Helen DeWitt's 2000 debut novel, "The Last Samurai," is a book that creates fanatics, yet it has never enjoyed more than a cult following. Characterized by a nimble intellect and hyper-verbosity, the book tells the story of Ludo, a boy genius and polymath who sets out to discover and confront his missing father. The fundamental humanity emerging from under "Samurai"'s prickly academese gives DeWitt's first novel a memorable, deeply affective warmth.
"Lightning Rods" (New Directions, 192 pages, $24.95), DeWitt's second effort, could hardly have a different feel. Here, the reader finds Joe, a would-be Electrolux salesman who's foiled by Hurricane Edna (which created a need for industrial-strength vacuums) and the previous regional salesman (who saturated the market). Joe has what might be termed an especially vivid erotic fantasy life -- whether this is the result of or the cause of professional malaise is unexamined -- and one day, he is struck with the idea of manufacturing and monetizing a certain daydream of his involving the lower halves of anonymous women. Joe parlays this idea into a scheme that effectively legalizes prostitution within corporate America, eliminating "the specter of sexual harassment from the modern office."
"Lightning Rods" has surprisingly little conflict, given this powder keg of a plot. Once established, Joe's business model is never confronted with a serious impediment to its development. The occasional imminently surmountable roadblock does appear: At one point, there are rumblings from the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission; at another, cut-rate competitors emerge. Yet Joe manages to worm his way out of each of these potential pitfalls with a well-timed new idea or modification, and he often arrives at these epiphanies with negligible anxiety or doubt. The book has a picaresque (but often hollow) feel, as a result.
"Samurai"'s multilingual high jinks are absent in "Lightning Rods," which favors a blend of intentional cliché, direct reader address and a flawless imitation of empty "corporate-speak." This tone is remarkable in its seamlessness and verve, carrying forward DeWitt's flat, textbook satire without falter. This satire is one without a straight man or voice of reason, either -- rather than being repelled by the madness that surrounds him, Joe is the engineer of it. A certain type of reader will find this deadpan cycle of profitability very funny: corporations increase production; sex workers put themselves through Harvard Law; Joe collects the dividends. The other shoe never drops.
In this lack of commentary, more than any other book in recent memory, "Lightning Rods" presents an unsettling critique of opportunism and American business culture. There is none of the gentleness of a book like "Then We Came to the End" here, however; "Lightning Rods" is incisive and pointed. It's consistently brilliant where "Samurai" is not, but markedly less joyful.
- S.J. Culver is a fiction writer living in California and Texas.