NOVEMBER 21, 2011
HELEN DEWITT’S FIRST NOVEL, The Last Samurai, was published in 2000 to almost universally rapturous praise. It sold a hundred thousand copies in English. If literary publishing were a rational enterprise, even along narrowly capitalistic lines, DeWitt would have no trouble finding a permanent home at a major house. After all, whatever else we might say about her excellence as a writer, DeWitt sells.
But publishing is far from rational, and so we have had to wait eleven years for her second novel, Lightning Rods. Adding to the absurdity of this long wait, DeWitt completed a draft of this book in 1999, before she even sold The Last Samurai, but was unable to publish it until it was released from its contract with Miramax Books, which had the option to publish it, chose not to, and yet would not allow the book to be released elsewhere.
DeWitt’s third novel, co-authored with the journalist Ilya Gridneff, Your Name Here, was under no such contractual prohibition but also had difficulty finding a home. When eager readers asked her about it, DeWitt began selling a version of the book on her Web site, paperpools, after which it was reviewed by the London Review of Books, excerpted in n+1, and finally picked up by Noemi Press. It remains unclear, however, when the book will see daylight.
There are many possible explanations for DeWitt’s troubles. One has to do with the fact that her writing frequently incorporates languages other than English. The Last Samurai, the tale of a single mother Sibylla who raises her child Ludo to be a polymath, prominently features Ancient Greek and Japanese. DeWitt justifies the inclusion of these languages as a way to teach the reader that they too can learn these languages without too much difficulty. Your Name Here, she told Joey Comeau in an interview for the blog A Softer World, was designed to do for Arabic what Tolkien did for the invented language of Elvish in Lord of the Rings. Quixotically, DeWitt imagines that “[i]f an alter-Tolkien had done for the languages of the Middle East what Tolkien did for the languages of the elves and the dwarves, we couldn’t have the unholy mess we have now!”
DeWitt’s playful attitude toward foreign languages comes at a price. It requires meticulous attention to copyediting and book design, an attention that mainstream publishers are often unwilling or unequipped to give. Making matters worse, the idea that literature might include a pedagogical or improving mission is anathema to a widely shared ethos in contemporary literary culture.
Whereas DeWitt often talks about fiction as if it were a vehicle for presenting exciting ideas, the tendency of American culture is toward relaxation. Since the sixties, Americans have systematically de-formalized themselves, on the tacit theory that formality is equivalent to authority, and that authority is, more or less, equivalent to authoritarian oppression. The writing of David Foster Wallace might be regarded as the extreme terminus of American informality (even if it actually is formality concealed by a veneer of conversational style). It is no accident that Wallace, in his review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, praises that volume’s author for being a grammatical prescriptivist without seeming so. After all, what is stuffier, or more intrusively formal, than being asked to learn something while lying on your towel on the beach? If you plan on making such unreasonable demands of the reader, best not to remind them that they’re being improved or educated.
Standing athwart the arc of literary history — uninterested in sugarcoating her interest in complex systems — DeWitt is among those novelists who long for a return to formality, who dream of constructing beautiful, new, arbitrary systems. She wants to tell us all about them. She thinks her readers might enjoy working their brains a bit. DeWitt delights in language not just as a means to communicate but as a complicated game whose rules she might plumb and master. “I like languages for their grammatical idiosyncrasies,” she explains:
[W]hen I come across a rare verb form in Arabic it makes me laugh out loud. I like the different ways they sound, the way Slavic languages are chewy, the way Spanish and Scots use rolled r’s for a sort of verbal pinball, the way Danish has a sort of archipelago of half-submerged consonants.
This love of language as a game is connected with her love of other sorts of games — she mentions bridge frequently and is reportedly working on a book about poker — and it is also connected to her interest in interrogating social norms. In short, DeWitt is interested in formal systems, be they languages, card games, or social conventions, and she is convinced that we would do better to develop more such systems, not fewer.
Her interest in these systems is not merely playful. She imagines that games might improve our sexual and social lives. In her interview with Comeau, DeWitt observes that “[b]y way of contrast [with bridge], we have no comparable sophistication in the communication of sexual preferences or strength of interest.” Her interviews and blog posts are replete with stories of terrible fights that she has had with agents and editors and publishers, stories that often center on how she inadvertently violated the taboos of the contemporary literary world. DeWitt laments that “[t]he determining factor [in getting a book published] is not the quality of the books” but “the extent to which Helen DeWitt can marshal the social skills, the obstinacy, the willingness to suspend writing indefinitely to wheel and deal, to get the fuckers into print.”
And yet, if the great drama of DeWitt’s career is her attempt to create new formal practices that unknot or resolve discomfort and strife, then the need to “marshal… social skills,” to “wheel and deal,” isn’t a sideshow from her real work, as she seems to believe, but the main event, the engine that makes her fiction so interesting in the first place. It is appropriate that DeWitt’s new novel explores the intersection of capitalism and sexual fantasy — and imagines a harebrained solution to the problem of workplace sexual harassment that actually works. A mad and brilliant book, Lightning Rods is not only about selling; it is also a magnificent allegory of its own inability to sell.
The novel follows the sad plight of Joe, a friendless salesman who lives alone in a Florida trailer. Unable to peddle Encyclopedia Brittanicas, he tries to sell Electrolux vacuum cleaners, but finds that a recent hurricane — Hurricane Edna — has caused his potential clients to purchase their new vacuums already. Joe spends most of his time in his trailer masturbating to elaborate fantasies. His key daydream involves fucking women who have placed half their bodies through a hole in the wall, the upper part of the body on one side, the lower part on the other.
Later a cock would go in and the vantage point of the fantasy would shift to the other side of the wall, where you would not know from the fully-clothed upper body of the woman that a cock was hard at work on the other side of the wall. For some reason or other she would need to pretend that nothing was happening.
Joe spins elaborate mental dramas in order to motivate his fetish, imagining at one point that the women are participating in a game show. And yet even the imaginary contestants in his fantasies resist him, arguing against the logic of the scenario they are participating in. At other times, his fantasy game show turns out to be rigged in a way that dispels the initial fantasy’s allure. After hitting an emotional “rock bottom,” Joe has an epiphany:
[T]he kind of guy who gets ahead in the world, the kind of guy who makes a mark, the kind of guy who makes a difference, is the kind of guy who deals with his sexual urges and gets on with the job. He is not the kind of guy who lies around obsessing about whether some completely imaginary game show is rigged. He is not the kind of guy who gets side-tracked out of his masturbatory fantasy into a non-masturbatory fantasy about three guys from college called Jeff, Shane, and Duane. Duane. Where the fuck did that come from? Jesus.
We can already see why the good folks at Miramax Books might not have known what to do with Lightning Rods. After all, if the typical American reader doesn’t want to be forced to learn about Greek, Japanese, or Arabic on the beach, it seems quite unlikely that she — and overwhelmingly the American reader is female — will want to read about the frankly bizarre sexual fantasies of a loser who lives in a trailer park. Which is a shame, because Joe’s fantasies — and what his fantasies inspire — get uproariously funny.
In short order, Joe derives a scheme, inspired by his fetish, to help solve the problem of workplace sexual harassment. Joe will hire women to pose as regular workers — he calls these women Lightning Rods — who will make themselves available for anonymous intercourse according to a computer-determined algorithm. To ensure their anonymity, Joe’s Lightning Rods place their lower bodies through a hole knocked out of a wall separating the disability toilet cubicles in adjoining restrooms. After developing the system, hiring his first few Lightning Rods, and finding his first client — the description of this process takes considerable narrative space — Lightning Rods proceeds to describe in meticulous detail the way Joe transforms his sexual fantasy into a massively profitable business. Joe must conquer reluctant clients, emotionally distraught Lightning Rods, conservative Christians, and, in time, the FBI. All predictably fall to Joe’s entrepreneurial verve, his infallibly optimistic belief that he is making the world a better place.
It is important to mention at this point that in the world of the novel Joe’s idea succeeds wildly: freed from their sexual urges, men do work more productively than ever before. Non-Lightning Rod women, meanwhile, do find their workplace mysteriously free of sexual abuse and harassment, ensuring happiness for everyone. As the novel elaborately explores every aspect of Joe’s system, only a few characters are even partially rendered as individuals, among them Lucille, one of the first women Joe hires to be a Lightning Rod, and Renee, an African American woman who convinces Joe that he needs to comply with the Equal Employment Opportunities Act.
Lighting Rods reveals that a willingness to question existing social norms and a desire to forge radical new ones are at the heart of contemporary capitalism. Things are a certain way in the world, but why need they be that way? Why not some other way? What, DeWitt seems to be asking, is the matter with Joe’s scheme, if anything? Who would really suffer if it were implemented? A fable of entrepreneurial enthusiasm and capitalism’s perverse genius, Lightning Rods stands as a satirical literalization of the maxim, which closes the novel, that “In America anything is possible.”
The elaborate sexual choreography of Lightning Rods can’t help but bring to mind Nicholson Baker’s magic-realist erotic literary experiments in The Fermata and his recent House of Holes. With Baker, however one gets a sense that the sexual or erotic content of these novels is very much the point. Reading DeWitt, and despite her willingness to entertain new formalizations of sexual life, one cannot help but suspect that she finds Joe’s fantasy life personally disgusting. Her disdain is evident in her style. The novel is a nearly seamless fabric of cliché. Almost every sentence reads as if it were taken from business literature or pop sales manuals. Early on, Joe realizes that:
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. If the reason you gave up your old job was that it was not sufficiently remunerative to enable you to meet your commitments, you may well find yourself with some debts which it would be distracting to deal with at this time. It’s absolutely vital to start the new job in an area where any difficulties you may have experienced in the past are unlikely to lead to unwelcome distractions. He needed to be based in a locality presenting no foreseeable distractions, and he selected the nearest Electrolux office which would enable him to meet that need, and he walked straight in.
As with the pornographic content of the novel, you either find this funny or you don’t. But the brilliantly calibrated precision of this style becomes apparent if you contrast it with DeWitt’s other writing. The banal, free indirect rendition of Joe’s inner life betrays a great deal of care. Ideas like giving a job “110%” become literalized and extended systematically. Words like “remunerative” and phrases like “absolutely vital” or “enable him to meet that need” — which appear everywhere — betray a mind that has ceded the process of thought. Joe is so thoroughly saturated in preprocessed, secondhand language that he will say to another character, without a hint of irony, “Maybe we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe we’ve failed to separate the wheat from the chaff.” Indeed.
DeWitt occasionally breaks from this stream of cliché. In a few instances, Joe suddenly seems more capable than he ought to be — for example, when he is forced to teach himself how to program in order to write the software that will manage the availability of Lightning Rods in the workplace. On other occasions, when Joe is having the sexual fantasies that are at the center of his mental life, his inner monologue grows more persuasively lively. And there are moments of great poignancy and pathos, where Joe transcends DeWitt’s mocking treatment. Shortly after Joe comes upon his scheme, we read:
The tide was out. The sand just above the water gleamed white in the bright morning sun and tiny sandpipers darted up and down. Out to sea a line of pelicans flew low over the waves.
“It’s a beautiful world,” said Joe again. “You have a right to be here.”
He stopped the car on the sandy shoulder and parked it and turned off the engine. He could hear the soft whisper of the waves and the piping of the sandpipers.
There are things that you spell out in words for an audience that you don’t think in words at the time. In his mind he was just seeing the heron with its long sharp beak and spindly legs. He was seeing the sandpipers running up and down the wet sand. He saw the pelicans with their big beaks that could hold a whole fish. They were flying low over the waves because they knew where to find the kind of fish they could put in their beaks.
This language beautifully traces Joe’s moment of grace. Simple sentences such as “The tide was out” leave little room for cliché — no “remunerative” or “locality” here. The image of sandpipers running on wet sand contrasts startlingly with the strip mall landscape Joe literally and imaginatively inhabits. If we understand a scene like this to be not authorial intervention but a rendition of Joe’s unworded grace, Joe becomes an increasingly nuanced central character, an empty man in an empty world who finds a few scraps of dignity in an unusual place.
The unexpected depth of Joe’s pathos is the most powerful element of Lightning Rods, and makes the book far more than a toss-off, a virtuoso stand-up routine. When he achieves success, only then does it become clear how truly alone Joe remains, how hollow his aspirations have always been, how success can be a kind of failure. Looking out his apartment window, at the height of his triumph, Joe observes the unnamed city where he resides:
From where he stood, he could have been looking out on anywhere in the country. He could see a McDonalds, and a 7-Eleven, and a Waffle House, and a TCBY. Every single one of those represented an idea that someone had to have, an idea whose value had probably been far from obvious at the time.
The sky was darkening, but it was not yet dark. In the west the molten gold of the setting sun slipped through the hills, and in the darkening hollow the yellow arches and the 7-Eleven and the Waffle House and the TCT were glowing in the golden light.
DeWitt’s use of cliché points, too, to the novel’s main weakness. If Lighting Rods is about selling the unsellable, if it’s about the deranged genius of American capitalism, DeWitt’s style grates against her theme. What the history of entrepreneurship shows, if nothing else, is how very appealing, how very sociable, how willing to speak in vernacular, the new is, how very opposed to cliché and cant the true innovator is. DeWitt makes a common mistake, conflating the creatively destructive entrepreneur and the corporate bureaucrat that the entrepreneur wants to destroy. The Steve Jobses of the world not only know the language of cool but are thoroughly ideologically committed to destroying stale conventions. In our world, Joe wouldhate cliché.
What DeWitt’s online writings frequently reveal, no less than her fiction, is her own entrepreneurial spirit. Many times on her blog, in her conflict with the corporate literary establishment, DeWitt envisions schemes that sound as if they might be right at home inLightning Rods. If you happen to buy a copy of The Last Samurai secondhand, DeWitt gives you the option to pay her directly for revenue she may have lost. Whether or not this idea works, it highlights that we need to attend not only to DeWitt’s fiction but also to the story of how her writing comes into print — or has failed to come into print – in the first place. We would all do quite well if DeWitt showed us new ways of creatively destroying the literary establishment, at least as it exists today. For as DeWitt’s personal tribulations illustrate, publishing might very much benefit from the ideas of a man like Joe.