October 19, 2012 7:10 pm

Satirised myth

A razor-sharp comic masterpiece about a failing door-to-door salesman with a rococo masturbatory fantasy

Lightning Rods, by Helen DeWitt, And Other Stories, RRP£10, 200 pages


Joe is a failing door-to-door salesman. No one is much interested in his encyclopedias or vacuum cleaners, and he spends most of his time in his caravan, amusing himself with a rococo masturbatory fantasy. In a moment of epiphany he realises that this titillating scenario might be developed into a business product and sold to companies as a way of assuaging male sexual frustration in the workplace. The Lightning Rods are born, and they make Joe a fortune.

Helen DeWitt’s book was first published in the US last year, where it was rightly hailed as a comic masterpiece. It has been compared with George Orwell and Jonathan Swift, but I think DeWitt may have had in mind Benjamin Franklin – Franklin both invented the lightning rod and, with his autobiography, inaugurated the enduring American myth of the self-made man, who with a little ingenuity and resourcefulness can make a success of any idea. That myth is gleefully satirised in this uproarious, razor-sharp novel.

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