Helen Dewitt’s new novel, Lightning Rods (New Directions, 192 pages, $24.95), takes place in an America outside time. This America is in some ways aggressively contemporary, a lawsuit-plagued land of the horny and the litigious. But it is also backward-looking, insofar as it’s a landscape roamed by door-to-door salesmen, a breed whose numbers have, in reality, probably dwindled to bison levels but who, in Ms. Dewitt’s novel, are as ready as ever to offer encyclopedias and Electrolux vacuum cleaners to the unsuspecting housewives of the Midwest. They receive home-baked pie, these salesmen.
Our hero, a floundering salesman named Joe, has tried his hand at both Britannica and vacuums when he hits upon his big idea. What, Joe wonders, separates man from beast? Shame, he decides. What causes shame? Sex. Where does sex-shame create problems? In the workplace, since men’s poorly suppressed urges manifest themselves as unwanted harassment, thereby risking costly lawsuits. The only way to avoid harassment and lawsuits is through the use—bear with Joe, and Ms. Dewitt—of lightning rods, “bifunctional” employees, women who take occasional breaks from data entry to stick their anonymous hindquarters through a specially designed portal to the men’s room.
A lightning rod is not a prostitute, as Joe must repeatedly explain. She is “the kind of woman who has aims she wants to achieve.” She is “someone who wants to make a real contribution to the company and expects to be compensated accordingly.” She can be confident that no one besides Joe will know the exact nature of her job description. As he recruits his gals (always “gals”), Joe explains that the type he’s looking for is one woman in a thousand, a figure he will eventually revise to one in a million. He manages to convince only one executive to institute a policy of “proactive sexual harassment management” for his company, but once that plan is in action, it takes on a life of its own.
Lightning Rods is an exercise in novel as extrapolation. Ms. Dewitt’s method is to introduce a device into the world as we know it and systematically explore how the world reacts to that device. Joe’s original moment of epiphany is almost superfluous; the real fun results once the idea exists and must be dealt with. Ms. Dewitt creates the problems, identifies the problems, and then figures out how to solve them. It’s an appealingly practical way to think about writing fiction, and one that ignores any distinction between realism and fantasy. What would a gay employee make of his straight employer’s institutionalized glory holes? How to preserve anonymity if a black gal wants to join the team? And is there a way to get rid of the toilets?
“The fact is,” Joe thinks, “every great salesman has doubts. In fact, a great salesman has more doubts than anyone else. Because what those doubts are, is the questions other people are going to be asking you. A great salesman is able to anticipate a wider range of questions than other people. And instead of just hoping they’ll go away, a great salesman uses those doubts as a chance to tackle those questions head on.” Ms. Dewitt puts herself in the same position as Joe, serving as “Head Office, Product Development, and Sales all in one”; and as Joe soon discovers, creative control and commercial hustle make an uneasy combination. Ms. Dewitt can sympathize. After publishing a first book, The Last Samurai, that Sam Anderson called “arguably the most exciting debut novel of the decade,” she failed to find a publisher for her very different follow-up, had a falling out with her agent and experimented with self-publishing online. Making things up is hard; making people pay for things is another project entirely.