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Monday, 3 December 2012

Lightning Rods - Helen De Witt

So after 11 months of reading novels from the Booker Prize, IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize or the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlists, I finally pick up a book that, to my knowledge, hasn’t made it onto an award shortlist. “The Vintage and the Gleaning” by Jeremy Chambers, which I reviewed here in January 2012, did make it onto the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award long list, but with about 140 novels making that list it sort of qualifies into the same category as this novel.

I picked this novel up as it is published by And Other Stories, who have a publishing philosophy whereby people subscribe to their books before publication, which gives them the funds to pursue a diverse literary body of work, hire translators and publish independent novels. I came across them as the publisher of “Swimming Home” by Deborah Levy which made the Booker Prize shortlist this year. If you would like to learn more about their business model or subscribe to their books (2 books for 20 quid in UK/Europe) go to

One of the issues though of reading so many awarded novels is that when you come across something slightly different, you do sometimes get a bit bogged down in the writing style. Although this book was an easy read, there was a few times where I had to reread sentences numerous times as they didn’t seem to make sense. This in no way detracted from a funny, satirical, enjoyable and thought provoking read.

Our main protagonist is Joe an ex Encyclopaedia Britannica and Electrolux salesman who always gives “101%, 25 hours per day”, however he’s a failure, he’s missing that product that he truly believes in, the product that everyone needs. As a character who spends the majority of his time in his trailer having sexual fantasies, he suddenly stumbles across the idea of a new product Lightning Rods!!!

The reason it takes a salesman to do this is that left to their own devices most people will just drift along thinking I really should do something about that one of these days. That’s the way people are, and it takes a salesman to get them out of the rut and take some action to actually achieve their goals. It takes a salesman to show them that something they hadn’t thought of as a goal, such as reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica on a regular basis could be a goal. An achievable goal. The longest journey starts with a single step. In this case, the step of buying the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

His business idea of lightning rods will reward the high performing sales staff in an organisation at the same time as reducing (or even eliminating) sexual harassment claims.

A novel that takes its cue from numerous sales books (think Spin Selling, How to be Successful or some such), self-help guides, this is hilarious in sections, whilst at the same time being cringe worthy in its subject matter. It says a lot about the corporate environment of today where success is measured in sales targets, where humanity has all but been eliminated, and the satire of the workplace, racist, sexist, full of litigation, is scathing. No cow is sacred here, the church, the FBI, and all the management spin that you hear every day in the corporate world is rolled into a tight justification of a simply outrageous, but commercially successful, idea.

A parody of 21st Century gender equality and a scathing view of just about any business motivational book you can pick up, I strongly suggest this should be widely read by just about anyone who inhabits one of these large corporations. The only issue I have is that I don’t feel comfortable recommending this novel to fellow office workers as they may take it the “wrong way” – what a sad work environment we inhabit!!!

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

1 comment:

Alex in Leeds said...

I'm an And Other Stories subscriber and this was the first book I received, definitely one of the oddest and most interesting books I've read this year!