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Lightning Strikes   Leave a comment

When reading Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods it’s important to keep in mind the various
definitions of satire: lampoon, irony, parody, among others. DeWitt’s novel offers several
examples of satire’s many faces: it’s far-fetched, addresses a significant topic, and throws in
occasional laughs. Unfortunately, this just isn’t enough.

DeWitt examines sexual harassment in the workplace through an idea known as lightning
rods. The genius behind the concept is Joe. Just Joe with no last name and not much of a
backstory. What’s known is that Joe is a down-on-his-luck salesman with a penchant for
sexual fantasies. Of course it makes perfect sense that he would blend his weak sales skills
with the latter to develop a service to improve workplace productivity while eliminating
sexual harassment. Joe’s idea: anonymous female employees (the lightning rods) available to
fulfill sexual needs. This may sound like prostitution, but Joe spends plenty of time trying to
convince people otherwise. Like their namesakes, the females provide resistance to potential
problems. One of the best explanations is from a lightning rod who later becomes a Supreme
Court Justice. She says, “… there’s nothing like being on the receiving end of a proactive sex-
ual harassment program …”

The story follows Joe’s climb from a hapless schmuck to a successful one. Among many ironies
in DeWitt’s tale is that most characters are identified by first name only. They engage in one
of the most personal ways people interact, but they are more like cardboard cutouts than living,
breathing humans.

Lightning Rods
Two-and-a-half  Bookmarks
By Helen DeWitt
New Directions, 2011
273 pages

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