Like her contemporaries Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, Helen DeWitt went much of the last decade without publishing a novel, and in a just world, her new book, Lightning Rods, would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month. I’m picturing editors from glossy magazines knife-fighting in alleys for a chance to feature DeWitt on the cover… Times Square billboards of DeWitt traversing some rustic byway, vest saucily aflap… A giant inflatable Helen DeWitt looming over the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, nodding down at rapt throngs of skinny-jeaned teens…
Then again, a world more hospitable to minds like DeWitt’s would likely deprive her of the frustrations that give her writing its unique moral intensity. Her first novel, The Last Samurai (2000), was among other things a look at the fate of the imagination in a fin-de-siecle culture consecrated to the superficial, the gaseous, and the ephemeral. Your Name Here (2007), her unpublished and more or less unsummarizable follow-up, hinges on an exiled writer named “Helen DeWitt” and her struggles to wrest art from the lunacy of post-9/11 life.
At first blush, Lightning Rods looks like a departure. The Last Samurai fits into an erudite subgenre called the “anatomy” – the novel that wants to swallow the whole world. (This may be part of what the critic Marco Roth had in mind when he called DeWitt “Twenty-First-Century America’s finest Seventeenth-Century novelist.”) Lightning Rods, by contrast, is a tapered, tailored 280 pages. It confines itself largely to the willfully beige environs of the contemporary American office park. Moreover, it is a comedy. By this I mean not so much “a book with jokes in it” as that rarer thing, the laughing-so-hard-other-people-on-the-subway-are-starting-to-wonder-if-you-require-psychiatric-attention book. But fear not, Samurai lovers; DeWitt’s moral vision remains as sharp as ever. Which is to say, Lightning Rods belongs to another venerable literary tradition: the satire.
Satire’s a lot like haiku, or Marxism: there’s the loose version and there’s the strict version. In recent decades, American writers, being American writers, have preferred the former. You pick a subject, usually institutional (politics, the university, the news media), and you attack it with as many comic exaggerations and caustic jokes as possible. This technique has yielded some good novels, but it’s formally a fair piece from the canonical satire of, say, Jonathan Swift. This latter is an art of constraint, rather than of license. Its genius is to invent a single premise – the proposal of “A Modest Proposal,” the catch of Catch-22 – and to follow it without flinching to the most absurd ends. The excitement comes from watching the writer chain himself to the implacable machinery of his own logic. And as DeWitt’s idiosyncratic intellect has always gravitated toward the gap between messy reality and the logical Ideal, it’s no surprise to find her choosing the narrower path, and succeeding brilliantly.
The protagonist of Lightning Rods is a guy named Joe, whose surname, never given, might as well be Schmoe. He’s a particular sort of American Everyguy – a hapless door-to-door salesman who at age 33 has sacrificed the possibility of emotional or spiritual fulfillment on the altar of the most conventional sort of material success. Or, more accurately, has lost any ability to distinguish between the two. By day, Joe travels around failing to sell encyclopedias, and later vacuum cleaners. By night, he concocts baroque masturbation fantasies that fail to assuage his sense of failure. He should be out selling right now, he thinks. He should be a different and better person. “Which just goes to show,” DeWitt writes,
how blinkered we can be by our preconceptions. Because little though he knew it, it was the hours he spent trying to sell vacuum cleaners that were the waste of time, something he would remember with shame and self-loathing for the rest of his life. His well-meant efforts to develop an efficient masturbatory program, likewise, were completely misconceived. What he didn’t realize is that a genius is different from other people. A genius doesn’t waste time like other people. Even when he looks like he is wasting time he may in fact be making the most productive possible use of the time.
Joe’s particular insight is to take his favorite masturbation fantasy and not only bring it to life but monetize it. I wouldn’t want to spoil for you the pleasure of discovering that fantasy yourself. Nor would I want to give away exactly how – with the help of a future Supreme Court justice, an adjustable-height toilet, several pairs of PVC undergarments, and a dwarf named Ian – Joe manages to realize it. Suffice it to say, the genius is in the details. And, speaking of details, look again at the passage above. Notice the double entendre of “a genius doesn’t waste time like other people,” and the sly redundancy (i.e., time-waste) of the sentence that follows. Joe’s target demographic – office worker – gives DeWitt a chance to luxuriate in the eloquent dumbness of the corporate idiom. Her delight in nuggets like “orientated” and “product feature” and “bifunctionality” (and, come to think of it, “corporate culture”) is evident in every deceptively artless sentence.
She never condescends to her characters, however; like George Saunders, that other poet laureate of the management handbook, she’s too damn curious about the way they think. “In an ideal world,” Joe muses, in another typical moment,
he would obviously have wanted to spend more time making sure no one was doing anything she didn’t feel comfortable with. Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal, sustainable client development was absolutely vital to the success of the business, and it was up to him to single-handedly pursue that goal for all their sakes.
We are too close to Joe’s thoughts here to comfortably condemn them, or even to be sure where they end and DeWitt’s begin. “Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal”: is that a banality contaminated by truth, or a truth contaminated by banality? And make no mistake about it: Joe is after truth, to exactly the extent that he’s able to frame the concept. He is a strangely moving figure, a devoted pilgrim in a world whose prophetic tradition consists of Dale Carnegie, George Gilder, and Napoleon Hill.
According to the publisher’s flap copy, Lightning Rods “take[s] on the complex issues surrounding sexual tension in the workplace.” To my ear, this betrays a questionable sense of salesmanship. I keep hearing a snatch from an old Monty Python routine: “Tonight on Who Cares: Sexual Tension in the Workplace.” (I would have gone with Remainder meets House of Holes, by way of Then We Came to the End.) More importantly, though, it’s a classic case of the slipperiness of satire. Lightning Rods is no more “about” sexual tension in the workplace than A Tale of a Tub is about the tub. But if Joe’s “Lightning Rods” are the vehicle, what is the tenor? What, exactly, is being skewered? By the end of the book, the answer, wonderfully, seems to be “everything”: bureaucracy, sexual politics, the objectification of the female body, the sanctification of same, political correctness, political incorrectness, etiquette, boorishness, ambition, laziness, late capitalism, and even logic itself. DeWitt brings to satire what Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 brought to the detective story: purity of means, ineffability of ends. This is not to say that Lightning Rods shares that novel’s epic sweep. It is, by design, a minor work. (DeWitt says she began writing it, and several other books, in 1998, “to pave the way for” The Last Samurai) But it so emphatically aces the tasks it sets for itself, and delivers such a jolt of pleasure along the way, that it reminds me of just how major a minor work can be. I wish the other leading American novelists would produce more books in this vein. Come to think of it, I wish Helen DeWitt would, too. At any rate, as one of her endearingly flummoxed characters might say, I literally cannot wait to see what she does next.
Image credit: New Directions
Unwholesomely, my “office” is the campus studio apartment where I also eat and sleep, and there are more days than I’d like when I don’t leave it at all. Today was such a day – and for all my self-cloistering, it was a day of little progress on my wretched heap of dissertation. And this reminds me of a passage from Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub:Whatever Reader desires to have a thorow Comprehension of an Author’s Thoughts, cannot take a better Method, than by putting himself into the Circumstances and Postures of Life, that the Writer was in, upon every important Passage as it flow’d from his Pen; For this will introduce a Parity and strict Correspondence of Idea’s between the Reader and the Author. Now, to assist the diligent Reader in so delicate an Affair, as far as brevity will permit, I have recollected, that the shrewdest Pieces of this Treatise, were conceived in Bed, in a Garret: At other times (for a Reason best known to my self) I thought fit to sharpen my Invention with Hunger; and in general, the whole Work was begun, continued, and ended, under a long Course of Physick, and a great want of Money.I offer this miscellany of shards from my lost day:Coyahoga: Not just a nonsense word made up by R.E.M. (Buckeyes are laughing at me): it is the Iroquois name of a winding Ohio river that feeds into Lake Erie and had a nasty habit of catching on fire in the first half of the twentieth century (a fact that seems to have been a spur to the environmentalist movement).The iTunes Essentials 1989: Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”. White Lion’s “When the Children Cry”. Oh, and more (Martika – Roxette – Phil Collins). Quite the walk down memory lane for those who remember the San Francisco Earthquake interrupting the World Series at Candlestick Park, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Berlin Wall coming down.Hillsborough disaster: Another from 1989, but across the pond: 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough stadium during an FA cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Investigations of the incident have never fully explained how the crush happened. I’ve been watching the British crime drama “Cracker”, starring Robbie Coltrain (the actor who plays Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies) and Christopher Eccleston, and one of its episodes was almost impossible to follow without background on Hillsborough.The death of Orpheus: Considered by the ancients the first among poets and musicians, Orpheus was said to charm beasts and fish with his song, and even to make rocks and trees dance. With his music he could restore Edenic harmony to the natural world, and through the Renaissance he was a sort culture hero – a benevolent, civilizing influence – a mythic bringer of tranquility and joy. After the death of his wife Eurydice, Orpheus took a vow of chastity. The Maenads, a group of women votaries of Bacchus, saw Orpheus and, taken with his beauty, wanted him to join in their Bacchanalian orgies. Orpheus refused and they tore him limb from limb. His head washed up on the shores of Lesbos, and so the people of that island were said to be endowed with the gift of song. (There’s a great John William Waterhouse painting of two nymphs finding Orpheus’ head.) Swift refers to this death by dismemberment in The Tale, and Milton, in “Lycidas“, describes Orpheus as he,Whom Universal nature did lament, [ 60 ]When by the rout that made the hideous roar,His goary visage down the stream was sent,Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.Such are the disastrous fragments of my day.
How to describe Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave: It is one of those books – like The Anatomy of Melancholy, The Compleat Angler, Minima Moralia, A Tale of a Tub, Urne Buriall – that defies all conventions of genre and, thereby, easy description. Though I have concerned myself much with the academic question of what it means to defy genre classification, I have no easy or convincing answer. By my reckoning, genreless literary works take into themselves aspects of various different disciplines (aesthetic criticism, philosophy, memoir and recollection, in the case of The Unquiet Grave) or genres (Moby-Dick is part “straight” narrative, part allegory, part encyclopedia (the Cetology chapter), part common-place book (the extended collection of quotations concerning whales at the beginning), part drama (the chapters that are laid out like acts in a play, complete with stage directions), part impressionistic quasi-philosophic meditation (“The Masthead” and “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapters)).The difference between a book like Moby-Dick and a book like The Unquiet Grave, is that Melville’s book has a master genre (it is still, at the end of the day, in spite of all of its formal experimentation, unquestionably a novel), whereas Connolly’s book, along the lines of Burton’s Anatomy, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall – is, as a reading experience, something more akin to being submerged in the psyche and/or intellect of its author. These books are odd mixes of opinion, quotation, recollection, personal philosophy, and meditation, and all have – some more than others – a fragmentary or aphoristic style of composition that can at times verge on the hallucinatory. And perhaps ‘hallucinatory’ is the wrong word – the sensation that the reading of Connolly’s book induces is (and here I speculate) something more like being possessed for a while by the thoughts, the thought-patterns, rhythms, and favorite authors of someone else. The closest approximation of this sensation that I have found elsewhere is in the reading of private notebooks and unbound papers: Here, a fragmentary transcription of a conversation at a party; there, a formal letter to a parent; there, again, a diaristic meditation on the fear of marriage. All is produced of the same brain, in the same hand, and this common origin is the sole tie that binds the disparate sheaf.And yet, however similar the sensation of rifling through an author’s private papers may at times be to the reading of a book like The Unquiet Grave, a crucial difference remains: A book like Connolly’s performs what manuscript papers actually do. Connolly and his ilk turn the casual essay-istic style of the notebook into art. They refine, polish, and uplift the fragmentary, meandering private style: They make it palatable, even beautiful. Private writing, when it is really and truly private, is not necessarily charmingly haphazard: Almost inevitably, it slips into the unendurably dull, the defeatingly self-obsessed, the clumsy, sloppy, and rough. It is hard going. There are occasional pleasures to be had, gems of wit and observation here and there, to be sure, but these are the exception and not the rule.The beauty, the strange beauty, of The Unquiet Grave and its cousins lies in its elevation of notebook style – that quirky yet potentially enchanting melange of squib, meditation, quotation, anecdote, and philosophical monologue – to high art. The casual, associative meandering that stands in place of traditional chronology- and logic-driven narrative techniques creates the illusion that what we read was actually just dashed off casually in snatches of free time, while the quality of the thought, and the quality of the prose belies this informal, nonchalance of organization.Below are a few choice excerpts from The Unquiet Grave, by Palinurus (Connolly’s authorial pseudonym for this “experiment in self-dismantling”; the pilot of Aeneas’ boat who fell asleep at the rudder, fell into the sea, and was drowned; Palinurus was a sacrifice taken by Neptune; he died – though he didn’t know it – so the rest could arrive safely at Avernus).In their variety and strangeness, these passages (I hope) will give something of an introduction to the book:”Cowardice in living: without health and courage we cannot face the present or the germ of the future in the present, and we take refuge in evasion. Evasion through comfort, through society, through acquisitiveness, through the book-bed-bath defense system, above all through the past, the flight to the romantic womb of history, into primitive myth-making. The refusal to include the great mass-movements of the twentieth century in our art or our myth will drive us to take refuge in the past; in surrealism, magic, primitive religions, or eighteenth-century wonderlands. We fly to Mediterranean womb-pockets and dream-islands, into dead controversies and ancient hermetic bric-a-brac, like a child who sits hugging his toys and who screams with rage when told to put on his boots.””The Vegetable Conspiracy: Man is now on his guard against insect parasites; against liver-flukes, termites, Colorado beetles, but has he given thought to the possibility that he has been selected as the target of vegetable attack, marked down by the vine, hop, juniper, and tobacco plant, tea-leaf and coffee-berry for destruction? What converts these Jesuits of the gastric juices make, – and how cleverly they retain them. Which smoker considers the menace of the weed spreading in his garden, which drunkard reads the warning of the ivy round the oak?”From a brief set of descriptions of pets entitled “Graves of the Lemurs”:”Polyp. Most gifted of lemurs, who hated aeroplanes in the sky, on the screen, and even on the wireless. How he would have hated this war! He could play in the snow or swim in a river or conduct himself in a night-club; he judged human beings by their voices; biting some, purring over others, while for one or two well-seasoned old ladies he would brandish a black prickle-studded penis, shaped like a eucalyptus seed. Using his tail as an aerial, he would lollop through long grass to welcome his owners, embracing them with little cries and offering them a lustration from his purple tongue and currycomb teeth. His manners were of some spoiled young Maharajah, his intelligence not inferior, his heart all delicacy, – women, gin and muscats were his only weaknesses. Alas, he died of pneumonia while we scolded him for coughing, and with him vanished the sea-purple cicada kingdom of calanque and stone-pine and the concept of life as an arrogant private dream shared by two.””When once we have discovered how pain and suffering diminish the personality, and how joy alone increases it, then the morbid attraction which is felt for evil, pain, and abnormality will have lost its power. Why do we reward our men of genius, our suicides, our madmen, and the generally maladjusted with the melancholy honours of a posthumous curiosity? Because we know that it is our society which has condemned these men to death, and which is guilty because out of its own ignorance and malformation it has persecuted those who were potential saviours; smiters of the rock who might have touched the spring of healing and brought us back into harmony with ourselves.Somehow, then, and without going mad, we must learn from these madmen to reconcile fanaticism with serenity. Each one, taken alone, is disastrous, yet except through the integration of these two opposites there is no great art and no profound happiness – and what else is worth having? For nothing can be accomplished without fanaticism, and without serenity nothing can be enjoyed. Perfection of form or increase of knowledge, pursuit of fame or service to the community, love of God or god of Love, – we must select the Illusion which appeals to our temperament, and embrace it with passion, if we want to be happy. This is the farewell autumn precept with which Palinurus takes leave of his fast-fading nightmare.”