Transcript for Helen DeWitt on "Lightning Rods"

Jim Fleming:  Helen DeWitt's new novel, "Lightning Rods," was shortlisted for the "Believer Magazine's" Book Award.  The editors described it as a really funny, and really serious, book about contemporary America's certainty that sex is so important, and that business is so important. The novel's protagonist is a down and out salesman named Joe. He spends most of his time fantasizing about women. And one afternoon, a particularly strange fantasy leads to a life-changing epiphany. As Helen Dewitt tells Anne Strainchamps.

Helen DeWitt: You can sell all kinds of things if you bring sex into it. If you suggest somehow that somebody can get sex as a result of acquiring the product and yet selling the thing itself that's stigmatized. It's such an incentive for people and yet you can't sell it directly.

Anne Strainchamps: So you can sell pornography but you can't sell prostitutes.

DeWitt: Yeah, there it's stigmatized so it's kind of hidden away. He's sort of thinking about that, he's thinking about sexual harassment and these huge sexual harassment suits, and how very successful individuals are suddenly penalized. There was some guy who apparently dropped M&Ms into a woman's blouse by the Xerox machine, and then fumbled around in her blouse. Then the company had to pay out a million dollars or so for a sexual harassment suit that went against them. So he's just thinking about all these, and thinking there has to be money in it. And you know, if you could sell anonymity along with sex, this would just take off. He suddenly thinks, "What if that would work?"  Of course, you know, he realizes soon it'd be hard to sell, but he thinks sales is a numbers game, and all you need to start off with is one person to buy it.

Strainchamps: He comes up with the idea of some...it's a contraption. So how would you describe it?

DeWitt: His idea is, because he's adopting his fantasy, I think that's why this somewhat implausible solution comes to him. It's that you could have a contraption where the disabled toilets and the men's and women's bathrooms are back to back, and you could have this contraption so that the women is placed on this contraption and goes sort of ass-backward through the wall. Panel opens, she goes in. He's computerized this so that male individuals on the staff will be notified at random when they have the opportunity to participate in this. The hypothesis is that the women are anonymous. These are members of staff, they fulfill some role in the company. So they are paid a normal salary, then they are paid twice that to function as lightning rods as well.

Strainchamps: These women are, you call them "lightning rods", hence the title of the novel. Why that term "lightning rods"?

DeWitt: Well, I think his idea was that this deflects the lighting of inappropriate desire in office. You know, he is very blinkered. He is not thinking about women having desires and whether women might need some kind of outlet. He is not thinking about whether there might be gays on the staff. I mean, he has this extremely, it's not just hetero-normative. His assumption is that it's men with a high sex drive with a high performance. I mean, this is his little assumption.

Strainchamps: And of course, this entire thing is tongue-in-cheek. We're talking about it seriously and Joe, your character, takes it completely seriously. But the entire plot, of course, is completely tongue-in-cheek. So I was going to ask you to read a little bit, and I thought maybe this section... I just took, kind of give us an idea of how this works for an ordinary working guy.

DeWitt: OK. Roy is the human resources manager of the firm, and he's somewhat obese, so he goes to the disabled toilet when he needs to go. So he has now gone into the disabled toilet in the men's room.

(READING)  Roy was about to pull himself to his feet when he heard a funny kind of click. A panel had slid open the wall beside him. Roy stared. In the hole revealed by the panel were the soles of two bare feet pointing downward. While he watched, some of mechanism must have been operating, because gradually the feet moved out into the room. [xx] came into view, bare thighs, bare... Holy mackerel!  He was looking at the naked lower portion of a woman. The mechanism is stopped. He couldn't see anything above the waist. As it were, he could see plenty, and then some.  I don't believe I'm seeing this, he thought. This wasn't some casual sexual liaison among staff. Someone had had to build this contraption and put a hole in the wall. How many people were involved? What would the shareholders think? Was it even legal? Nothing happened.  I've got to get out of here, thought Roy. He stood up, did up his pants, and buckled his belt. He flushed the toilet. The naked rear end of the woman hadn't moved. Jesus, thought Roy. Roy had never had a girlfriend, and though heâ'd been on a couple of dates when he was younger and thinner, he'd always been shy. This kind of thing was way out of his league. I'm getting too old for this job, he thought. Roy had had to deal with a couple of unsavory incidents in his time, but what the dickens was he supposed to do about this?  Who would he even tell?  What was he supposed to say? He tried to imagined telling someone, Steve Jackson, for example, about the naked lower portion of the woman. I just can't do it, he thought. And men from the younger generation would probably have taken something like this in his stride. Roy just couldn't deal with it. He couldn't even think of words. He couldn't bring himself to speak in the presence of another person. But how could he just walk away from it? It would be irresponsible to bury his head in the sand and pretend it hadn't happened. But what the hell was he supposed to do?   (END OF READING)

Strainchamps: Poor Roy! We have not discussed the women, the lightning rods themselves. Because as we said, you take this insane proposition, you play it all the way up in the book. So Joe builds his contraption and then there are women who turns out are willing to be employed as lightning rods. Can you tell us about them?

DeWitt: The way Joe decides to sell this to possible applicants is, you know, he puts ads in the paper for just normal positions. And then people show up, and then he explains that there is this other aspect to the job, but that they will be paid twice the going rate, and that it's for a real team player and somebody wants to make a contribution to the firm. And then he'll say he knew one gal who wanted to go to Harvard Law School and she realized that, you know, with the extra money she was making through lightning rods she could pay her tuition. He's just making these things up but then one woman comes in, and he says this, and you know, she was a [xx] secretary and she's just thinking, you know, is this all I want in my life? You know, maybe I could just go to Harvard Law School, and apply her abilities to something that really mattered to them.

Strainchamps: Maybe we could hear from Rene, the woman herself.

DeWitt: Okay

(READING)  Rene prepared for the new job the way that she prepared for everything. Thoroughly. The way Rene looked at it was this. You were selling use of your body for short periods of time in exchange for the chance to make the best possible use of your mind. Well, why not take it one step further? Why not set aside the actual time allocated for non-secretarial functions and put it to use? Learn a language, study accounting, do something with the time so at the end of the year, say, you look back, and what you'd see is that you'd worked at a language a couple of times a day. On top of being paid for the time, you'd have a new asset that no one can take away from you. She spent quite a lot of time thinking about which particular project would give her a real sense of achievement. What she finally decided was that this was the ideal opportunity to read [xx] masterpiece. All of the [xx], in French. The amount of time lightning rods were typically expected to be on duty would be just right for working through a French text. On the one hand, she wouldn't be reading a lot at any one time, so she wouldn't get discouraged. On the other hand, it was quite a long book, so by the time she finished, she'd probably have enough money for Harvard Law School. She could look at the volumes on her shelf and see how far she had to go. So she went to the University bookstore and bought the complete set, and she started page one, paragraph one, on her first day on the job. Sure enough, the idea worked perfectly. The idea that she had to struggle with the French meant she didn't have a lot of attention to spare for anything else that might be going on. She'd go through as much text she could, underlining words she didn't know with a pencil. At night, she'd look up the words and read through the passage again. The next day she'd read on. Within a month, she was having to look up fewer words. Within six months, she was reading the French almost as well as she read English. And that was entirely the result of doing it on a daily basis.  (END OF READING)

Strainchamps: And then of course your next paragraph tells here that Rene not only finishes reading Proust, she eventually does wind up at Harvard Law School and in fact a Supreme Court Justice, all of which she credits to time spent as a lightning rod.

DeWitt: Exactly.

Jim Fleming:  Helen DeWitt is the author of  "Lightning Rods."  She spoke with Anne Strainchamps.

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