Lightning Rods

What was planned as a quick post on Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods has ended up taking me most of today. I finished reading this last week, found it compellingly, brilliantly strange and have subsequently read a couple of reviews. I don’t want to review it myself, because a number of these reviews are excellent and I’ll be referring to them below, and I don’t want to repeat the plot synopses that these do so well. I want to consider satire more broadly.

It’s an interesting thing, is satire. It’s typically highly normative. My Birkbeck colleague Joe Brooker has written very compellingly on this:

Normative satire requires that laws of right conduct be understood, not merely by the lone satirist, but by the work’s audience. It implies consensus around shared values, and implicit agreement that transgression of those values should be pointed out and punished at the level of representation […] The satirist seems to be on the side of change, of progress, or at least of correction. (Joseph Brooker, Satire Bust, 327)

This expands on Samuel Johnson’s definition of a satirical poem as ‘a poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.’ In the broadest sense, a satirical text identifies something wrong with the world and aims to correct the situation by poking it with a textual stick.

The idea of consensus should be qualified, though: it may well be the audience who require correcting. How many of us were as acutely aware of the level of shamelessness with which the famous would prostitute themselves to TV and charitable causes before Chris Morris’s Brass Eye? Morris provided ‘correction’, brought his viewers into line with his worldview by educating them about the absurdity of the situation. Did he stop the media or the famous from functioning in the way they do? Demonstrably not. Did he make his audience more aware of what was happening? Absolutely. (Compare to later attempts to do the same thing which certainly assume audience consensus).

In fact, I think it’s worth pushing this a bit further. Mikhael Bakhtin identified what he called ‘carnival laughter’, laughter of all the people, in the work of Rabelais. Carnival laughter is multiple and ambivalent. In this kind of satire no one is excluded from the mockery, and at the same time, different people might be getting different jokes.

A personal working example of this might be around Chris Morris’s Richard Geefe columns in The Observer in which he wrote as a young man who was documenting the countdown to a suicide attempt. I was outraged at these columns before I knew they were spoofs: what was The Observer doing hiring this twat? My colleague Joe McNally spotted thematic resonance with Morris’s work and outed him. McNally enjoyed those earlier columns more than I did. I was initially on the wrong side of the joke which functioned as a mockery of people who get wound up about newspaper columns just as much as it did a brilliantly convincing parody of confessional me-journalism. (It occurs that Jerry Sadowitz might be our greatest living practitioner of Bakhtinian humour, and I’d love to hear him respond to that accusation.)

Reviews of Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods have been illustrative of the complicated functioning of satire. For Jenny Turner it’s a ‘satire on office politics, sexual politics, American politics, and the art of positive thinking, culminating with a sad, dry attack on the very basis of constitutional democracy.’ That’s pretty multivalent. John Self writes: ‘Lightning Rods is a book about one thing which pretends to be about another thing. What it is really about is language, but it disguises all this in a satire of sexual politics.’ Garth Risk Hallberg goes for ambivalence: there are two kinds of satire, he argues, a loose form and a strict form. Lightning Rods is an exemplar of the latter, ‘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.’

Turner’s is the most Bakhtinian reading: everything within the scope of the novel is satirized, its carnival encompasses its world. Self hones in on just one of Turner’s objects, to consider it a satire of sexual politics that is ‘really’ about language. The novel’s position on sexual politics is indeed highly normative, assuming a consensus opposition to prostitution and weedle-words used to justify it. I think this might be better termed the ‘manifest’ object of the novel’s satire and I wonder if we mightn’t prod at that a little harder to reveal its ‘latent’ object. Language is certainly a concern of the novel, and many reviewers have praised its highly accomplished voice, a pastiche of self-help-derived, corporate sales schpiel and good-old, down-home values to produce something both very funny and capable of carrying off a single-minded logic.

Hallberg’s analysis is very interesting because while I’d dispute the need to narrow contemporary satire to just two types, it usefully identifies something very important: that the satirical text is a form of model, employing a kind of logic that indicates correlation between its fantasy and a real world scenario to make its case. In other words, satire is a form of analogy. Think of Swift’s mirror: the satirical text reflects the world back to itself in a warped version that highlights absurdity. It is appropriate that it should follow logical premises. Satire is structurally logical. In the case of Lightning Rods there is a formal match with content. This text is entirely monological: it is the single-minded extension of a fantastic premise – a premise literally taken from a fantasy – carried for the duration of a novel. Its language serves that logic: the ‘deadpan coolness’ of the ‘masking language’ in John Self’s description is a function of a fantasy logic that can overcome all obstacles. If a novel can indeed be about any one thing, this novel is about a form of logic.

While reading Lightning Rods I was several times troubled by a couple of nagging doubts: this is very funny, but why extend this fantastic scenario so far? Isn’t it too thin? And: am I laughing at myself here?

On completing Lightning Rods I was both certain that the logic had been extended so far for a very good reason – a reason well beyond reductio ad absurdum, because what need to render absurd an already absurd premise? – and certain that I had been laughing at myself. Two moments in the narrative clarified things for me.

In each of these moments it seemed certain that the monological continuation of (just another Regular) Joe’s fantasy would be derailed. In each of these moments this logic was, completely implausibly, not derailed. On several locations in the narrative alternate logics came into contact with that of the narrator and each was subsumed into his logic in implausible fashion but these two moments specifically stood out for me as markers in the sand. They reminded me a bit of Zadie Smith’s account of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, in which she noted the scene when Remainder’s narrator describes inviting a homeless man in to a restaurant to have lunch with him before declaring this obviously a fantasy: ‘There wasn’t any table. The truth is, I’ve been making all this up—the stuff about the homeless person. He existed all right, sitting camouflaged against the shop fronts and the dustbins—but I didn’t go across to him.’ In Remainder’s logic, a small irruption of reality into the fantastic fabric of the fiction; a tear, rent or ruck in the surface of mimesis. Smith described this as McCarthy insisting: ‘Satisfied? Can I write this novel my way now?’

In Lightning Rods there is inversion of this gesture to similar ends. DeWitt allows plausible reality just close enough to the narrative to let you sense how tenuous the fantasy is before subsuming it back into the implausible. In the first of these scenes Joe is door-stopped by an FBI investigator who has discovered the extent of the Lightning Rod network and how illegal it is. Rather than prosecuting him for innumerable violations of federal laws, the federal government takes up the Lightning Rods system as a means of controlling and protecting important individuals. Have I mentioned that this is highly implausible? Instead of derailing it, this episode reasserts the narrator’s fantasy – we remain within his fantasy. It also, importantly, I think, indicates that the state has taken up the logic of the fantasy with a slightly variant agenda.

In the second scene the narrator invites Lucille back to his apartment to discuss changes to the Lightning Rod business and how to deal with competitors. Lucile, it should be noted, is the focus of Joe’s germinal fantasy incarnate: an unflappable and business-like pneumatic blonde with a taste for bubblegum pink clothing. In this scene, domestic reality threatens to intrude: Joe’s dog is bouncing around and Lucille likes it; she also falls for his set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and they are surely about to get together… but no, instead they return to discussing Lightning Rods and Lucille voices a machine-tooled version of Joe’s masculinist logic. This incident blocks off the other side: the logic of romantic fantasy is excluded; the love scene is denied. There is only one form of logic in this text: Joe’s logic; the logic of the sale.

This is pretty much the structure of the novel: encounter opposition to fantasy logic, overcome opposition, move on. Every oppositional encounter is incorporated into the body of the fantasy as the all-accommodating fantasy extends its logic. The distracting toilet is overcome by the construction of a lowering mechanism; identifying skin colour and a racial equality suit are overcome by the implementation of PVC tights; the oppositions of Christian clients are overcome by sales patter.

What we end with is at root a male sexual fantasy predicated upon a resolutely male logic – that the male requires sexual relief in order to be usefully productive – that is developed single-mindedly and incorporates within it every opposition it encounters. Along the way, there are surprising benefits for the disabled, considerations of racial equality – but only as by-products of a warped fantasy of male sexual release.

It’s now 28 years since Fredric Jameson declared parody no longer possible: empty pastiche is all that we’re capable of, he argued, in late capitalist cultural production. I think that one way we might read Lightning Rods is as a response to free-market capitalism. Joe is a salesman. This is a novel about the sale of a system, a system that is expanded throughout the novel through a relentless monotone logic of incorporation that encounters every opposition as an opportunity to extend its logic – the kind of logic that would give us credit default swaps and obscure and baroque products developed as a response to an opportunity not to do anything other than extend the system? Such a reading would associate late venture capitalism with a male sexual fantasy implausibly extended throughout every aspect of life, supported and corroborated by numerous women along the way and adopted by the state but still, at root, a tawdry masturbatory fantasy. I’m quite happy to suggest this as the ‘latent’ object of the text’s satire.

On several occasions there is a suggestion that something went wrong with the Lightning Rods business, but it never actually does: there is no end to Lightning Rods within the novel’s world. Why on earth sustain a tawdry jazz-mag fantasy, implausibly propped up with sales patter, for 280-pages? Because it has to be sustained, we’re still in it. We can’t veer off into romance, or into realism. This fantasy is here to stay. Satire is a form structurally suited to critiquing the monological but to overcome Jameson’s problem, in order to retain its bite, it must locate itself logically parallel to the system, but outside; must be analogue. If there’s a norm to be assumed here, it’s a norm none of us are sharing in.

We’re definitely laughing at ourselves.

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