I have to admit, I put off reading Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods because I was afraid of being disappointed. I didn’t think I’d dislike it, mind you—how could I, when Helen DeWitt wrote it?—but I thought it might be a letdown after the brilliance of The Last Samurai (see my head-over-heels endorsement here). Specifically, I thought (knowing from reviews that it was about anonymous sex in the workplace) that it might be a well-written piece of sexual surrealism like Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, and I wasn’t sure how many of those the world needed. But it turns out to be something entirely different, a scathing but increasingly funny satire of American culture, using sex as a convenient lever to pry the contraption open and see how it works. To half-quote Judge Woolsey’s decision in the famous Ulysses case, “nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac”—unless you’re turned on by great sentences. DeWitt’s ear for the rhythm and feel of the bland commercialized language of Homo americanus rivals those of S. J. Perelman and John Ashbery; in fact, opening Ashbery’s collection your name here at random, I find that the opening lines of “The Gods of Fairness” could have come straight out of Lightning Rods: “The failure to see God is not a problem/ God has a problem with. Sure, he could see us/ if he had a hankering to do so, but that’s/ not the point.” Here’s DeWitt (again, picked at random): “If you’re in sales you know that confidence creates confidence. If you can convey to the customer that you consider yourself to have a first-class product, nine times out of ten the customer will see the product that way too.” (Her use of italics, incidentally, is masterly.) It’s hard to convey the cumulative effect of her prose by quoting a sentence or two out of context, so let me quote a couple of paragraphs about “Renée (or Miss Perfect, as she was known in her family)”:
She crossed one leg over the other and looked down at her polished Gucci shoe. The leather was a dark chestnut, gleaming like oiled wood; her leg, in its filmy Hanes pantyhose, was two shades paler, and her cashmere dress was marron glacé. She had twelve other pairs of brown shoes in her closet because it’s important to get the shade exactly right when you are matching earth colors. Some people will wear a pair of tan shoes with an oatmeal dress, or chocolate brown shoes with a red dress; the only thing you can say is, if they’re going to go out looking like that, they’re probably better off not noticing. It’s some kind of consolation to think that most of the people around them won’t notice either.
If you actually care about how you look, on the other hand, you’ll take the trouble to get it right. Sometimes a dress needs matching accessories: sometimes a red dress needs red shoes and a red bag. At other times neutral accessories are called for. But just because something is neutral doesn’t mean it goes with everything, it’s important to get it right. Renée had dyed Italian leather sandals in magenta, coquelicot, chartreuse, peacock blue, lime green, lemon yellow, and frosted orange. She had suede loafers in lavender, lilac, ivory, cream, tangerine, royal blue, charcoal grey, and black. She had ankle boots in three shades of navy blue, four shades of brown, black suede, black leather, and black leather with black suede trim. In addition to the sixty other indispensable pairs of shoes she had a list of things that most people get wrong[...]
It’s hard to stop quoting, but hopefully you have a sense by now of whether this is for you. As with The Last Samurai, I can understand it if it’s not. But if you like the bits I’ve quoted, I think I can guarantee that you’ll like the book. The characters are nicely drawn, the repeated bits of business get funnier every time, and the plot ramifies satisfyingly. I just wish I didn’t have to wait so long between books; can’t some publisher out there make it easier for her to get them to her public? (I still don’t know, by the way, who sent me my copy, but they have my grateful blessings.)