Helen DeWitt’s *Lightning Rods*

by on August 16, 2016 at 2:02 pm in Books, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

Do you ever read someone and find you are too addled to tell when the author is being funny or not, and then perhaps some of you have the temerity to suggest your confusion is the fault of the author?

Well, imagine a whole novel like that, and about the hot-button topics of sex and above all power and power in the workplace and yes race too.  Helen DeWitt can in fact get away with writing sentences such as:

One man said he was not exactly disputing the points made but he did not think he could reward his top earners with titless sex.

So yes, buy this book but do not read it, for the temerity will rise in your soul.

Helen DeWitt is a national treasure, yet collectively we have driven her to Berlin.  We do not deserve whatever she plans on serving up next.

Here is my previous post on Helen DeWitt.

1 Ray Lopez August 16, 2016 at 2:03 pm

DeWitt is quite the wit or is it twit? First?

2 JWatts August 16, 2016 at 2:30 pm

“Helen DeWitt is a national treasure,”

She’s written two novels and outside of that has no notable accomplishments. Nor were sales for her first novel that high. I think it’s a stretch to call her a national treasure.

3 Thomas August 16, 2016 at 3:33 pm

Given you think sales matter for quality, I think we can safely ignore your objection.

4 JWatts August 16, 2016 at 4:17 pm

Ah an elitist, eh?

5 Sam Haysom August 16, 2016 at 5:41 pm

Is this a serious comment? A national treasure implies broad approval that’s what a national treasure is something that large portions of a nation… treasure.

6 Art Deco August 16, 2016 at 6:15 pm

The actress Judi Dench is sometimes called that. I’m not sure why. She at least works in a popular medium. Sad to say, the book buying market encompasses only a modest portion of the adult population at any one time, so you’re only a treasure to regular consumers of imaginative literature. Perhaps someone with an international audience from a country which does not command much external attention – say, V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Naguib Mahfouz. JK Rowling or Robertson Davies, conceivably. Not this deWitt dame.

7 Heorogar August 16, 2016 at 6:07 pm

I only borrow books from the public library. It’s economics.

Hemingway was a writer whose prose one could savor. A Hemingway quote was something to the effect, “Prose is architecture not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.”

Placing at the end of a foggy, froggie, run-on sentence words such as “titless” and “sex” doesn’t correct the flaw.

What would we do without economics professors moonlighting as literary critics?

8 JSC7 August 16, 2016 at 9:18 pm

You wouldn’t know a run on sentence if it gave you titless sex.

9 Darren August 16, 2016 at 2:41 pm

Glad to see someone genuinely crazy being so productive.

10 Colin R August 16, 2016 at 2:45 pm

My confusion is the fault of Tyler Cowen.

11 Jeff R. August 16, 2016 at 4:52 pm

It’s actually Leo Strauss’ fault for influencing Tyler.

12 prior_test2 August 17, 2016 at 2:12 am

Self-recommending.

13 dearieme August 16, 2016 at 2:52 pm

“titless sex”: what relation does that bear to the American category Tit Leist?

14 Ray Lopez August 16, 2016 at 3:21 pm

Bird theme, like the Great Tit? Or the sexist habit of calling women birds?

15 Heorogar August 16, 2016 at 6:08 pm

How many tits would a titmouse have if a titmouse could have tits?

16 coketown August 16, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Why does this post read like a V.S. Pritchett review from the 1960s? “Buy this book but do not read it.” Mid-century wit has not aged as gracefully as mid-century design, I guess; or reproductions never capture the quality of the original.

TC’s apology and the Amazon reviews suggest that hypothetical temerity would not be misplaced. It sounds like clumsy satire and any confusion really is the author’s fault. The excerpted sentence is banal. Another reviewer excerpted other obvious sentences as supposed highlights. The sample pages were a bumbling slog and I don’t like her prose: she’s J.K. Rowling without caps lock. This satire seems intended for a very specific audience of retrograde sophisticates who think sex, power, and race are still hot-button issues–who hope to coax DeWitt back when all others, those confused and audacious others, have driven her away.

I agree with the conclusion: We do not deserve her. It’s 2016 and we’ve suffered enough.

17 It's Over August 16, 2016 at 7:06 pm

“This satire seems intended for a very specific audience of retrograde sophisticates who think sex, power, and race are still hot-button issues”

These were my thoughts. What’s next, is Tyler is going to breathlessly praise Beyonce’s next track for courageously asserting her sexuality? Write a paeon to Girls and its brave discussion of taboo sexual mores?

Come on.

18 Ray Lopez August 17, 2016 at 12:11 am

You sound like a lit major, or a fiction prose critic. Did V.S. Pritchett say something like what TC said? Only a lit major would know that. Unless you’re just making shit up to sound sophisticated.

I read the Amazon “Show Me” excerpt and I think DeWitt is trying to capture the 1950s rather than today’s era: the excerpt is about a traveling salesman, first of Encyclopedia Britannica then of Electrolux vacuum cleaners, who dreams of a glory hole. It’s funny if you think about it, and nothing to do with contemporary life.

Tell us, cokehead, who is your preferred fantasy and preferred fiction writer, please?

19 Art Deco August 16, 2016 at 4:41 pm

Helen DeWitt is a national treasure, yet collectively we have driven her to Berlin.

She wants to live in Germany. That’s her decision and her business. No one here had any hand in it. She’s a Foreign Service brat who’s lived abroad for decades.

And, no, she isn’t a ‘national treasure’. She’s a rank-and-file producer of imaginative literature.

20 Ray Lopez August 17, 2016 at 12:13 am

Is somebody impersonating you Art Deco? A while ago you or your nym were rambling on about being a cuckold…

21 Hoosier August 16, 2016 at 4:48 pm

Bought Last Samurai based on your recommendation but couldn’t get through more than 3 chapters. She may be a treasure, but her first book was anything but a joy to read.

22 Sam Haysom August 16, 2016 at 5:47 pm

That’s Cowen’s secret he doesn’t read this crap and Lightening Rods is exactly that crap. He just status signals with it. Although the poor dear really needs to work on his timing even in a provincial backwater like Houston trying to shoehorn the fact that you just read this book into conversation would mark you as helplessly unhip.

23 Sam Haysom August 16, 2016 at 5:48 pm

Lightning Rods. Although that said Lightening Rods would have actually been a better title for this book.

24 Hoosier August 16, 2016 at 9:18 pm

Unfortunately TCs recent fiction recommendations haven’t done it for me, I’m with you there. This used to be one of my primary sources of inspiration for new book buying.

I’ve begun to understand the downside of writing a recommendation before having read the whole book.

I did read the intro to Last Samura, thought it was fantastic but was fooled because the first few chapters were nothing like that. It was such slow going, I was skipping pages at a time. I wonder if this was the same with TC?

25 Donald Pretari August 16, 2016 at 6:06 pm

Hold firm, Tyler. My favorite novelist of the last fifty years is Tom Sharpe. I have many fond memories of people ridiculing me. It fills your vitals with power when you reflect on how much more everything you are than everyone.

If you’re someone who’s favorite novelist is P.G Wodehouse, you might well have noticed that opinion of him has been rising over the years. Many people used to label him a humorist. He wasn’t even a novelist. And V.S Pritchett is a fine writer. A number of his titles have recently become available on Kindle. Still not sure about DeWitt, though.

26 Art Deco August 16, 2016 at 6:18 pm

Wodehouse at his peak during the interwar period was the bestselling producer of imaginative literature in the English-speaking world. His earnings were so massive that chasing them down for tax purposes spawned early inter-national co-operation of the sort manifest in tax treaties. Even if you didn’t savor Wodehouse, he’d be worth studying for cultural historians.

27 dearieme August 16, 2016 at 7:38 pm

Uncle Fred Flits By is the funniest short story I’ve ever read. And I speak as a fan of Thurber, and O. Henry, and Saki, and all the other good ‘uns.

28 Ninja August 16, 2016 at 11:25 pm

The funniest short story I’ve ever read is “The Clicking of Cuthbert”, also by Wodehouse.

29 Daniel Barkalow August 16, 2016 at 6:18 pm

Collectively we have driven her to Berlin. I, personally, drove her from Stolpe to Suckow. As a member of the titless sex, I’m glad not to be a reward for someone’s top earners. I’m not sure if I’m missing the point or being funny or neither; I’m not even sure if not being sure of that is fitting or not.

30 Urso August 16, 2016 at 6:21 pm

I enjoy Prof. Cowen’s unique brand of purposeful inscrutability as much as the next guy, but jeez…

31 Angus August 16, 2016 at 6:50 pm

Just finished “Last Samurai”. Loved it. Going to read a trash novel to cleanse the palate (The fifth rule of Ten, if you must know), and then start on Lightning Rods. DeWitt is more a global than merely national treasure. I really wish she was related to Patrick DeWitt, whose “The Sisters Brothers” was marvelous in a completely different way.

32 The Other Jim August 16, 2016 at 7:53 pm

More boilerplate DC elitism from Tyler…. if he likes someone, he can’t just say that, he has to declare her a NATIONAL treasure.

And if she chooses to live in Germany, it clearly illustrates that his oikophobia is justified, and WE DROVE her there.

Tyler is all of us, you see?

33 derek August 16, 2016 at 8:36 pm

No one dares write like that? Maybe you ought to get out a bit.

34 burger flippier August 17, 2016 at 1:43 am

I briefly corresponded with Jonathan Franzen about the great Thomas Berger and asked him for other comparable novelists.
This novel was first among his recommendations.

35 burger flippier August 17, 2016 at 1:45 am

I briefly corresponded with Jonathan Lethem about the great Thomas Berger and asked him for other comparable novelists.
This novel was first among his recommendations.

36 prior_test2 August 17, 2016 at 2:19 am

Not a single person aware of how Prof. Cowen spent time in Freiburg, as he occasionally mentions? Top result from google search using ‘tyler cowen freiburg’ – http://gadling.com/2008/02/18/talking-travel-with-economist-and-traveler-tyler-cowen/

One could speculate that at least a small part of the person that is Prof. Cowen wishes he too had been ‘driven’ to live somewhere other than the paradise that is today’s northern Virginia.

37 JWatts August 17, 2016 at 10:42 am

“Not a single person aware of how Prof. Cowen spent time in Freiburg, as he occasionally mentions? ”

Most of us aren’t obsessed with what Tyler Cowen does.

38 Ludovic August 19, 2016 at 7:20 am

Lightning Rods could have been a funny long short story. It is instead a mildly amusing but too long (though actually not very long) novel. The Last Samurai, however, is a grand read. Not Wodehouse. Not Saki. Not Sharpe. But almost as funny and much weirder (and not as formulaic as Sharpe). Give it a try.

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