Helen DeWitt, critically acclaimed author of the debut novel The Last Samurai (2000),
tunes into the contemporary American idiom and its corporate-speak with perfect pitch; entire paragraphs feel like Readymades that materialize out of thin air. On a sheer formal level, it’s already an achievement to craft page after page of free, indirect speech consisting solely of pre-formulated phrases; nowhere is it more apparent than in this sly, mordantly funny work that the mind can operate exclusively within the shallower depths of the collective subconscious—the ongoing chatter of shared homilies, aphorisms, advertising copy, bromides, and cliché.
Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods is a hilarious satire on contemporary American society: sexism, affirmative action, equal opportunity, political correctness—nothing escapes the author’s exacting, irreverent eye. And while her characters are each oblivious in very different ways, their common cluelessness signals that a key flaw in human insight and reason inevitably factors into every equation:
[and] exactly the same thing applied to the country as a whole. It was set up from scratch by people who managed to overlook minor details like slavery and a whole sex. Naturally enough, with that level of glaring oversight to fix, it was easy for people to overlook the faults that remained. Because the thing is, we grow up with the laws we’ve got, and we assume they’re right because they’re what we’re used to. [And] the more important something is, the less likely people are to fix mistakes. They’re going to assume that if it’s that important, somebody must have known what they were doing. Or they’re going to assume that anything seriously wrong would have been fixed after all this time. They’re not going to realize that the people who fixed it were just trying to bring it into line with an acceptable, 50% level of cluelessness. So if something leaves a lot to be desired, it’s up to you to do something about it. Because if you don’t, you know one thing for sure: nobody else is going to.
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