Helen DeWitt

In a review of the novel in Review 31, Helen McClory makes a curious criticism of Helen DeWitt's 2011 novel, Lightning Rods:

What it lacks is interiority. The narration, because it is so slick and over-worked, has the feel of a voice-over; it's all surface, even when we are ostensibly presented with access to the minds of the characters. This creates a sensation of hollowness. . .

The total misperception of DeWitt's purpose in Lightning Rods is extraordinary. As almost all other reviewers of this novel observed, it is most certainly a novel of "interiority," although it is a special kind of interiority that deliberately uses the contents of consciousness--more importantly, the forms of expression those contents assume--to create a pervasively "surface" effect. If it seems "slick and overworked," that's because the modes of thinking the novel travesties are themselves so formulaic and riven with cliche. "A sensation of hollowness" is precisely the effect Lightning Rods is designed to create.

The plot of Lightning Rods is no doubt by now well-known, as the novel received numerous reviews that prominently emphasized its outrageous premise. A failed vacuum cleaner salesman, Joe, is inspired by his own sexual fantasies to begin marketing a new service designed to help alleviate sexual harassment in the workplace: a contraption installed in an office bathroom that allows testosterone-addled men to have anonymous sex with women (the lightning rods) whose bottom halves are exposed rearward and then withdrawn back through the bathroom wall. The service proves to be quite successful, for the companies whose workplaces become less litigious, for the men whose needs are fulfilled and thus become more efficient and cooperative workers, and for the women. who are handsomely rewarded financially and in some cases use the job to work themselves up the "corporate ladder." (One of the lightning rods eventually becomes a Supreme Court lawyer.)

Joe's diligence and sincerity are reflected in the manner of the book's narration, nominally in the form of "free indirect" discourse, the stylistic/narrative mode developed precisely to plumb a character's "interiority." But while the language with which the story is told surely does capture the way Joe both perceives the world and explains it to himself, it is indeed shallow and hackneyed, permeated by the external languages of self-help and commerce:

Now if you're selling encyclopedias it's obvious you're selling people the idea that they can be what they want to be. But even if you're selling vacuum cleaners you're selling people the way they could be--they could be people who will clean their stairs and the furniture and curtains using appropriate attachments, instead of borrowing a vacuum cleaner for Thanksgiving and Christmas from their next-door neighbors. You're selling the chance to fix something that's wrong. What you're selling, basically, is the idea that there's nothing wrong with the customer; maybe they don't know as much as they should, or maybe they happen to live in a dirty house, but that's because they don't have the one thing lacking to put it right.

The reader could turn to practically any page in Lightning Rods and find a passage like this. Clearly DeWitt wants not just to emphasize Joe's subjectivity, but to suggest that this very subjectivity has been thoroughly determined by the all-pervasive discourses, and the underlying assumptions, of American-style capitalism and its accompanying modes of therapeutic encouragement. No matter how "deep" we plumb into Joe's "interiority," we're only going to find more such platitudinous language and bromidic concepts, since in effect they have replaced any genuine interiority, substituted for any genuine thinking, beyond the need to apply the concepts most effectively. As Edmond Caldwell observes in his review of the novel, "It is less like Joe 'uses' this language. . .and more like this language thinks him"--although it might be even more accurate to say there is no thinking at all going on, only the pre-formulated thinking represented by the recycling of familiar expressions.

Caldwell also maintains that the novel is a satire of its own ostensible genre, the novel of "psychological realism," which "stands revealed as a patchwork of readymade materials--cliches and slogans, the hoariest sententia and newly-minted banalities." If all such novels are "no less a howling absurdity than Lightning Rods, the difference is that one of them knows itself as such." While I would not deny the accuracy of this reading, I don't think the self-satirical impulse fully accounts for the effects DeWitt manages to achieve in nevertheless exploiting the assumptions of psychological realism. She employs its "cliches and slogans" in a way that, at the same they are revealed to be such, transcends the "banalities" of this mode of narration to tell a story that is far from banal, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of John Barth's notion of a "literature of exhaustion" that takes the very "used-upness" of a literary practice and creates something new. As much as it shows psychological realism to be "a patchwork of readymade materials," the novel also shows that human consciousness itself (at least of the "ordinary" variety) might be a hodgepodge of such materials. There's no going "deep," only going sideways into more culturally determined fragments of predigested language.

"Surface" and "interiority" are interchangeable, versions of each other. The characters' motives are not hidden (to themselves or to us) but quite transparent, although those motives are encapsulated in the shallowest, most insipid kind of interior discourse. The most powerful human motive, sex, is, of course, thoroughly externalized, subjected to the same trivialization and commodification by which American culture reduces all human activity to commerce. (It isn't prostitution if it makes good business sense.) Much of the humor in Lightning Rods comes from the way in which the characters readily adapt to circumstances that might otherwise provoke feelings of shame and degradation, how easily the sexual drive comes to be regarded as something that merely requires the right kind of management.

What makes this novel more than simply satirical (whether of the American commercial imperative or the novel of psychological realism) is that the ostensible target, our protagonist Joe, in whose "interiority" we have been placed and whose idea it is to channel the sexual drive in his commercialized service, is finally not a character deserving only of our laughter. Above all, Joe is utterly sincere in his belief that his service will have beneficial effects, that in offering it he is doing good. He shows concern for his employees, and as a sideline to the main business of providing lightning rods, he also devises an adjustable toilet to make public restrooms easier on short and/or obese people. His sincerity and good intentions make it difficult to regard Joe as a purely risible figure; he winds up being a rather sympathetic character who at worst has succumbed to the irresistible influence of cultural forces outside his control.

Readers of DeWitt's first novel, The Last Samurai, might at first find Lightning Rods a radically different kind of work, almost to the point it doesn't seem by the same writer. Samurai is a sprawling novel that at times courts formlessness, while Lightning Rods is a compact, sharply focused work exhibiting a unified narrative perspective that contrasts with the bifurcated perspective of The Last Samurai. Ultimately The Last Samurai could be called a novel about a search for identity, while the characters in Lightning Rods seem quite confident in their identities, even if those identities are ultimately culturally constructed. To a degree, however, both books are about the use and abuse of language.The Last Samurai highlights the possibilities of language in its story of the budding genius Ludo and his facility in many languages and ability to relate them to each other, something that DeWitt also does in the novel as a whole. Lightning Rods illustrates our more common relationship with language, whereby we allow our thinking to be determined by language in its most ossified, restrictive forms. If The Last Samurai implies the yet untapped potential of language when viewed cross-culturally, Lightning Rods reveals how any language can become so burdened with the conceptual debris scattered by one's culture as to become hazardous to all thought.


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