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Lightning Rods By Helen DeWitt (New Directions)

Last update - Thursday, March 15, 2012, 02:19 By Roslyn Fuller

Book Review by Roslyn Fuller

It took a strange mind to think up this plot, and I mean that in a good way. Brash and satirical, Lightning Rods is the tale of Joe, a failed salesman of encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners whose sexual fantasies finally lead him to a golden business opportunity.
Men, Joe reasons, are unable to control their sexual appetites, and this is all the more true of testosterone-fuelled high-earners who are reduced to either harassing their female colleagues or visiting prostitutes, with all the attendant risks of exposure. Joe’s solution? The lightning rod: a female employee who doubles up as quick, anonymous bathroom shag during working hours, thus allowing tensions to be discreetly relieved.
Sordid as this sounds, the book is actually hilarious, as Joe’s veneer of professionality and societal taboos collide every which way. Just imagine the lightning rod scheme pitted against the likes of equal opportunities legislation and you get the idea..
Two things I loved most of all about this book are its pop-culture-infused, all-American, self-mocking writing style, and the fact that it pushes the basic rules of our society to their logical extremes.
If the highest goal in life is to make money, and self-debasement is no bar, then why stop at reality shows? Why wouldn’t you become a lightning rod? In a world where people think nothing of one-night stands at the office Christmas party, how could anonymous workplace sex be anything to write home about? If men really are constantly on the prowl and ‘just can’t help themselves’, why not just cut to the chase and institutionalise the entire experience?
Really it’s just capitalism and instant, mind-numbing gratification pushed to their logical conclusions, which if anything gives it a certain appealing honesty. Not to mention the all-important question that builds with Joe’s increasing success: if a concept like the lightning rod became mainstream to the point where no stigma was attached, would it really be psychologically harmful to anyone? Is it the act or merely the stigma that damages?
Unlike most literature, the characters in this book are the normal, the banal, ‘people as they are’ – the types who studied sales and marketing and which most writers can never identify with. De Witt portrays them all with mind-blowing accuracy.
Lightning Rods reminded me a little of the film Idiocracy: funny and intelligent, but with an anxiety-inducing feeling of being all too close to reality. I haven’t read something this original in years.

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