Sunday, October 7, 2012

Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods

One great book I read during this trip was Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods. Published by innovative & Other Stories Press in London, UK, this is a wise and humorous send-up of contemporary corporate culture. The plot--the top layer of meaning--has to do with an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman Joe, who, unable to sell a single Encyclopedia, starts a business capitalizing on his erotic fantasy. He imagines having sex with women stuck leaning out of the window and whose upper body is invisible to him. He conceives of "lightning rods," a contraption that he installs in office buildings to provide top salesmen necessary "release"--and hires women to service these contraptions accordingly. It's a naughty book, a book fully aware of the feminist critique of the masculine gaze that disassembles a woman into discrete body parts (breasts, buttocks, legs, vagina), accepts this property of the gaze for granted and pushes it to its practical limits. Men are constantly thinking of sex--why not provide them with a practical option to satisfy their desires, as a part of Sexual Harassment policy, no less? DeWitt pokes fun at the legalese and euphemistic language of corporate America, lightheartedly picks at the commonplace understanding of male sexuality, and touches at issues of power and domination and the nature of personal and professional success.

Lightning Rods was written in the late 1990s and it took more than a decade for it to find the right publisher. Finally, New Directions in the US and & Other Stories in the UK took up the book. & Other Stories is a two-year old innovative press that aims to publish primarily works in translation but also a few English-language originals. I've heard about it for the first time from my friend Yvette, who became a member of their team of readers. The press aims to bring out four books a year and asks readers to subscribe like they would to a magazine. I joined after examining the titles they already brought out--and a couple of weeks after I subscribed one of their books, Deborah Levy's Swimming Home, was longlisted, and then shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I haven't read this one yet, but I definitely look forward to reading more books from their exciting catalog.

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