Lightning Rods, By Helen DeWitt

Sex in the office gets new rules

The premise of Lightning Rods, when summarised, sounds nasty. Joe is a salesman. Failing to flog encyclopedias in Eureka, Missouri, or vacuum cleaners in Eureka, Florida, he spends his days masturbating to a fantasy of a woman being screwed while half her body is obscured by a wall. Then he has his own eureka moment: what if he marketed this as a solution to sexual harassment in the workplace?

His company installs "lightning rods": female office staff who, for a doubled salary, reveal their lower half through a hatch in the disabled loos, so that high-achieving, horny male employees can get sexual relief while preserving their anonymity. The result? Happier, healthier, productive workplaces.

Nasty idea; very funny book. Helen DeWitt, who had an international hit with The Last Samurai, maintains a strong, clear, narrative voice throughout, pitch-perfectly parodying management speak, corporate culture and self-help bibles. Her new book prompts proper snorts at deadpan insights, audacious plot developments or particularly well-captured jargon. DeWitt has a knack for showing how we justify anything – within a couple of pages she charts a character's journey from suspicion and distaste for the scheme to seemingly rational acceptance.

Witness Joe's worryingly plausible pitch: "A man who is producing results in today's competitive marketplace has a right to be protected from potential undesirable side effects of the physical constitution which enables him to make a valued contribution to the company." But Joe is no sinister schemer; arguably more creepily, he genuinely lives and breathes his sales spiel.

Lightning Rods will be labelled "controversial". There is no challenge to the premise that rods are necessary because men like anonymous, swift, regular sex and women like snuggling. The female perspective comes from only two success stories, who read Proust while their knickers are down and use the cash to go to Harvard law school. But DeWitt wasn't trying to write a critique of sexual politics in the modern workplace. This is a satire on the jargon of justification, and it is tightly written within its tight limits. Admittedly, this means it can feel like an exercise in how far you can run with one joke – but it's a joke delivered with masterful precision.

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