Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

Everyone knows sexual harassment in the workplace is a problem. Despite this, it’s difficult to imagine anything that might solve it for good, in part because those employees most likely to offend are also those least likely to pay attention to whatever carefully worded memos you might stick in their inbox.

But Joe, the failed-vacuum-salesman-turned-entrepreneur at the centre of Helen DeWitt’s new novel Lightning Rods, sees that the opposite approach—an aggressive zero-tolerance policy—is just as doomed to fail. He figures that the confident, take-charge mentality that makes these men (and they’re always men) leer and ogle is precisely what also makes them so effective in the world of business. It’s a nasty side effect of testosterone and adrenaline run amok; in a way, they’re hard-wired to make dirtbag comments to whatever poor temp is within eyesight.

Joe’s idea is this: if you can’t fix sexual harassment once and for all, maybe you can diffuse it instead. Maybe if there were some way to give these alpha-male employees an outlet for their work-related sexual urges…

I’ll leave it to you, fair reader, to complete that thought. Suffice to say, Joe’s contraption involves a complicated hole in the wall separating the men’s and women’s bathrooms, a rudimentary computer program ensuring anonymity on both ends, and a select group of female employees—the titular “lightning rods”—a part of whose job descriptions does not include how many words per minute they can type.

What’s more, it actually seems to work.

Lightning Rods is DeWitt’s long-anticipated follow-up to her 2000 debut, The Last Samurai (no relation to that Tom Cruise movie). In many ways, the books couldn’t be more different. Where Samurai was elegant and dense, filled with gloriously high-minded ruminations from a mother-son genius duo, the new book is looser and infinitely bawdier. It’s always half-smiling at its own loopy premise. We’ve known for a decade that DeWitt was a great writer—now we know there are at least two different great writers lurking within her. What her third book will look like is almost literally anyone’s guess.

It must be said that Lightning Rods isn’t actually all that shocking, especially if you happen to have spent a few desensitizing hours with Nicholson Baker’s XXX-rated House of Holes earlier this year. Yet it does manage to burrow down and strike more than its share of raw nerves. That’s because DeWitt’s conception of sexual-release-valve technology is framed as practical above all else. It is a tangible product, designed for actual people with actual desires. As such, it has actual consequences. That frankness is perhaps more disarming than any shock tactic could be.

A big percentage of the book’s delight comes from DeWitt’s methodical pursuit of what, exactly, those consequences might be. What kind of woman would accept such a position? How does this device affect a user’s chance of maintaining a normal relationship? Has Joe broken the law? How many times? And it’s far from the clandestine invention he first imagines: a non-user in HR quickly figures out something is amiss when he realizes nobody in the office is taking sick days anymore.

In the end, Lightning Rods turns out to be about, of all things, the American Dream. Joe’s thoughts keep returning to the building blocks of capitalism and self-made success stories: finding an unmet need and providing a solution, for a price that’s fair, in a place where ideas reign supreme. At his most energetic, he dreams 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.”

He’s certainly doing his part.

New Directions, 192 pp, $29, hardcover

(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, December 4, 2011)

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