The Birth of a Salesman
By Helen DeWitt
New Directions, 2011
The 90s were a landmark decade for sexual harassment legislation. The provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 gave victims the right to seek compensation or punitive damages as a result of discrimination or harassment; 1998’s Burlington Industries v. Kimberley Ellerth made sure that employers became liable for both “negligent and intentional torts committed by an employee within the scope of his or her employment”; and the allegations, lies and general misconduct of President Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair very nearly cost him the Oval Office, and gave him, in some circles, an unfortunate reputation as a rapist—see Christopher Hitchens’ scathing polemic No One Left to Lie To.
All this forms a kind of backdrop to Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt’s corporate satire and long-awaited follow-up to The Last Samurai (2000), her critically acclaimed debut novel. Grueling battles with publishers and agents, painfully detailed by DeWitt in recent interviews, are to blame for the delay. Lightning Rods, which is set atop the sexual harassment revolution of the 1990s, tells the story of Joe, a hapless salesman who revolutionizes workspace etiquette by converting bathroom stalls for the purposes of what is, essentially, anonymous prostitution. Joe, of course, is adamant that what he is offering is not exploitative of women. “I believe that those in a place of work who do not welcome sexual advances should not be subjected to them,” Joe tells a potential client. “I also believe that a man who is producing results in today’s competitive market place has a right to be protected from potential undesirable side effects of the physical constitution which enables him to make a valued contribution to the company.”
At the outset of the novel Joe is in a bad way. Most of his spare time is spent in bed entertaining various elaborate sexual fantasies about game shows and frat parties and football teams. He had, as he says, hit rock bottom: “let’s face it, the 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.” From this realization Joe spins a web of ideas about human nature and innovative salesmanship. “A salesman can’t afford to see people the way he might like them to be,” goes an oft-cited refrain, “he has to see them the way they actually are.” And people, Joe reasons, have strong sexual urges. Men especially. Urges that, if not dealt with promptly and efficiently, could have a negative influence on their work performance. So why not provide some sort of device within the work space where male employers can satisfy their needs and get on with their work?
True to one of his countless sexual fantasies—in which a woman’s rear end is visible through a hole in the wall—Joe designs a space where a male employee is able to have sex with a woman—hired specifically for the purpose—from behind without ever seeing her upper torso, thereby guaranteeing her anonymity. Needless to say, there are a couple of snags to consider; there’s software to be written, company executives to be persuaded, and women to be hired. There are psychological side effects to consider and health guarantees to implement. There’s even the issue of maximizing enjoyment: the first time Joe himself tests a lightning rod, his initial impression, here flawlessly conveyed in DeWitt’s mock corporate jargon, is disappointment:
He disposed of his condom in the receptacle provided, fighting off a feeling of let-down. Maybe it would have been better if the girl had been wearing clothes below the waist so he could have pushed her skirt up, he speculated. But any kind of clothes would have compromised the anonymity. That was probably why it had felt kind of clinical and impersonal.
We live in a flawed world. We can’t always have everything the way we want it. It’s important to be able to compromise.
And like they say in show business, never marry your mistress.
Against all odds Lightning Rods Inc. is a success. The boost to workspace morale is palpable. In one company, an employee notorious for his aggressive sexual advances on female coworkers benefits so much from the lightning rods that it has a positive influence on his private life. He is able to engage in a meaningful romantic relationship with a coworker—until, that is, she finds out the cause of his improved character.
But for Joe success is a mixed blessing; when an applicant for one of the “secretarial” positions turns out to be black, Joe realizes that hiring her would compromise the anonymity of the lightning rod system. Their exchange is one of the funniest in the book:
“The only thing is, to tell the truth, I’m wondering whether this is really what you’re looking for,” he said.
“I think I’m the best judge of that, don’t you?” said Renée. “Why don’t you tell me something about it?”
“Well, the thing is,” said Joe.
“You’ve already made up your mind, haven’t you?” she said crisply. “You’ve wasted my time bringing me here for an interview, and now you’ve made up your mind.”
“You don’t understand,” said Joe.
“I certainly do understand.”
“I know what it looks like.”
“What does it look like?”
“But it’s exactly the opposite. You’re obviously a very bright gal, I just don’t think you’d be interested in the type of position we’re looking to fill.”
“Indeed,” said Renée. “Well, all I can say is, what it looks like right now is that you’re in flagrant violation of the Equal Employment Opportunities Act.”
“What exactly is it in my qualifications that you think makes me unfit for this job?”
Sometimes the best thing you can do is just come right out and tell the truth.
“Let me explain about the job,” said Joe. He explained about the job.
This is a perfect example of DeWitt’s uncanny ability to put her finger on the pulse of our many contemporary neuroses and anxieties—about sex, race, disability, and whatnot. The verbal calisthenics Joe will resort to in order to justify his profoundly immoral enterprise are hilarious because we know them all too well. “With the lightning rods,” he thinks to himself, “in a sense you were protecting people from something that was no fault of their own, i.e. a tendency to insult female staff through some kind of testosteronal imbalance”—that last phrase is a stroke of pure genius, a euphemism as absurd as anything conjured by our P.C. culture.
In fact, nearly all the characters in the book construct little mini-narratives of self-deceiving justification, whether in the service of the enterprise or simply for their own sake. Renée, for instance, justifies becoming a lightning rod because it will further her career—which, perversely, it does: we learn in a brief aside that after attending Harvard Law School she eventually “makes constitutional history as a Supreme Court Justice.” During her sessions as a lightning rod, she even takes the time to teach herself how to read French; while an employee is penetrating her on the opposite side of the wall, Renée bides her time reading Proust in the original.
DeWitt is not interested in being a moralist; this is not a comedy of correction. Joe’s success is expansive; not even its cumbersome legal platform is finally enough to bring it down. In an effort to maintain anonymity for members of government and high office in their sexual liaisons, the FBI approaches Joe with an offer he can’t refuse: either they shut him down for all the obvious violations Lightning Rods Inc. is guilty of, or he cooperates. Here again, DeWitt furnishes the FBI agents with a brilliant motivation of their own:
“Well, for better or worse, the sexual drive of men in office is one of the biggest nightmares national security has to deal with. It opens the person in question to pressures you don’t really want a person in that position to be under. Blackmail. Coercion. Extortion. In the old days, when the press knew their place, it wasn’t so bad. JFK could do what he damn well wanted and the press would just look the other way. Today it’s a whole different ball game.”
No review of Lightning Rods would be just without celebrating the novel’s narrative intelligence. Making excellent use of free indirect speech (Joe even refers to the novel, at one point, as his “autobiography”), DeWitt’s prose is effortlessly clad in Joe’s mindless salesman idiom. The story is littered with what we might call Joeisms: tired clichés and stock-phrases plucked from the trees of salesman wisdom: “where there’s a will there’s a way”; “she was one tough cookie”; “there’s no point in kicking a dead horse”; “no two ways about it.” And so on. It occasionally makes for pretty tiresome reading but, like Nabokov’s Humbert trying to convince us of the allure of a pubescent girl, it’s also scarily persuasive.
This is part of the comedy of course. We’re made complicit because we begin to sympathize with all of Joe’s agonies, personal and professional. He’s even somewhat likable, an earnest entrepreneur easily put upon by others who want one thing only: to be a success. Which, in a way, he is. In the coda at the end of the novel—jauntily titled “That’s all, folks”—we learn that although Lightning Rods Inc. meets some criticism among heterosexual women and the GLBT community, it remains an initiative admired for its tangible results. “Even the bitterest enemies of the program admit that the sex scandals of the late twentieth century seem to be a thing of the past.” As for the feasibility of a politician passing the necessary lightning rods legislation, we’re told it’s simply a matter of packaging. “A tried-and-true method of getting around this problem is to frame the language of the bill in such a way that it does not specifically mention the thing that would be political suicide. A skilled politician knows how to express himself so that the language will permit a desirable set of events to fall within the law, without allowing it to appear that he anticipated anything of the kind.” Take heed Messieurs Clinton, Spitzer, and Weiner. Life could have been so much easier!
Click here to read Morten Høi Jensen’s interview with the author over at Bookforum.
Morten Høi Jensen is a freelance book critic. He has written for Bookforum, The Quarterly Conversation, and Words Without Borders Magazine. He is the books editor of Idiom Magazine.