No Fault of Their Own
New Directions, 2012
In Helen DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai (of zero relation to the saccharine Tom Cruise film of 2003), Sibylla, parenting along the lines of J.S. Mill père, teaches her gifted four-year-old son Ludo to read Greek. The meat of the novel is Ludo’s quest to find his unknown father, as framed by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, who Sibylla has elected as Ludo’s surrogate father-figure. It is a dense, electric, postmodern novel, stuffed with hi-jinks sentences and verbal antics.
This first novel was followed by a hiatus ten or so years, during which she finished a collaborated novel, Your Name Here, which was available only in PDF to readers who could buy it directly from her website, and continued to update her blog, “paperpools”. Now DeWitt has finally published again: the Last Samurai’s contrary in both subject and scope.
In Lightning Rods, a failing vacuum salesman invents the product he was born to sell. With the help of private fantasy, bogus statistics, and a masterfully sincere sales pitch, Joe develops “Lightning Rods”: a way of avoiding sexual harassment in the workplace by allowing high performing males to work off their frustration by screwing an anonymous employee—giving “the full service 24-hour Revco from the rear”—in the company’s reconfigured disabled toilet. If places of employment cater for other physical needs, Joe thinks—food, toilets—why should this get in the way of their productivity? As Joe reasons,
…these unsatisfied urges were causing an incredible amount of wastefulness and suffering. Women were molested in the workplace solely because their colleagues did not have a legitimate outlet for urges they could not control. Men who worked hard and who had a valuable contribution to make were being put at risk, through no fault of their own. And it was shame, false shame, that kept people from dealing effectively with the situation.
After all, a “salesman has to see people as they are”, Joe tells himself sadly, as he has his revelation on the heron-graced sunset beaches of Florida. Joe is a reasoner of sorts: a cheap philosopher in a salesman’s epic. “What you’re selling, obviously, is the idea that if they don’t buy that one thing there is something wrong with them.” He is a man with whom Chaucer’s Pardoner might have shared a convivial beer or a burger in a late-night motel bar in the Midwest.
Joe’s screwball idea is—surprisingly!—picked up. The programme is popular. It expands; Joe improves the product. He fights against discrimination from people who don’t “get” the programme. He rolls with the punches. The biggest threats to the programme—the Equal Employment Opportunities Act and the FBI—are mere spurs to providing a better service to his customers.
The novel is played out with a breezy daytime television narration, but so heavily structured with the kind of “he had no idea what was coming around the corner” tags that a risqué Lemony Snicket seems to be peering over the pages. The whole production has the feel of a reality show in which one man, Joe, tells his life story to the ever present “you” of the audience/reader. It carries a definite whiff of public testimony and the last line—“In America everything is possible”—is the cheap nostalgic kicker.
The stars of the show—Joe and his fellow characters—are ciphers. They have no surnames or childhoods. We know very little of their pasts but we are promised their high-flying futures: when they become Supreme Court justices, wealthy businessmen, satisfied husbands, cut-throat lawyers. These are American cameos by type : Joe is a NICE GUY with BIG IDEAS; Lucille is a STRONG WOMAN; Ed Smith is a BOYISH NYMPHO.
But Lightning Rods works because you can tell it is mimicry. The presiding flat American narrating voice tapers to individual characters’ idiolects by means of a generous free indirect style, though everyone participates in the culture of one-liners. Here’s Laura on M ‘n Ms: “You know, when I was a little girl I used to wonder why they never had any blue ones, and then one day they brought them out. It was like, Somebody up there likes me!” And Roy: “Roy’s golden rule was that you should never take work home with you. When you leave the office, leave the office, and make sure you leave the office at the office.”
One gets the feeling that DeWitt—who lives in Berlin—doesn’t have a lot of faith in the average American. The voice of the novel is immersed in the triteness of daily conversation with a thorough, even compulsory, ventriloquism of clichés: Joe knew “that if he put all his eggs in the basket of the adjustable toilet he’d be back killing time in a trailer before you could say Jack Robinson—without even the chance of a free pumpkin pie. Still, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
It is not surprising to find traces of David Foster Wallace, who has achieved a palimpsest-like ubiquity in what DeWitt calls “C21 fiction”, given Wallace’s deranged play with the American voice and the fact that his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, was set in an office. In Lightning Rods,
the thing was to remember was that some women were prepared to provide an outlet, in spite of all the aggro, if the money was right. And lots of guys were prepared to pay, in spite of the aggro. And what the aggro boiled down to, if you thought about it, was the shame of being known to be the person who had been involved.
The sledge-hammer “aggro” is pure Wallace, as is the precisely and gratuitously articulated list of beverages the newly minted Joe keeps in the fridge of his sterile but expensive apartment (“And he thought he’d covered the mixers…”).
In her recent Believer interview with Weston Cutter, DeWitt said that Lightning Rods came out of having unsolicited comments from strangers when circulating Last Samurai, which felt like “being fucked from behind through a hole in the wall”. The sceptic might think to herself that this is surely common for all writers trying to publish their first books via traditional avenues. DeWitt’s history with the publishing world has been testy and she’s made it clear that what is stopping her from producing other Last Samurai-ish novels is money and time (but mostly money).
Lightning Rods is very anti-Samurai; it’s a kind of recalcitrant snarl. The consensus in Lightning Rods’ reception has been that the novel is a nasty satirical comedy, a homage to bad taste in the spirit of “Springtime for Hitler”, which DeWitt cites as in influence in her afterword. But it is more than just an extended joke on corporate culture: it is as much a book about style and the American voice as it is about rationalizing misogyny.
Had I not read The Last Samurai, with its explosively intelligent narrative and heady, linguistic soup, I might have left Lightning Rods unprodded. It is a small, trite parable; a book which seems to have a tenth of the ambition of her previous novel. But DeWitt’s feat is having pulled off such a masquerade, hiding the massively curious mind which produced The Last Samurai behind Lightning Rods’ platitudes and jingoisms. The new novel is an exercise in other possibilities.
Sibylla’s words sum up DeWitt’s enterprise: “I would like to strike a style to amaze. I think I am not likely to discover the brush of Cezanne; if I am to leave no other record I would like it to be a marvel”. The schizophrenic stylistic variation between the two novels indicates her striking dedication to a prosodic art—to marvellous effect. The question is whether the next novel—and despite DeWitt’s threats, we anticipate there will be a next novel—will be a return to the magnetic voice and cavorting prose of the Last Samurai or another detour to another voice entirely.
Christy Edwall is reading for a BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford.