Let’s say you’re the C.E.O. of a company, and your company has a problem with sexual harassment. Men are getting handsy with their female co-workers, groping and pinching and squeezing and dropping MM’s into their blouse pockets to have an excuse to reach in there and fish them out. Maybe it would be one thing if the guys doing this sort of thing were low on the totem pole; you could slap them on the wrist, give them a warning, call it a day. But some of the worst offenders are the company’s highest earners; you should know, because you’re the worst offender of all, and you’re not about to slap your own wrist. The whole situation is a ticking time bomb. But what if there were a way to fix things not by eliminating sex from the workplace but by encouraging it, incorporating it into the very fibres of office culture?
This is the premise of “Lightning Rods,” Helen DeWitt’s merrily demented satire of the obtuse sexual politics of American corporate culture. When I first read it, shortly after it was published, in 2011, I found it brazen, outrageous, and—the key to good satire—just plausible enough to give it the bite of truth. It made me cringe; it made me blush; but mainly it made me laugh. I recommended the book to many people, men and women, and found that, on balance, the women laughed more than they cringed, and the men cringed more than they laughed. (This is not a book in which men, as a group, come off looking too good.) This week, I read “Lightning Rods” again, and was struck by the degree to which it seems, in our post-Harvey Weinstein world, where each day brings new revelations of egregious male misbehavior, like a work of credible realism.
The novel’s protagonist is Joe, a thirty-three-year-old Electrolux salesman down on his luck. Joe is not good at selling vacuum cleaners; mainly, he stays in his trailer and masturbates to precise fantasies that involve a woman, clothed from the waist up, naked from the waist down, leaning out of a window, brightly carrying on a conversation with the neighbor or whomever as a man eagerly engages her from behind. One day, Joe has a brainwave:
You can sell people just about anything if you can convince them it’s
a substitute for sex. The only thing you can’t sell is the actual
thing itself. That is, obviously people sell it, but you can’t sell it
Well, just look at how much time people waste because they can’t get
it without shame! Look how much time people waste in conversations,
asking people about their interests. Look how much time people waste
fantasizing. And just look at the risks people take! Because he had
read about a case where a man had harassed a woman by dropping MM’s
in the pocket of her blouse and getting them out, and his firm had to
pay her a million dollars. Or it might have been more.
Well, if people are willing to take those kinds of risks you know
there’s got to be money in it. And if people are going to do things
that put their company in that kind of risk there’s got to be money in
it. Plus, if you could give people a way to get it out of their system
they would be a whole lot more productive. They’d be happier about
themselves. Because there had to be a lot of guys like himself, guys
who didn’t want to be spending the amount of time they were spending
thinking about sex, guys who given the chance would rather get it out
of their system and concentrate their energies on achieving their
Thus is born the scheme that, after some tinkering and testing, makes Joe a very rich man and a corporate pioneer. He persuades companies to install a shelf that slides between the men’s and the women’s bathrooms, and to hire women who, in addition to performing normal secretarial tasks, will agree, for a higher salary, to lie prone on that shelf whenever a male employee is in need of servicing. The men do not know which of their female co-workers are doubling as “lightning rods”; the women do not know which men’s “shocks” they are absorbing. Everything is anonymous and consensual. Harassment goes way down; productivity goes way up. Of course, there are some problems. Women complain that they’ve been slapped on the tush. Joe tries to refuse to hire a black woman—because she would be the only nonwhite lightning rod, her anonymity would be shot—who promptly invokes the Equal Employment Opportunities Act. Joe devises a mandatory uniform of PVC leggings: problem solved.
All of this is outlandish, grotesque, absurd. But is it any more outlandish than a powerful movie producer preying on seemingly every promising young actress in the business for decades; or a powerful tech C.E.O. known for his piggish ways deciding to meditate in his company’s lactation room; or a powerful magazine publisher desperately demanding sex from a young employee and retaliating against her when refused; or a powerful magazine editor kissing female colleagues on the mouth in plain view of their co-workers; or a powerful TV host paying a thirty-two-million-dollar harassment settlement; or a powerful journalist who covered the Presidential campaigns of this country’s most prominent female politician inviting women into his office so that he could grab their breasts and rub his penis against their shoulders?
When Joan Acocella reviewed “Lightning Rods” in this magazine, she pointed out that one of the main targets of DeWitt’s satire is “the oily, sophistic reasoning” that is so often used to justify and dismiss egregious offenses against women in the workplace. “You have to deal with people the way they are, not the way you’d like them to be,” Joe thinks, in the upbeat corporate lingo that the novel brightly skewers. One wonders if Arianna Huffington said something similar when, as Maureen Dowd reported in the Times last week, she suggested that Travis Kalanick solve the culture of harassment that he had cultivated at Uber by getting better sleep and meditating. (In fairness, not even Huffington could have foreseen the lactation-room twist.) This is the dark joke at the heart of DeWitt’s novel: the way that corporations, film-production companies, publishing houses, you name it, contort themselves to excuse or cover up their prominent male employees’ noxious behavior because, until now, it has been far easier than actually trying to correct the problem. That joke is starting, at last, to seem a hell of a lot less funny. But DeWitt’s novel will still make you laugh until you cry.