although I did find it that audacious. I lost count of how many times my jaw hit the floor while I was reading this book, and in the end, I think it accomplished what HOUSE OF HOLES couldn't: It shocked me.

ToB First-Round Opponent: Jesmyn Ward's National Book Award-winning SALVAGE THE BONES, which I liked -- but -- I would go with LIGHTNING RODS, on originality. Let's argue about this some.



jess s said...

For originality, you might favor Lightning Rods, but STB was a better book in almost every other regard. More interesting setting, characters, conflict, better writing, and so on.

Ellen said...

The main character in SALVAGE THE BONES was much better developed, but the writing styles are so radically different I don't know if I can say I'd prefer one.

Nor would I say that setting of STB more interesting to me, necessarily. Don't get me wrong, I liked STB and have been recommending it to people since I read it last fall, but I found its plotting kind of came undone in the end.