BOOK REVIEW: Lightning Rods by Helen Dewitt

Lightning Rods is undeniably a great book in the sense that I read it in less than a day, rejecting all other activity until I’d finished it. I’m not like that with all books. The prose is lucid, uncomplicated, very readable and at times very funny. The concept that encases the more or less straightforward plot is so original and shocking that it prompted me to write this review; it really made me think.

The main character of the book is a down-on-his-luck salesman called Joe, who spends more time masturbating in his trailer than selling vacuum cleaners. At first he feels guilty to be spending his ‘working hours’ obsessing over detailed variations of a fantasy; wherein a woman is dressed and calm above the waist, but behind an obscuring wall her naked behind is getting screwed. Joe has an eureka moment and decides he can turn his strangely specific fantasy into a business plan: he packages it as a cure for sexual harassment and pent up testosterone in the corporate workplace, buys a posh suit and goes to work. With his incessant clichés and super-salesman spin, he eventually manages to persuade some women and a CEO that his perverse ‘Lightning Rod Installation’ is the future. This is how it works: after a ‘facility’ has been installed in the disabled staff toilets of an office, a male employee can go in and is presented with the naked lower half of a richly-compensated female colleague – only he has no idea who. He has sex with her from behind, unable to see her upper half or communicate with her, and goes back to work refreshed and relieved of sexual tension.

For a book about sex, the prose is surprisingly innocuous. In his salesman spiel, Joe talks about ‘an outlet for pent-up tension’ rather than pleasure, and he doesn’t go into details. The so called ‘sexual component’ provided by the Lightning Rod service is so stripped down of all the features normally present in sex, that only the bare animalistic core is left. It turns out that it’s actually not meant to be sexy. Joe packages it as a purely physical outlet for stress, tension, sexual urge and even frustration. He tells bosses that not only will it protect female employees from sexual harassment – since the men’s ‘needs’ are being seen to – it will also increase productivity because the men will be clear-headed and won’t be wasting their time watching porn! He also claims it protects men from the health, esteem and reputation risks involved in paying for commercial sex. The USP of the Lighting Rods service is that anonymity is assured. i.e. you don’t know who you’re screwing, so there’s no way anybody else is going to know!

Now I understand that this book has been described as a satire, a witty joke about how anything in America can be commercialised. On that criticism I agree but I have little comment of my own; the rampant sexism steaming from every page (other reviewers have hailed it as a clever joke about male sexuality).

Basically, the story is founded on several assumptions that I just naturally have to take issue with. First of all, Joe is labouring under the idea that not only are most men sex-obsessed, they are obsessed specifically with intercourse and nothing else matters. No character, male or female, challenges this view. Everyone just assumes the male workers will harass the female ones, as if it were a natural way to behave. Several times in the book the questionable statistic: ‘’the average man thinks about sex every five seconds’’ is quoted. I have a lot of trouble believing this. Sure, people in general tend to think of sex a lot, a few times a day perhaps, but every five seconds is ridiculous. The second big assumption is that women, categorically, do not want sex as much as men do. This was the bit I had the most trouble with. I see this as a very narrow-minded urban myth, and in reality it can often be the other way around; in many cases it is more or less equal. You can’t generalise. The premise that men are rough sperm-laden beasts while women are dainty creatures that would rather cuddle and only put up with sex in order to please their boyfriends is an old-fashioned stereotype that, quite frankly, makes me sick.

And so when Joe was making his fantasy a reality, I kept thinking: ‘’what about the women in the office that are frustrated and could do with a quick screw?” But no, it was a service for men only. Not that the women in the story actually wanted such a service; they all lived up to the cuddles-only-please stereotype. One lightning rod actually starts dating a colleague, and decides she isn’t ‘obligated’ to sleep with him because he’s getting his fix at work! The concept of her own desire or the romantic bonding that comes from actual sex is not mentioned.

Eventually, you get the clinical anonymous sexual experience of the Lightning Rod facility from the women’s point of view. I hoped some of them would enjoy it. None of them did. Some of the lightning rods were upset by the experience, which they were only doing because they needed the money, and Joe had to hire a councillor. Two of the ladies were unruffled, reading classics while the unpleasant procedure was taking place and using their earnings to go to law school. The consensus seemed to be: sometimes you have to do gross things if you want to get ahead in life.  I found this very sad, a continuation of the women-don’t-like-sex ideology. There were absolutely no cases of the woman feeling physical pleasure from the sex, nor getting off on the naughtiness of the situation. I suppose this was to be expected, in that the ladies were being paid double salaries for providing this ‘service’ along with their secretarial work. If it was meant to benefit both parties, neither would be paid. I suppose that’s what my issue with prostitution boils down to: the fact that you’re paid implies you wouldn’t be doing it if you weren’t, i.e. you’re not enjoying it. And the Lightning Rods service is only a stone’s throw away from straight-up prostitution, however much Joe would splutter with indignation at that comparison.

But you see, I’m a feminist, but I’m a very new wave kind of feminist. It wasn’t the fact that the lightning rods were basically selling access to their va-jay-jays to unknown co-workers that got me all worked up. I just wanted them to enjoy it.


By Tegan Tallullah 

The Verse Staff

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