Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

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Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: This funny, well-observed satire on the American Dream isn't for those expecting another The Last Samurai or the easily shocked. A very good read but not one for the kiddies!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 273 Date: September 2012
Publisher: And Other Stories
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0811220347

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Shortlisted for Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction 2013

Joe is a salesman on the verge of giving up. Having lost all confidence in his ability to sell vacuum cleaners to Middle America, he creates and elaborates on a fantasy just for fun. It includes a woman being 'serviced' from behind, her partner obscured by a waist high wall. The only thing any over-the-wall voyeur sees is an innocent activity e.g. she may manicure her nails.

Deciding he needs to carve out a new career for himself, he's inspired by his recreational daydreaming to devise a way to eradicate sexual harassment from the workplace. He'll provide companies with 'Lightning Rods', i.e. women that will dissipate men's pent up frustrations that may otherwise lead the company towards litigation. As you can imagine, his business idea isn't without problems but some of the problems may be a little different to those you'd imagine.

This is a book that has caused a stir among Helen Dewitt fans. Imagine the scene: you've read The Last Samurai, a tender, touching story of the relationship between mother and son and his search for a father. Then you grab Helen Dewitt's second, much anticipated novel and find it's about a failed salesman who shares his vivid top-shelf magazine fantasy with the readers and then introduces random, casual conjugals into the workplace. However, to coin a phrase, it's not what it looks like, really it's not.

Joe's mind pleasures are indeed graphically described but it's almost as if the author is using this section to shed the most shock-susceptible readers from her audience. I must admit to wondering what sort of book I'd dobbed from the shelves of Bookbag Towers myself, but Joe's imaginings are mercifully short and we're soon watching him devise his business plan. Then, even when the business is in full thrust (sorry!), we're not presented with that initial depth of carnal detail again.

So if it's not about the nookie, what is it about? Lightning Rods is a witty, clever, almost cruelly insightful suggestion that Americans will buy any concept that protects them from corporate litigation. In this case Steve (the director of the company that signs the lightning ladies up) is more scared of a harassment suit than he is about, effectively, installing a form of prostitution in the office. Although Joe's argument is that this isn't prostitution; the women are employed for their secretarial skills, you see. The logic is indeed impeccable as, step by step, Joe sells a concept that could seem like The Emperor's New Clothes, as it does for poor Roy from HR. Another example of the logic is the idea that Joe's team come up with to ensure that anonymity is ensured once they start employing ladies of colour. It's wonderfully concocted and would definitely prevent Joe falling foul of equality legislation, but in some quarters it may be considered kinky. I greeted this plot twist with a gasp of admiration for ingenuity followed by unsuppressed giggles. Trust me; the shocks do tend to give way to chortles once Joe goes into plan sales mode.

Obviously there's more to the business than just Joe. We read the personal stories of the Lightning Rods themselves along with the workforce who use their services. We feel a grudging admiration for Renee who practically studies for a degree during the 'act' (yes, during). Contrastingly you'll cringe for the aforementioned poor Roy (poor, poor Roy) who thinks he's just popped into the loo and ends up with a six-bag-a-day M&M habit.

Helen Dewitt's skill and wish not to be pigeon holed definitely shine through as we smile about a business (and, metaphorically, a country) that strays unaware from innocence to enforce a system that's both socially and professionally inappropriate whilst being led incrementally along a pathway of apparent well-argued coherence. We find it amusing because we recognise the allegory and the USA and because we're safe in the knowledge that the same metaphor wouldn't hold up for our country. Well, it wouldn't… Would it?

A special 'thank you' to And Other Stories for providing us with a copy for review.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to stick with the satirically unusual, we heartily recommend Albert of Adelaide by Howard L Anderson. (There's a lot less jiggy with it too by the way.)

Buy Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt at

Buy Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt at


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