A Conversation With Novelist Helen DeWitt

A friend of mine describes herself as a member of “the secret cult of the Samurai”: those who came across copies of Helen DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai (2000) and fell in love with it and went on to buy countless copies to press into the hands of people they knew would feel the same way. I can’t even remember my first encounter with the book, it so immediately became a part of my interior landscape: The Last Samurai sits alongside Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows and James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head in my mental grouping of books that depict the simultaneous richness and dreadfulness of the lives of individuals in families (and in the world) in a rare fashion that speaks directly to my own subjective experience of such things.

Her new novel Lighting Rods (New Directions, 2011) was written before The Last Samurai was published, but has taken a roundabout path to publication. It’s an altogether different piece of writing: a sharp satirical fable that provides strong supporting evidence in favor of the proposition, as Marco Roth once put it to me, that DeWitt is 21st-century America’s best 18th-century novelist.

JENNY DAVIDSON: Here’s one sentence that caught my eye early on, as your protagonist Joe’s first trial of his sexual-release program for high-performing employees leads him to tweak the product he’s offering: “It meant another head-to-head with Beginning Programming for Dummies, but the thing that separates the sheep from the goats is the willingness to go that extra mile.”

This wild mixing of metaphors is wonderfully characteristic of a certain kind of management self-help book. (I remember watching an episode of “The Apprentice” once and being perplexed as to why all of the would-be apprentices so frequently used the expression “step up,” as in “step up to the plate”—would so-and-so “step up”? So-and-so really “stepped up” in that challenge.) Did you read any books of this ilk as you began working on Lightning Rods, and if so, which are your favorites?

HELEN DEWITT: I didn’t read any, as far as I can remember, when I was working on the book. I’d come across people who were salesmen, or were trying to be, over the years. I once knew a student from Yale who was working on Russian and Chinese, spent a summer in Provincetown as an Electrolux rep; I worked in the office of an Allstate insurance salesman for a while; my mother used to be a real estate agent…

The thing that struck me was that selling was always bound up with some kind of theory of human nature, with helping people to recognize and act on a gap between their conception of themselves and what they were actually doing. Or, sometimes, helping them to formulate a new conception of themselves which involved commitment to a product—a vacuum cleaner, life insurance, a house. With this went the seller’s image of his or her place in some larger system—so my mother, for instance, would comment that buying a house, for many people, was the single most important financial decision they would make, one that gave ordinary people a chance to acquire capital, one that was in effect a mechanism to enforce the discipline of savings. (I thought you were just buying a place to live.)

I would then find books on their shelves which were a mixture of motivational literature, sociology and practical advice (there would be scripts, scenes); the mixed metaphors you mention seemed to be flung out not because they were coherent, but because certain formulaic phrases, regardless of application, had a sort of Pavlovian effect. (“Touch base” came up a lot, often in a way that was wholly divorced from the original meaning of the term: “I was impressed by the number of bases he thought to touch,” as though a baseball player could go the extra mile by deciding to touch fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh bases, or maybe even an extra ten, rather than settling for the conventional three before unimaginatively heading for home.)

The novel’s title sounds quite abstract at first, but it turns out that though it’s a metaphor, it’s a quite literal metaphor, if you know what I’m saying: it’s absolutely central to the theme of the book (it describes the book!) in a way that is surprising and appealing. Joe is convinced that providing sexual release to high-performing male office workers will let them siphon off their hostility and “insulate their negative emotions, instead of directing their aggression and hostility at their colleagues.” Did you know this was the title early on, or was it a late discovery?

I think I knew that had to be the title as soon as he came up with the idea, so more or less immediately.

You and I both spent a good deal of time, in earlier years, working in a secretarial support capacity. What did you learn from those years of typing and temping?

All kinds of things that have turned out to be a severe handicap to me as a professional writer. If you have a job that requires a lot of typing you end up getting a lot of practice; your speed builds up over the years, to the point where you can type faster than you think (at least if you are working out something complicated). This is fine for the actual writing of a book, or taking notes from a text, or blogging, but it is not so good for dealing with people in the industry. The temptation is to do business by email, and in particular to address complex subjects by writing long, complex emails. (It SEEMS to make sense because then everything is in writing, and both parties can go back and confirm what was said.)

This works if the person you write to is also a competent typist, someone similarly maddened by the constraints of a Blackberry or cell phone, someone who prefers to dash off 1,000-word emails in ten minutes on a full keyboard, on a (at a minimum) laptop with full screen on which your 1,000-word emails can be read rapidly in big blocks of screen space. Someone who will naturally interpolate replies to a series of questions into the text, permitting you to do the same in response.

If you are dealing with someone who thinks it worth typing ‘tmrw’ rather than tomorrow, someone who writes (and reads) emails by Blackberry, someone who gets many emails in the course of a day, the flood of text is likely to drive them mad. It’s better with this sort of person to keep emails to the length of a Tweet and do most business by phone. I didn’t know.

Equally disastrously, if you work as a secretary you internalize a simple hierarchical picture of the business world. Your academic qualifications are irrelevant; what counts is the place you occupy in the hierarchy. Occupying this position, you perform various tasks upon request. You don’t argue; you don’t explain that the task would best be performed by the person who made the request; you don’t put the task aside and explain, if asked, that it does not need to be done for another couple of months; you don’t put the task aside and explain, if asked, that none of the other places you worked ever asked you to perform it and that you are simply doing what you did in all the other places you worked. No, you just carry out the task as soon as asked, and you try to do it right first time. And none of this is contingent on enthusiasm for the people, or the project, or the company; you’ve been brought in to do a job, you do the job.

You then imagine that as a writer you can step into a system with a similar hierarchy, only at a different place in the hierarchy. You are no longer providing support; you are now the principal, the client, the person for whom services are provided. So you expect to give instructions and have them carried out promptly without argument. You give instructions and they are not so much airily waved aside as ignored. Mysteriously, people are lavish with praise of your talent, the word ‘genius’ is used with gay abandon, but the mere fact that you are a genius does not mean that you can have a document photocopied, a working group list, a meeting with an agenda. You (well, I, at any rate) are then prey to baffled rage.

Another stylistic device I enjoyed was your use of the repeated speech tag “He said:” to structure a whole sequence of observations in which your protagonist lays out his plan to use women as “lightning rods,” to “provide contact of a sexual nature to selected members of the firm” in order to minimize sexual harassment elsewhere. I couldn’t think of where else I might have seen this done before: did you have other examples in mind, or is it something you came up with specifically for this book?

I don’t think I’d come across it anywhere. It seemed right for the book, where a crazy idea in Joe’s head is converted to something in the world through his ability to put sentences out in the world, sentences that persuade people to do things. I say I don’t think I’d come across it, but now various things come to mind: Plato’s Symposium, in which the contributions of speakers, bringing the argument forward, are lightly marked with neutral verbs of saying to remind one of the confrontation or interaction of speakers with different positions; Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le metro, where the pronouncements of the characters are marked for humorous effect by verbs of saying; of Tristram Shandy, where, how can I put it, the interpolation of verbs of saying (not, of course, only the neutral ‘said’) in a long disquisition, such as one by the narrator’s father on a hobbyhorse, underlines the preposterousness of the notions, the intricate chain of reasoning by which a preposterous conclusion is reached, and the investment of the speaker in persuading a listener to set aside prevalent but false beliefs. There may well be other precursors that I now forget (I’m in New York and my library is back in Berlin, so I can’t check).

The specificity of the sexual fantasies on which your protagonist bases his “hole-in-the-wall” sexual-delivery system reminded me a little bit of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Fermata, a book which impressed me very much when I read it years ago. Your account of your character’s thought processes, though, is written in an amazing deadpan third-person voice that’s quite close to Joe’s thoughts, that is tonally difficult to pin down but that certainly doesn’t encourage sympathetic participation in those fantasies, however charged they may be for Joe himself (I’m thinking especially of the early passage in which he considers the logistics of the football team whose cheerleaders provide sexual services through a hole in the wall between the two locker rooms). I was just rereading Robbe-Grillet’s Project for a Revolution in New York, which in some clear sense incorporates the descriptive obsessiveness of pornography in order to shake up the protocols of narrative realism. What’s your take, just between the two of us, on Joe’s fantasies? To what extent are they primarily configured in a satirical mode; what elements of fantasy predominate; and why the focus on logistics?

This might fall in the category of ‘Because she was born a long long time ago.’ When I was a child, when I was in my teens, pornography was something that came my way very rarely; maybe a book or two on the shelves of a friend of my grandparents, a magazine left in the pocket of a seat on an airplane. This was naturally fascinating. There would be stories in which the author had gone to enormous trouble to set up a complicated, implausible scenario, apparently because the payoff depended not simply on the fact of penetration, but on the combination of penetration and pretending to a third party that nothing was happening.

So I don’t know that they were configured in a satirical mode, exactly, but whatever it was that made them work seemed to depend on a narrative of some kind, one in which the requirement of pretending that nothing was happening required, in turn, the motivation of some kind of physical set-up in which concealment was possible. If the believability of pretense was at the heart of the fantasy, this would require a plausible means of concealment, which would seem to mean paying a certain amount of attention to logistics and so diversion from the primary focus of the activity. So Joe’s attention to logistics was, to begin with, forced on him by the logic of the fantasy, but as thought was given to how something could genuinely be made to work the logical next step would be to see that something that could genuinely be made to work need not be confined to a fantasy…

Another moment I especially enjoyed was Renée’s “list of things that most people get wrong,” which includes prohibitions like “Never wear fake coins or medals as buttons” and “Never wear self-covered buttons in man-made fibers.” Where on earth did you get these, and what’s your take on this sort of detail-orientation?

Well, it occurred to me at some point that the reason I hate shopping is that I often walk into a store and find myself rejecting every garment out of hand because each violates at least one of what turns out to be a very long list of principles.

Oh, Lord. Well, it occurred to me at some point that the reason I hate shopping is that I often walk into a store and find myself rejecting every garment out of hand because each violates at least one of what turns out to be a very long list of principles. I need a sweater; I leave the house telling myself I must not return without a sweater; I go to, say, Peek & Cloppenburg, a Berlin department store with sweaters as far as the eye can see, and they are all WRONG. I go to 10 or 12 other stores and am unable to find even one sweater that will do. (The result is not that I am well dressed; I go about most of the time looking like a Beckettian tramp.) I’m not sure where these principles came from; they are simply strongly felt preferences, often ones I become conscious of only on being confronted with an array of misguided garments. (I think this is probably one of those occasions where structuralism is our friend, though I don’t think I can whip out an analysis on the spot.) I think this level of attention to detail is often characteristic of strong work in all kinds of different fields (I’m now thinking offhand of a master class I once heard by Murray Perahia; of Edward Tufte’s work on information design…)—one might not want to allocate it to sweater acquisition.

One thing I love about this book is that though it’s clearly a satire, and many of the specific details are non-realist or not plausible in a real-world setting, there is also an absolute literal-mindedness to them that makes them somehow perversely come back round to being plausible after all. So as to say that Renée’s revelation that the chunk of time she spends with her backside presented to the hole in the wall through which a high-performing employee will penetrate her and find sexual release is perfectly suited to reading Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu in the original: “On the one hand she wouldn’t be reading a lot at any one time, so she wouldn’t get discouraged. On the other hand, it was quite a long book, so by the time she finished she’d probably have enough money for Harvard Law School.”

This, of course, is an extremely sensible thought! The combination of precision and wild implausibility in passages like this one strikes me as highly reminiscent of Swift’s satires (A Modest Proposal would probably be the most obvious example to invoke). In a different sense, too, the novel’s strongly structurally reminiscent of Candide, with its twists and turns of fate and its impervious protagonist. Are the 18th-century satirists important to you as a writer, or would you say that this is merely a technical and structural coincidence?

I’m trying to work out how to put this. I’d always thought of Lightning Rods as influenced mainly by Aristophanes and Mel Brooks (a preposterous idea worked out to its logical conclusion); the voice of Joe came into my head at a time when I was very depressed, and it reminded me somehow of Springtime for Hitler.

But as soon as you bring up 18th-century satirists I think: Of course! Or rather, I think: Not just 18th-century satirists (though I love Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Diderot)—a whole procession of 18th-century writers flash through the mind, relevant not just to this book but to the many queueing up on my hard drive. (Hume, Adam Smith, Gibbon come to mind; Johnson and Boswell; Fielding, Sterne—but the list is so much longer it would be tedious to go on.) Perhaps the points of connection are: First, that it was a time of projectionists; a great many people tried both to criticize their own society and to determine what a better one might look like through the operation of reason. Hence singularly vulnerable to false reasoning (Joe invokes Thomas Jefferson to justify his project; we may think of the many ingenious notions of Sir Walter Shandy). Second, that it was a time when people had a highly developed sense of generic conventions, and of the mismatch between these and the lives to which they might be applied. Third, that there was a love of wit, of the pointed phrase. “Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother”—this may not, for all we know, have appeared in the 1796 precursor to Sense and Sensibility, but it is an 18th-century line, and unimprovable.



Jenny Davidson teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and blogs at Light Reading. She has just finished a novel called The Magic Circle.