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Lightning Rods

Lightning Rods

2.7 4
by Helen DeWitt

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The long-awaited second novel by the author of “arguably the most exciting debut novel of the decade: The Last Samurai.” (Sam Anderson, New York).

“All I want is to be a success. That’s all I ask.” Joe fails to sell a single set of the Encyclopedia Britannica in six months. Then fails to sell a single Electrolux


The long-awaited second novel by the author of “arguably the most exciting debut novel of the decade: The Last Samurai.” (Sam Anderson, New York).

“All I want is to be a success. That’s all I ask.” Joe fails to sell a single set of the Encyclopedia Britannica in six months. Then fails to sell a single Electrolux and must eat 126 pieces of homemade pie, served up by his would-be customers who feel sorry for him. Holed up in his trailer, Joe finds an outlet for his frustrations in a series of ingenious sexual fantasies, and at last strikes gold. His brainstorm, Lightning Rods, Inc., will take Joe to the very top — and to the very heart of corporate insanity — with an outrageous solution to the spectre of sexual harassment in the modern office.

An uproarious, hard-boiled modern fable of corporate life, sex, and race in America, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods brims with the satiric energy of Nathanael West and the philosophic import of an Aristophanic comedy of ideas. Her wild yarn is second cousin to the spirit of Mel Brooks and the hilarious reality-blurring of Being John Malkovich. Dewitt continues to take the novel into new realms of storytelling — as the timeliness of Lightning Rods crosses over into timelessness.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A vacuum-cleaner salesman hits on a tasteless business plan to allow working men a sexual release at the office in this perversely surreal second novel by Dewitt (The Last Samurai). Joe doesn’t have what it takes to sell Electrolux in Eureka, Fla., but inspiration strikes in the form of a sexual fantasy involving bottomless women viewed through a hole in a wall. Since Joe believes that human nature can’t be contained, even in an office, he establishes a startup that offers to establish a monetized glory hole in any office, wherein a secretarial pool of “lightning rods” have anonymous sex through the wall of an office’s disabled bathroom. Lightning rods are carefully selected, well paid, protected from discovery and abuse; their services offer a useful “release for any pent-up physical needs,” boost performance, and suppress absenteeism, and allow Joe to sidestep issues of sexual harassment. Joe secures several top-drawer morally expedient and aspirational “gals” like Lucille, later a successful litigation lawyer, and future Supreme Court Justice Renee, and finds his innovative employment agency taking off in a big way. Dewitt’s parody of the corporate model is so resolutely poker-faced and mirthless that it simply feels deadly. (Oct.)
Jennifer Szalai
…a funny, filthy volume…DeWitt…is willing to take her satire as far as it will go, giving us the freedom to read it (or even misread it) as we choose…DeWitt, whose interest in languages was apparent in The Last Samurai, has adopted here the idiom of America's pragmatic temper, and the story of Joe and his business plan shows how a fetish for common sense can make for silly, sleazy extremes. The basic premise for Lightning Rods is so audacious that it might be hard to get past its general conceit, but its true brilliance lies in DeWitt's careful deployment of language so common that we no longer see it.
—The New York Times Book Review
Jennifer Szalai - The New York Times Book Review
“The basic premise for Lightning Rods is so audacious that it might be hard to get past its general conceit, but its true brilliance lies in DeWitt’s careful deployment of language so common that we no longer see it. As any million-dollar litigation lawyer or two-cent literary critic will tell you, the devil is in the details.”
Los Angeles Times
“Standing athwart the arc of literary history — uninterested in sugarcoating her interest in complex systems — DeWitt is among those novelists who long for a return to formality, who dream of constructing beautiful, new, arbitrary systems. She wants to tell us all about them. She thinks her readers might enjoy working their brains a bit. DeWitt delights in language not just as a means to communicate but as a complicated game whose rules she might plumb and master.”
Rhonda Lieberman - Bookforum
“DeWitt’s wickedly smart satire deserves to be a classic. As I was writing this review, I came across critic Walter Kirn’s recent rereading of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 on its fiftieth birthday. Kirn writes: 'There are no more Joseph Hellers, no more glorious literary crusaders who can ambush and sack, all alone, immense and intimidating social edifices. That demolition job’s been done, that project is complete.' But DeWitt gives plenty of reason to believe that there’s still ambushing to be done.”
Michael H. Miller - New York Observer
“In the long-awaited follow-up to Ms. DeWitt’s debut, The Last Samurai, a fickle vacuum cleaner salesman (who isn’t very good at selling vacuum cleaners) finally decides he’s struck gold with his new business venture: a monetized glory hole installed in every office, where a pool of 'lightning rods' has anonymous sex with sexually frustrated employees. Ms. DeWitt’s deadpanned humor makes this slim book into a complex story that works as both surrealist metaphor and corporate parody.”
Garth Risk Hallberg - The Millions
“This is not to say that Lightning Rods shares that novel's epic sweep. It is, by design, a minor work... But it so emphatically aces the tasks it sets for itself, and delivers such a jolt of pleasure along the way, that it reminds me of just how major a minor work can be. I wish the other leading American novelists would produce more books in this vein. Come to think of it, I wish Helen DeWitt would, too. At any rate, as one of her endearingly flummoxed characters might say, I literally cannot wait to see what she does next.”
Christopher Byrd - Salon
“Like relationships, books can uncover knots in our psyches that might otherwise have remained obscured. Using myself as an example, I noticed that when speaking to friends about Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, the word 'fun' leaped to mind but slipped out bashfully through my lips. To what extent a streak of literary Puritanism burns within me, I cannot fully compass. Admittedly, 'fun' is not a word that I’m used to deploying in a review. Yet, there is no denying that DeWitt’s third novel — an office satire about a plucky entrepreneur named Joe who transforms an erotic fantasy into the idea behind a multimillion-dollar company — is the most well executed literary sex comedy that I’ve come across in ages; just the thing to lighten a subway commute or add zest to a lunch break.”
Morten Høi Jensen - Open Letters Monthly
“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... DeWitt is not interested in being a moralist; this is not a comedy of correction... like Nabokov’s Humbert trying to convince us of the allure of a pubescent girl, it’s also scarily persuasive.”
The Awl
“It's an altogether different piece of writing: a sharp satirical fable that provides strong supporting evidence in favor of the proposition, as Marco Roth once put it to me, that DeWitt is 21st-century America’s best 18th-century novelist.”
Rain Taxi
“Satire and comedy traditionally have the advantage of allowing an author to develop ridiculous premises to absurd lengths, and DeWitt follows the logic of her premise all the way. She winks at her reader here and there but mostly adopts a mock earnest tone, which is a shrewd move. Her many cliché-ridden passages justifying the Lightning Rods are argued with such force and conviction, the reader begins to envision certain real-world businesses giving the green light to such a project. The result is a book that manages to be titillating and breezy even as it hides a clusterbomb of social commentary under its glittering, aphoristic surface.”
New Yorker
“This is excellent: cold and crazy...The jokes are like hammers.”
Critical Mob
“Intelligent, funny, and absurd, Lightning Rods critiques contemporary perspectives on sex, capitalist logic, and the workplace.”
“Delivered with a teeth-baring grin, DeWitt’s book is a powerful corrective for any reader who believes America has moved beyond Mad Men paternalism and achieved real gender equality.”
The L Magazine
“Unlike many works of satire, Lightning Rods features no characters who abstain from the Kool-Aid; no wisecracking Yossarin or prophetic Kilgore Trout to alert us to the absurdity of the world the author has created. DeWitt seems happy to leave such questioning to her readers. Joe never reconsiders his narrow definition of success as satiated desire and positive cash flow—indeed, there's little reason why he should, based on DeWitt's shiny, happy characterizations of the lightning rods and their users. Whether this hegemony adds another layer of absurdity and an extra bite or unnecessarily reduces the complexity and humanity of the story is, then, subject for each reader to consider.”
Edmonton Journal
“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.”
The Boston Globe
“The Last Samurai made DeWitt a household name for its audacity; Lightning Rods, written a decade before Samurai, inverts the Willy Loman myth by giving us a salesman with a sexual fantasy instead of a dream, who succeeds in selling his own personal kink as the solution to workplace sexual harassment.”
New York Observer
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.”
The Wall Street Journal
“She also lampoons the pabulum of business motivational books and the pieties of CEO memoirs in a book that is consistently funny in its stomach-turning way. (In her acknowledgments, Ms. DeWitt thanks the person who introduced her to The Producers.) The key to her satire is a disdain for the business world expressed with such purity that it achieves a sort of euphoria.”
Financial Times

A razor-sharp comic masterpiece.

The Independent

Dewitt maintains a strong, clear, narrative voice throughout, pitch-perfectly parodying management speak, corporate culture and self-help bibles.


An absurdist comedy of the American workplace and the indignities faced by employees in today's turbo-capitalism, a quietly seething feminist critique of pornography and the commodification of women, and a category-defying fable about the meaninglessness of success.

The Guardian

A tightly disciplined and extremely funny satire on office politics, sexual politics, American politics, and the art of positive thinking.

From the Publisher
A 2011 editor's choice. - Audible.com
"The novel is artful without artifice, unabashedly blunt in all matters sexual, and scathing in its satirical attack on sexual harassment in the workplace." - AudioFile Magazine
"...funny, filthy...its true brilliance lies in DeWitt’s careful deployment of language..." - New York Times
"an original, sometimes titillating, exploration of human nature and American initiative." - Booklist
"DeWitt's deadpanned humor makes this slim book into a complex story that works as both surrealist metaphor and corporate parody." - New York Observer, "Fall Arts Preview: Top Ten Books"
"Hyper-contemporary and artfully allegorical, Lightning Rods is a sprightly lampoon, full of corporate babble and technical jargon. It's laugh-out-loud funny, and unnervingly true...[Narrator] Dushko Petrovich's narration exaggerates DeWitt's humor without forsaking the seriousness of her satire. Lightning Rods should be required for...everyone in America." - eMusic
"Lightning Rods is A Modest Proposal for our sexually emancipated age. The only guilt involved in this pleasure will come to those who miss it." - Barnes & Noble Review
"Intelligent, funny, and absurd, Lightning Rods critiques contemporary perspectives on sex, capitalist logic, and the workplace." - Critical Mob
"In Lightning Rods, the nonperil Helen DeWitt has written a hilarious and pretty near perfect novel about...well, about selling and sex and the sound of the stories we tell ourselves, and of the stories we tell ourselves about the stories we tell ourselves, and of the stories we sell to others to help them have another story to sell to themselves, and about...did I mention sex? Lightning Rods is a strange and ingenious and happy-about-the-state-literature-making book." - Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
"Helen DeWitt shocks the reader with her intelligence. Lightning Rods, an exploration of the collective Id, is as lucid, methodical, and elegantly argued as a mathematical proof. It is also unremittingly filthy. DeWitt begins with a premise and goes on to think everything thinkable about it. A weird, generous, hilarious marvel." - Teju Cole, author of Open City
"Lightning Rods is one of the funniest, most unlikely, and most pleasurable novels I have ever read. If Henry Ford and Henry Miller got together to write a book, the result would be something like this." - Sheila Heti, author of We Need a Horse
"Savagely funny and wilfully provocative, Lightning Rods sees Helen DeWitt lets her fearless imagination run riot. A satirist up there with Swift and Orwell..." - Anthony Holden, author of Big Deal

Library Journal
Had I not known the author's name, I would have never guessed that DeWitt wrote this work. I would have sworn it was written by a middle-aged man with considerable sales experience. Whereas her previous novel, The Last Samurai, was a delightful hodgepodge, a Tower of Babel of a book, here the story is very straightforward. Joe is a failed salesman with a persistent erotic fantasy I found amusing but not a bit erotic—a "turnoff" in fact. He bases a system designed to end sexual harassment in the workplace on hiring "lightning rods," women who in addition to regular office work also service several employees each day. He claims it is not prostitution but becomes nervous when visited by the FBI, until he realizes they also want to use their own version of it. Soon, Christian businesses are adding their own twist. VERDICT This is not for everyone (you needn't be a prude to find it offensive), but for those with the properly twisted sense of sexual humor this book is a total hoot. Recommended for academic and public libraries and all stripes of perverts.—Jim Dwyer, California State Univ. Lib., Chico
Kirkus Reviews
DeWitt's offbeat debut (The Last Samurai, 2000) caused a stir, but this second novel, a satirical take on sexual harassment, misfires badly. Joe has tried selling encyclopedias and failed. Same for vacuum cleaners. He tells himself to get a grip. He's in his 30s (that's all we know about him) and is a manifest loser, but with the help of an expensive suit he turns his life around, persuading a company to try his concept of lightning rods. Bona-fide female staff members will provide occasional sexual services to male employees. They will be randomly selected through a computer program, and their anonymity protected. The point? To stave off sexual harassment lawsuits by providing relief. Sex-and-the-office entertainments have an impressive history, from Billy Wilder's classic 1960 movie The Apartment to the current TV hit Mad Men, but these shows involve flesh-and-blood characters. DeWitt's dubious premise is that harassment is caused solely by high testosterone levels; she excludes the urge to dominate. Just insert a panel opening in the Disabled Toilet, have the guy enter the "gal" from behind and voilà. Don't expect any frissons from their contact. The first guy, DeWitt writes coyly, "availed himself of the facility." But the "installation" works, and not just for Ed, the prime stud; the harassment ends, along with DeWitt's powers of invention. After Joe has a chance meeting with a dwarf on an airport shuttle bus, DeWitt riffs on adjustable height toilets; there's even a moment of toilet farce when the obese HR guy comes between Ed and his lightning rod. There are a few wrinkles (a black employee must be accommodated to prevent discrimination charges, the FBI must be mollified) but no drama in this lifeless work. Even when Joe invites his most free-spirited lightning rod home to his loft, there's no action. A dreary screed that too often reads like a primer for salesmen.

Product Details

New Directions Publishing Corporation
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Meet the Author

Helen DeWitt is the author of a “remarkable first novel” (Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Review of Books), The Last Samurai, which has been translated into twenty languages. She lives in Berlin.

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Lightning Rods 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'd give this 0 stars, if that was an option. It's unfunny; poorly written; and she has no ear for how people speak. Or think. Or act. Men can be weird, people have strange ideas -- generally those are things I enjoy in fiction. Here -- nothing was entertaining. There was really only one character for as far as I could stand to read it -- about 60 pages. And I hated that guy -- but not nearly as much as I hated the writing and the premise. As I said above, it lacks humor -- and given its subject, it's not erotic -- there's no narrative skill on display, no skill with words or plotting. It just stinks. Phew. Give this one a total pass. I read this because it was part of a book tournament -- required reading. Someone writing a bad book doesn't upset me. Normally, I'd just stop reading. But putting this book up for any sort of award -- that's what offended me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting story about a unique business. It was a little slow at times and certainly got a little too weird from time to time but overall a good read.
FreddyD More than 1 year ago
Basically, this is a novel about a guy who decides to put glory holes into offices as a way of reducing sexual frustration and thereby reduce sexual harassment. If this description sounds like something you'd be interested in reading, then you'll like the book. If it isn't, you won't.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago