Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

It wasn’t until I was nearly finished this outrageous and pitch-perfect satire that I realized it wasn’t really very funny. In fact (with apologies to Ford Madox Ford) I think I would even call it one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read. It’s sad partly because of the unforgiving picture it paints of contemporary American society, where everything’s for sale if you can only find the right pitch and the right market, where people only pay lip-service to ideals of equity and diversity but long for ways to subvert the pressure for genuine improvement, where women can make more by selling themselves than by doing their jobs. DeWitt has a particularly ruthless eye for banality–thinking about my surprise that this novel is by the author of The Last Samurai, it occurred to me that The Last Samurai is founded on a similarly harsh critique of people’s appetite for cheap substitutes. There it’s the “blunt attack on popular taste” exemplified by Sybilla’s insistence that Ludo realize what’s wrong with her samples of it (including a Liberace tape and a drawing by Lord Leighton). She tells him, “You will not be ready to know your father until you can see what’s wrong with these things”:

Even when you see what’s wrong you won’t really be ready. You should not know your father when you have learnt to despise the people who have made these things. Perhaps it would be all right when you have learnt to pity them, or if there is some state of grace beyond pity when you have reached that state.

The satire, the humour, of Lightning Rods (and it is often very funny, laugh-out-loud funny) seems to me to be driven by a similar feeling of utter contempt, though in this case for a different category: not for aesthetic mediocrities but for people who will believe any story that makes them accept what they already want, or helps them do what they’ve decided they need to do even if they know it’s wrong or unacceptable, or who allow a slapdash superficial glossy marketing version of morality to override their better instincts. Lightning Rods is sad because it’s right to hate that substitution of fake for real, and because there’s a lot of that going around these days.

But that’s not the sadness in the novel that really touched me. The biggest loss I was feeling, moving mentally from The Last Samurai to Lightning Rods, was the loss of the tremendous compassion that compensated there for Sybilla’s anger and disdain. If The Last Samurai were Sybilla’s novel only, it would have impressed me but I could not have loved it. Sybilla needs the redemptive companionship (in her life and in the novel) of Ludo. It’s too hard to go forward–and Sybilla is conspicuously failing to do that–stuck in an attitude of contemptuous superiority. It’s too close to despair and too alienating. You need a glimpse of some other possibility, and you need some forgiveness. Sybilla acknowledges that when she talks about the “state of grace beyond pity.” She knows it’s possible; she even feels it herself after Yamamoto’s concert. For most of Lightning Rods, I could not find any such compensation, any way out of the relentless forward march of Joe’s absurd but perfectly logical (and perfectly rationalized) success story. DeWitt is just so good: there are no cracks in the tone or point of view of the novel. That it’s a tone and point of view that we can be certain are anathema to DeWitt (it’s satire, after all) makes it all the more impressive that she can be so utterly convincing. (That’s also the great risk she takes: 273 pages in the vocabulary of spin and sales pitches and self-justification is a lot of pages. “The way I look at it is,” a characteristic passage begins..and then it follows, sentence after pitiless sentence, propelling us towards assent to the lowest estimates of what people are capable of, what they work for, what they are worth, what their aspirations should be. “The fact is”–and we’re off again.

The fact is there is no perfect job. The perfect job does not exist. People are people. Any job you go to, you’re always going to find people. And the way I look at it is, let’s say somebody steps out of line. You’ve got to keep a sense of proportion about these things.

There’s all that–and almost everybody in the novel is equally adept at it–and there’s Joe’s salesman rhetoric [“It’s important to give that new job 101%, 25 hours a day, 366 days a year. You simply can’t afford to have any distractions.]” Who really wants to spend 273 pages in this company, listening to these voices? It’s riskier, in a way, than something like “A Modest Proposal” because it is so banal. Swift’s excesses are wild, fun, dangerous–instead of boiled children, DeWitt gives us PVC tights and adjustable toilets.)

But back to the sadness. The polish of the novel is so impeccable, the premise so absurd, and the situations presented with such perfect deadpan comedy, that I couldn’t help but appreciate it, but I really wasn’t liking it at all. Then there came a little scene near the end where Joe is taken back, suddenly, to his first sales job, selling (or at least trying to sell) copies of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and the difference between what he could be selling and what he is selling confronts him and the tone of resolute optimism dies away, just for a page or so. Joe has made his fortune by accepting people “the way they are. Not how they ought to be.” This realism has made him a rich, successful man. But it’s not realism: it’s defeatism. Joe failed selling encyclopedias because “people could not make a living out of appealing to people’s better nature.” That would have been his first choice: to live in a world where that was possible, where people wanted encyclopedias rather than routinized anonymous sex (or the money it could earn them). “We live in the kind of world where people end up with their third or fourth or fifth choice because there just isn’t the money in their first choice”;

Every once in a while you get this glimpse of what the world would be like, not if everyone was perfect, but if just a few more people were just a little bit better than they are. You get this glimpse of a world where people could get by, maybe not with their first choice, but with a close second.

Joe sets to work talking himself out of the gloom this vision casts over him: “You’re making a living out of a world you didn’t make, out of people who evolved the way they happen to evolve. All you can ever do is try to increase the net sum of human happiness to the best of your ability.” It’s sad that his pep talk succeeds. It’s sad that his epiphany leads him, not to a brilliant new strategy for selling the Encyclopedia Brittanica, but to a brilliant new strategy for expanding his business into Christian ‘family values’ territory. It’s sad that this strategy works. But it’s saddest of all that he knows that what will sell is not what appeals to our better nature. There’s compassion here after all, for Joe’s knowledge (well hidden under his patter) that what he’s selling isn’t worth buying. The annoying, tireless, slick veneer of the novel is like the $1000 suit he buys to help him launch Lightning Rods: it’s an impeccably tailored garment covering up human failure, even tragedy. There’s a glimmer of that “grace beyond pity” in DeWitt’s treatment of Joe, it turns out.  But is there any of it for us? How can we judge Joe if he’s only selling what we’ll buy, after all?

4 thoughts on “Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

  1. Jonathan March 6, 2012 / 12:03 am

    I thought I tiptoed around the premise of the novel in my review; you really didn’t even try to describe it!


  2. Rohan March 6, 2012 / 12:09 am

    Well, I am a Victorianist, after all, and it’s guaranteed to bring a blush to the cheek of the young person! But also, it’s hard to describe it without sounding prurient, and that’s so far from what it’s like (oddly, right?) in the novel that it’s almost misleading.


  3. Stefanie March 6, 2012 / 1:51 pm

    I read a review of this in Bookforum I think it was a few months ago and thought it sounded interesting and then I haven’t heard anything else about it so had forgotten it. I am glad that it really is a good book given its premise. My public library has it, bless them. I’ll have to add it to my list so I don’t forget to borrow it sometime.


  4. Rohan March 6, 2012 / 3:19 pm

    Stefanie, I didn’t exactly say it was “a good book.” It is a superbly well done book. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t sure how much I actually liked reading it! It was interesting, though, how much better I started to like it once I started writing about it–it’s the difference between trying to appreciate a book on its own terms, I suppose, and holding it up against my own preferences. I would not even have given it a try if it weren’t by DeWitt, and having read it, I can’t imagine another writer who could have won me over as far as this, just by being so smart about what she was doing.


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