Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review of Lightning Rods

Lightning Bolts is a strange book. If I hadn't read a bunch of Cesar Aira and Tao Lin this year it would easily be the strangest book I've read, but, well, that's how I roll. It can also be an uncomfortable book for a couple of different reasons. The premise is simple; down on his luck salesman Joe, taps into his own sexual fantasy to create a service based on providing top-performing heterosexual men with perfectly anonymous sex as an outlet for drives that are usually expressed by actions now considered sexual harassment. After all the usual struggles of a start up business, Joe's endeavor ends up being extremely successful. He even uses it as a springboard for a tangential business providing height adjustable toilets. And from the beginning to the absolute end, Joe believes he has made the world a better place.

It's easy to see why some people would be uncomfortable by the very premise of the book. Even my partner was skeeved out and she's read The Story of the Eye, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and (AND!) Justine. (Look those up.) Even with all precautions that Joe takes to create a situation where sex is no different than any other bodily function, a lot of readers are going to be uncomfortable at the very idea.

The discomfort is compounded by the narrative style. The entire book; conversations, trains of thought, descriptions of events, is written in what I like to think of as “corporate calculated casual;” the fake friendly buddy buddy diction of negotiations, conference presentations, and working lunches. The diction is not informal because the participants have a relationship; it is informal because a consultant at some point realized that an informal tone is more successful in making sales. Talking like a buddy with someone drops their negotiation barriers, because they feel like they're talking with a buddy. Throughout the book, Joe convinces people of his protect by agreeing with every one of their objections and concerns until he has swung them all the way around to agreeing with him. Though DeWitt (author of The Last Samurai) never confronts the idea directly, the style of the book is a satiric and vicious condemnation of the nature of our business.

But Joe is not without his points. And one that he makes presents a major metaphysical challenge. I'll paraphrase it. Imagine a man who was born with a high level of testosterone. Imagine further that he was raised in a patriarchal household where no respect is shown to women whatsoever. His father is a blatant and loud chauvinist. Depending on where he lives, he might not encounter a different world view in high school, and depending on where he goes to college (and perhaps even what he majors in) he might not encounter a different world view until he gets to the workplace, where his attitude constitutes a substantial liability to his employer. If we are expected to accommodate disabilities, and a man ends up an asshole through genetics and upbringing, why should accommodations not be made for him?

What we have here is a very touchy example of a basic question of free will. The question it asks is: what about us are we responsible for? If the chauvinist is never taught a different way of viewing the world, at what point do we hold him responsible for his chauvinism? If there are some actions that an individual must always be responsible for, what are they and how do we decide what they are? And DeWitt, to her credit, doesn't give us any help in answering the question.

DeWitt has written a book that's hard to enjoy. Through the content and the style she has posed challenges and questions that are uncomfortable to confront. After awhile, that networking style, becomes just as impersonal and alienating as the Lightning Rod system itself. But that doesn't mean this isn't a good book. I think there is something to impactful books that aren't enjoyable to read. To put it simply, sometimes life isn't enjoyable and so sometimes the books we read shouldn't be enjoyable either. I certainly wouldn't make those books the majority of anyone's reading, but I would suggest at least trying Lightning Rods. It's a cruel satire of a cruel system of being and the challenges it poses are real opportunities to learn something about ourselves.

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