Thursday, December 22, 2011

Shocking Product Placement

The last time I blogged about “lightning rods,” we were talking counterrevolutionary icons in Marie Antoinette’s France.  This is not that kind of lightning rod.

Helen DeWitt’s newest book has gotten juicy reviews, and with good reason.  Because this is a family-friendly blog, I’ll describe the plot as delicately as I can: a salesman tries selling Encyclopedia Britannica and Electrolux vacuum cleaners, and fails.  Then he tries selling something a little more risqué -- “Lightning Rods” -- to small companies, and viola: success!  As another reviewer has said, “let's just say it's about an innovative solution to a workplace challenge and that this innovation is controversial.”  It’s these risqué bits that have gotten Lightning Rods so much attention, and sure enough, the story is shocking and fun for those who enjoy that kind of thing.  But the joke’s on the reader, because these parts of the story are written in such a matter-of-fact, utilitarian way that they don’t ultimately satisfy in the way you might expect.  As the leading lady, Elaine, would say, “It’s a lot like going to the toilet.”

And that’s the point.  Lightning Rods is not really meant to titillate, but rather to satirize the absurdity of a corporate sales culture in which the weirdest things slide in the spirit of turning a profit.  The story follows the same arc as those nineteenth century American novels that have scrappy little shoeshine boys pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to make a living in the land of opportunity.  Sales!  Progress!  But, asks Lightning Rods, what happens when we stop talking about shoes and start talking about other, more morally ambiguous, stuff?  DeWitt especially shines when she deadpans about the techno-rational focus groups, test cases, and scientific studies (with baboons!) that we use to justify obviously terrible sales choices.  Lightning Rods is bawdy, yes, but more than that, it’s just hilarious.

Finally, Lawrence readers will appreciate DeWitt’s Kansas City vignette, in which the protagonist, Joe, travels to the Big K to open up his second office.  There he sees a dwarf on a bus reading John Foster Dulles (“JFD”), and has this epiphany about Kansas:

"Joe was wondering why it was that Kansas had never acquired a reputation for being strange. If somebody can go around calling John Foster Dulles JFD and nobody bats an eyelash you have to ask yourself what are the rest of them like?  And no sooner had he asked himself why word hadn't gotten out than the answer came to him, just like that. The reason nobody knew about it was that normal people never came to see what was going on. Not realizing what the state had to offer they went elsewhere for their kicks. People from out of state tended not only to be but to stay just that: out of state."

Lightning Rods is not DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, and it’s not Nicholson Baker’s classic erotic workplace novel Vox, but it is a pretty perfect little piece of corporate satire.  Recommended for anyone who needs a little break from office culture.

Rachel - Programs

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