Sex, Lies, and the Workplace: Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

10/09/2011 10:16 pm ET | Updated Dec 09, 2011

As a reviewer I try to avoid hyperbolic statements, as it is expected of a critic to maintain an analytic distance. But Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods is designed to shock, and is quite simply the oddest novel I have ever read. "Novel" might be an inaccurate description, since the work it most closely parallels in my experience is Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal."

No, Lightning Rods is not about eating babies. It is about Joe, an American salesman, who has the idea to... how shall I put this? Implement a system of "lightning rods" in company offices, i.e., women who provide anonymous sex to high-level employees. The theory goes, providing this outlet to powerful men would prevent their engaging in the sort of behavior that leads to million-dollar sexual harassment lawsuits.

Part of the strangeness of this novel is not only the above idea, but how it is implemented in order to keep things anonymous. Since this is a family column I will only say it has to do with a contraption in a bathroom stall and a computer software program, and that is quite enough, because these absurdities are tangential to -- or reflective of -- the point: Joe's business model is spun out of fantasy. Literally: it is his very specific sexual fantasies that provide the business model. The rationale -- that lightning rods are a noble endeavor to prevent sexual harassment, to protect women in the workplace -- is subsequent to the fantasy, which means it is in fact a rationalization.

Thus Joe's booming business is built on an intricate lie, fabricated with dizzying references to primates, women's rights, and made-up statistics. Lightning Rods is at least partly an exploration of the idea that bolstered with enough rhetorical hot air, just about anything can be marketed successfully to the public as a legitimate cause or product. And it's undeniable that there are various phenomena in the world that give credence to this idea (such as, for example, the entire existence of the UN).

But the novel is also a satire of corporate America and individualism. The revelation that spurs Joe to transform his private sexual fantasy into a business enterprise is that he is a worthy individual. Big mistake. Or is it? It earns him piles of money, which is because America, depicted as a bastion of corporate greed and individualism, is the ideal launching-pad for the perverse fantasies of failed salesmen. It is a place where the people most likely to succeed are those who buy into the lie in order to game the system--in this case, smart women who opt to become "lightning rods" as a stepping stone to success and even respectability.

Lightning Rods explores the way in which one man's self-deceit can continuously expand into an increasingly baroque and towering edifice. Near the end the book enters Orwellian territory, when Joe capitalizes on his idea even further by creating an alternative to the lightning rod facilities -- workplaces which are guaranteed to be lightning rod-free. The catch: a woman who wants to work in such a workplace must commit to not ever press charges of sexual harassment, since without access to a "facility," her male colleagues cannot be held responsible for their actions.

As in Orwell's day, this assemblage of an elaborate structure atop a false foundation -- the lie that is repeated so often that it becomes generally accepted as the incontrovertible truth -- serves as an apt metaphor for various political scenarios of our time. If any point can be taken from this book aside from the kinkiness of it all, it is perhaps that in 2011, nothing should really surprise us anymore.