Lightning Rods, by Helen DeWitt
The thing that makes A Modest Proposal horrific isn’t that it suggests eating babies. It’s that it uses the prevailing logic of its day to make a pretty good case for eating them.
Done well, satire takes our own assumptions and arguments and turns them around. It holds up a mirror to our own hypocrisy. It’s uncomfortable, and by that standard Lightning Rods is very good satire indeed.
Joe is a failing Midwest vacuum cleaner salesman. His product’s too good and all his prospective customers already have one. He drinks endless coffees with potential buyers who don’t want to replace their existing machines. He’s not found his market niche.
Joe spends more and more of his time in his trailer home idly masturbating. He’s not even very good at that: he keeps getting distracted by irrelevant background details in his fantasy scenarios and going limp.
What he doesn’t realise is that all of this is preparation. Like so many great American success stories Joe’s a failure at first because he hasn’t yet learned to follow his dream. Admittedly, his dream is a little different to most: it involves imagining having sex with women whose upper bodies poke through a hole in the wall or a window or whatever so that all he sees is their bottom halves. It’s an utterly objectifying dream which reduces his fantasy women to pure parts. Still, it’s his dream and that’s what makes it special.
The book’s written in hindsight – the reader knows that Joe will have an idea that will “one day lead to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.” This then is an inspiring rags-to-riches story of a man who by being true to himself and daring to think differently changes lives and makes his fortune. It’s the American dream.
Joe’s idea definitely involves thinking differently. He realises that companies all across America are struggling with workplace sexual harassment. He theorises that it’s the libidos of top-performers that create all the tension. If you could have a workplace invention that helped discharge those tensions, well, then you could make real money while doing good at the same time.
If [a top earner] wanted an outlet for his sexual urges he would have to invest the time talking to someone about her interests, with no guarantee that anything would come of it, or he would have to go home and jerk off to a magazine or video, or he would have to pay someone, with all the risks that entailed. But how much time does the top earner in a company realistically have to talk to someone about her interests? If he hires someone, on the other hand, a guy in that kind of position has a lot to lose. He has a reputation that can be damaged. What real choices does he have? If he’s at the office he can’t even put M&M’s down somebody’s blouse. Let alone get any kind of real sexual satisfaction. And a guy like that is going to be spending a lot of time on the job. He works his butt off and at the end of the day he can go home to a magazine. Just like Joe Schmoe sitting on his butt all day in a trailer.
Joe is a salesman, and one of his many mottos is that “We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.” So, some guys make money for their companies but harass female employees. You could change their behaviour, but that’s not how a salesman thinks. A salesman deals with the world as it is, not as he’d like it to be.
Joe decides that what the workplace needs is “lightning rods” – women who work as secretaries or administrators or whatever and who most of the time do that job, but who also anonymously provide a service where from time to time their rear-half is wheeled through a hole in the wall for the company’s highest-performing men to have sex with. Hiring them will help discharge the sexual tensions that could otherwise build up and become problematic.
It is of course an utterly repulsive concept. DeWitt though dresses it in the blandly positive language of corporate life. Joe sells the idea to his first client by pointing out that they have legally-mandated disabled toilets but no disabled employees. Why not make use of those cubicles by installing Joe’s facility within the existing unused facility? It’s just plain efficient and it makes good use of a wasted resource.
Of course some find the idea distasteful, but for Joe it’s all in the presentation. He’s not providing prostitutes but professional women who do a great day job and then provide this extra service (of course for a suitable uplift in pay). For it all to work he doesn’t just have to convince the (notably all male-run) companies but also the women who’ll slide backwards into those holes. Naturally, he sells the concept to them with the language of empowerment:
He said: “It’s not for everyone. We’re looking for the kind of woman who is confident about herself. The kind of woman who has aims she wants to achieve. We’re looking for someone with maturity. We’re looking for someone who wants to make a real contribution to the company and expects to be compensated accordingly.”
As Joe would say, it’s a win-win. The women get a pay uplift and the knowledge they’re making a difference. The guys get protected from their own impulses:
The way to look at it was, if a guy, through no fault of his own, has not been brought up to treat women with respect, is it fair that his whole career should be put in jeopardy? Is it fair that on top of the disadvantage he has anyway in competing against guys who have been to Harvard and Yale, he should have the additional handicap of endangering his career every time he is in the vicinity of female personnel?
DeWitt is too good a writer to editorialise about Joe’s idea or its adoption. Instead she adopts an utterly flat tone. Joe’s not a deluded creep who lucks out by finding himself in a culture that sees women as commodities. He’s a hero of contemporary capitalism. He’s a pioneer disrupting traditional industries and hierarchies. Before too long:
absenteeism was down, profits were up, everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
Of course he faces difficulties along the way. Much of the book is a faintly repetitive telling of how Joe encounters some problem such as a hostile HR manager or race relations laws which require him to hire women regardless of ethnicity (which in turn makes it harder to maintain their anonymity), but each time he thinks of a solution. It’s the can-do ethic which made America great.
Of course some details have to be smoothed out along the way, but any great enterprise always encounters a few hiccups. As one of the women reflects (Renée who uses her earnings to study law and eventually becomes a Justice of the Supreme Court):
[America] was set up from scratch by people who managed to overlook minor details like slavery and a whole sex.
Sure, you can if you want get bogged down in questions of morality and legality, but why when you could be changing the world instead?
Lightning Rods is partly an examination of how language can be used to make the unacceptable palatable. The corporate-speak here masks something most of us would find viscerally wrong, but in real life we talk of “rightsizing” when we mean mass layoffs or of “finding efficiencies” when we mean sweating assets and, again, mass layoffs. Language doesn’t disguise what we do but it does put it in a candy shell so that we can swallow it without difficulty.
However, Lightning Rods is also a critique of a certain seductive mentality. Let’s look at that saying of Joe’s again:
We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.
Superficially that makes sense. It’s persuasive. It seems almost like common sense. We have to engage with reality, with the people we actually have in front of us, not with the imaginary people that we’d like them to be.
All that’s true so far as it goes. The trouble is if we only ever deal with people as they are nothing changes. Nothing gets better. Women used not to have access to education or the vote. Deal with people as they are and that doesn’t change. You have to confront people to make progress. You have to refuse to deal with them as they are.
We don’t of course have lightning rods in the workplace. Joe’s idea would never fly in real life. Back in the ‘90s though and even early 2000s as a junior I overheard multiple senior workplace conversations about whether it was better not to put certain employees in front of certain clients. Companies weren’t in the business of social change. They had to deal with people as they are, and if a client was sexist or racist or homophobic it was unfair to both the employee and the client to put someone from one of those groups in front of them.
I don’t hear those conversations any more. I’m not saying they never happen but they’re no longer mainstream thought. Sometimes it’s better not to accept people as they are.
Lots, mostly absolutely glowing. John Self of The Asylum argues here that the book is primarily about language in a post that first alerted me to this; David Hebblethwaite here mildly disagrees with John in terms of the book’s focus but agrees on its excellence; Gaskella also sings its praises here. I’m sure I’ve missed others. Also worth noting is this tremendous negative review of the book by Bibliokept which is pretty much a model of how to write well about a book you didn’t like.