You are on page 1of 27

Kate Carsella

ENG 627/ENG 782

Professor Annie McClanahan
Professor Ted Martin

We Arent Precious: Savaging Idealism in the Contemporary Novel

Humor and sexuality are two figurations of a dominating dualism in contemporary

neoliberal societycynicism and navet. This duality can be distracting and time-consuming for
any kind of examination, reducing the situation to a decision to come down on one view or
another. The human catharsis of both humorous and sexual experience widens the void of this
distracting quality, sapping closer inspection. Such is the power of the relentless, political
juggernaut of the twenty-first century. The purpose of this paper is to access two contemporary
novels notable statements and questioning of neoliberal politics by way of their notable
depictions of sex and humor, and to discover what shakes out.
Freedom, published in 2010 and written by longtime liberal-left gadfly Jonathan
Franzen, is a representational novel that maps plutocracy-minded politics over the domestic
sphere in order to display the many permutations and combinations of production and
consumption as mutually inclusive. (Williams 95) Franzen utilizes the realist mode of fiction to
express politics. Helen DeWitts experimental novel Lightning Rods, published in 2011, takes on
neoliberalism by interrogating gender and laborreformulated as one and the same.
Neoliberalisms immaterial, post-Fordist economic practice is played out in an office

Carsella 2
environmentthe prime intersection of personal and professional, thus the prime stage for these
politics to be animated fictionally. DeWitt surfaces many threads of the greater conceptual
knitting such as the feminization of labor, the laborization of women, and a lack of depth
resulting from the bodys treatment as collective of autonomous, fragmented assets. Lightning
Rods experimentation with political representation and the consequent redefinition of
neoliberalism requires and receives greater space in this paper than its representational
The formations of sex in both novels often evoke strains of humor. They are distinct from
one another, but both seek to elucidate sex as a power greater than its parts. In Freedom,
triangulation of intercourse has personal and political ramifications for Patty Berglund, Walter
Berglund, and Richard Katz. Furthermore, the triangulation of the result of sexchildbirth and
then the shaping of a childs gender by mother and father is just as important. The term sex is
varied, as are its ramifications in this work. This type of distraction seems to work as an
exemplar of distracting, solipsistic consumption. Lightning Rods works differently. Sex is front
and center, stripped of affective adornment, as close to utilitarian as possible. The distraction of
sex is inverted: productivity, good attendance, and the inventors personal wealth sky-rocket
under the new innovations regime of removing the distraction of sexual desire. Ultimately, the
society of the novel is distracted from the deeper acknowledgement this invention portends,
given the space to focus better on ones labor. Metafictionally, the novel itself may be easily
shunted into facile, shock-satire if the unblinking portrayal of sex is given too much attention.
Yet, because the novel is so front-facing in this regard, one cant help but wonder what more is
going on. Such provocation is a handy asset of the experimental novel. Whereas Freedom

Carsella 3
concludes bleaklywithout a galvanizing response to the world it tackles, Helen DeWitt
maneuvers through fiction, locating a new perception on the consequences of a neoliberal future.
Neoliberalism is a slippery concept, no less when fictionalized. To be clear, Id like to
take some time to organize and define my usage of neoliberalism in this paper as a political
umbrella, along with the smaller concepts and terms that comprise it. This paper is influenced by
Sarah Brouillette and Jeffrey Williams definitions of the neoliberal novel and neoliberalism
proper. Brouillette tethers her definition of neoliberalism to the implications of a creative
economy fueled by immaterial labor:
One of my core claims is that creative-economy discourse dovetails importantly with
neoliberalism, conceived as a set of shifting practices whose net effect is to erode public
welfare, valorize private property and free markets, position government as facilitator and
pre-eminent narrator of the shift to neoliberal policy, and to orchestrate or justify a
corresponding notion that capitalisms continued and insuperable expansion is at once
inevitable and welcome. (Brouillette 2-3)
Brouillettes concerns have more to do with art becoming co-opted as branded heritage and
tourist product [with] emphasis on artists as collaborators with private-sector development.
(3) This may serve as an updated description of The American Dream mythos, where the dream
has been vacuumed inward to become an inherent trait rather than an external goal. Brouillettes
concerns and claims are easily transferable to suit the needs of my argument: art and its affects
are easily taken a step further, to the affects of personal experience itself, co-opted into fuel for a
neoliberal economy. The allure of this system refers back to the self-actualization model of
Abraham Maslow and Frank Barron. The optimal self gained prominence, furthering the
notion that all business culture [could be] an outlet for and source of workers enterprising
individual self-fulfillment. (6-7) In the mid-20th century, such a concept was not as widespread
and thus more sustainable. At the beginning of the 21st century, this idealized workplace has

Carsella 4
became commonplace, heralding precarious socioeconomic circumstance. (7) Socioeconomic, as
both the private and professional are implicated and imbricated in this situation. The result,
analyzed and documented widely, is a compromising definition of freedom. Sarah Brouillette
describes this contradictory new phase of American economic freedom through creative work,
as at once newly valuable to capitalism and romantically honorable and free. (4) This is
precisely the kind of attitude that spurs on Lightning Rods Joe to his great success. Id like to
pause a moment to assert that based on Sarah Brouillettes essay, this paper forwards nostalgia
and the past itself as important affective players and contributors to neoliberal practices. The
allure of what couldve been based on how it used to be is important, mawkish rationalization for
altering temporal focus in society to further capitalistic gain.
Jeffrey Williams essay The Plutocratic Imagination elaborates on the cynical aspects
of these circumstances. He also applies such politics to the novel Freedom, in search of
elucidation. He doesnt seem sure that he got it, and decides that Jonathan Franzens resignation,
and the mainstream lauding of this resignation is a disturbing sign of the times. (Williams 95)
It could be inferred that Williams is dissatisfied with Jonathan Franzens novel, insofar that it is a
merely representational effort. The power of Franzens representation, however, is in the
reception of Freedom by the critics and the public[as the] most bruited novel of the past
decade. (95) There is a hint of complicity that a novel about people that hates people, as
Professor Theodore Martin expertly worded it, so concerned with conveying realism, was so
well-received by American society at large. The Oprah Winfrey endorsement highlights the
grand public reception quite well.
Notwithstanding Williams dissatisfaction with the powers of Franzens realism, Freedom
exemplifies the turn Williams describes in the newest version of the political novel:

Carsella 5
Since around 1990, a new wave of American fiction has emerged that focuses on the
dominance of finance, the political power of the super-rich, and the decline of the middle
classThis new wave tends to see government as subsidiary, with the main societal
choices occurring within the economic sphere. The novels animate the turn to
neoliberalism, and thus we might aptly categorize them as the neoliberal novel.
Freedom depicts the dramas of a professional, middle-class, middle-American family
around the turn of the new century. But rather than the novels just being a family drama,
its plot explicitly hinges on politics. (93)
In fact, though Walter Berglunds political and professional aspirations take up much narrative
space, the premier source of power in the novel has to do with family and personal relationships.
The political decision-making by both Richard Katz and Walter Berglund is rooted in their
homosocial relationship and competition, triangulated by Patty Berglund, object of desire. As
Eve Sedgwick asserts:
The triangle is useful as a figure by which the commonsense of our intellectual
tradition schematizes erotic relations, and because it allows us to condense into a
juxtaposition with that folk-perception several somewhat different streams of recent
thought. (Sedgwick 21)
The trajectory of the novel through late 20th, early 21st century history parallels the
evolution of a particular American family, though it is unclear whether or not this family is
meant to be unique. It is unclear if Franzen means to suppose that one of the consequences of the
contemporary moment is no one person may be individual, only customized. This is a question to
be tackled later in this paper.
Political trajectory and triangulation are handy tools to characterize personal evolution in
the novel. Freedoms structural strength lies in its documentation of the history of political events
over the last thirty years mapped onto the private lives of the novels characters. It can be
assumed this does not merely work as a formal organizing principle. Franzens methods allow
him to capture the double-edged nature of affective escalation of a politicized personal realm. He

Carsella 6
begins his novel with 1980s free market ideologys movement to greater power in government,
and finishes with the present hyper-liberalized, plutocratic usurpation of politics that the
Cerulean Mountain Trust and zero population growth platform signify par excellence. As this
metastasizes, the Berglund power dynamics follow suit. The many triangulated relationships
refine, slough, bloat, and then settle as the characters attempt to individuate. For the purposes of
organizing my own paper, I shall focus on the domestic sphere and follow the chronological
model with Patty, who is demarcated as the chief dominating object for the entire novel directly
at its beginning.
Despite her relegation to the position of the objectified, (done by others and in her own
view of herself), there is no character or relationship untouched by Patty Berglund. If not a fullblown character, she is a definite force. In Mistakes Were Made: Autobiography of Patty
Berglund by Patty Berglund, Patty refers to herself in the third person in order to gain some sort
of objectivity, allegedly at the behest of her therapist. (Franzen 29) This is in line with Pattys
inability to acknowledge herself as a subject, to acknowledge the human incapacity for
objectivity, or at the very least her preference to being objectified as if it is a means of
objectivity. This is the basis of her dysfunctional logic in relating to herself and others; as an
object she requires others to mediate herself to gain any semblance of a coherent sense of self.
As Patty depicts herself, she notes one point of gratitude she feels toward her parents in
order to mitigate any note of complaint or even outright blame [that] has crept into these
The autobiographer here acknowledges her profound gratitude to Joyce and Ray for at
least one thing, namely their never encouraging her to be Creative in the Arts, the way
they did with her sisters. (125)

Carsella 7
While she later equates creativity with a capital C with brilliance and the extraordinary and
refers to her pleasant resignation at being considered dumb and dull, Patty cements what she
can and cannot produce in her relationships. (125) Creativity is not the category under which she
labors. Nor is politics to her tastes
Incredibly, it was not until she actually arrived for good in Washington that she
remembered how much shed always hated politics and politicians She walked into the
house and saw, in a heartbeat, that shed made yet another mistake. (199)
This likely has to do with her mother, at least in part. Instead, the labor of physicality enhances
her objectification and is important for her triangulated relationships. This is the labor of being a
material object to others. QuicklyPattys physicality as it pertains to sexuality and proximity is
what empowers her with Richard, the paragon of creative economy in the novel, and Walter, the
politicized professional of the trio. Through Pattys sexual physicality, which functions here
more as materiality than humanity, Walter and Richard compete, become frustrated and
assuaged, and may become ever closer, ever shared in their experiences. Through her status as
material object, the two men mediate their perceived individuality. Taken together, the three form
a triumvirate of neoliberal qualities that Sarah Brouillette marks as essential, and perhaps
essentially problematic.
Patty experiences a few triangles before she comes to the two main ones that dominate
her lifeRichard/Patty/Walter, and Joey/Patty/Walter. Richard comes into Pattys life first, after
the Eliza/Patty/Carter sidebar subsides. At first, he is attached to Eliza, who describes him as the
giant eraser. (70) This characterization is troubling in several ways, the first being that Eliza is
over the moon for Richard Katz. Quickly and deftly, she is a powerful enactment of the siren
song of complete minimization, obliteration, of women by male power disguised as hormonal
virility. Eliza puts the exclamation point on Richards hormonal virilityHes so big, its like

Carsella 8
being rolled over by a neutron star. (70) She may not be precisely referring to Richards
member, but it is Richards member that is stridently the master of his domain. This is also a
mere taste of Richards future of repeatedly getting his dick wet, of his dick pleased with
this ratification of its divining powers. (404) Richards increasingly autonomous penis reigns in
the novel ad nauseum. Sexual physicality connects Patty and Richards side of the triangle, along
with her inescapable proximity to the prizing of the creative by Richard himself, and by her
parental conditioning.
Walter is introduced the paragraph after Richard, signaling the closeness of their
characters and their shared power in the narrativeone is lacking and weaker without the other.
As it pertains to Walter and Pattys beginnings, almost instantaneously Walter takes a shine to
Patty and sets to desiring an idealized version of her he has cooked up. He embraces her
domestic program, and her decision to win in the Patty-only betterment campaign against her
female family members. (126) This win is echoed later by Walters cynical neoliberal
soliloquy to Richard: Self-interest, yeah, but a total win-win. (226) Pattys politics are
pointedly reduced to the domestic and to vendettas, a decidedly shortsighted and rear-facing life
plan. That the female chooses the domestic sphere in order to compete with other women more
effectively comes as little surprise, unfortunately.
Once Patty decides not to choose Richard, her looming marriage to Walter hops onto the
fast track. In this decision, Patty chooses a domestic program rather than develop a career and
a more solid post-athletic identity, get some experience with other kinds of men, and generally
acquire more maturity before embarking on being a mother. (126) Thus the stage is set for
Pattys locus of power. Walter, while only being a means to a categorically consumptive end for

Carsella 9
Patty, relentlessly peppers her with enabling praise, because she really was exactly what he
wanted in a woman. (126)
This isnt about you, he said. Do you get that? I love every bit of you. Every inch of
you. Every inch. From the minute I saw you. Do you get that? (135)
The descriptors Walter heap onto his proclamation are decidedly surface-level, only relating to
the surfaces of the object of Patty, rather than any sort of interior bond. The only bond Franzen
alludes to in this exchange between the future mister and missus is the shared Richard Katz.
Do you understand that I have a a He searched for words. A problem. With
Richard. I have a problem. (135)
Who is the beloved for Walter, here? Two answers emerge, one based on proximity, one based on
tone of language. Much in the same way none of these three characters seem fully-fledged
without each other, Walter exemplifies that there can only be mediated desire. Here might be a
good place to step back from the novel and introduce a critical lens.
So, why is triangulation between two men and one woman so important? In her erudite
book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Eve Sedgwick lays down
precisely what is important about such relationships. First, she defines what exactly
homosociality means:
Homosocial is a word occasionally used in history and social sciences, where it
describes social bonds between persons of the same sex; it is a neologism, obviously
formed by analogy with homosexual, and just as obviously meant to be distinguished
from homosexual. (Sedgwick 1)
I will be arguing that the emerging pattern of male friendship, mentorship,
entitlement, rivalry, and hetero- and homosexuality was in an intimate and shifting
relation to class; and that no element of that pattern can be understood outside of its
relation to women and the gender system as a whole. (1)
It is clear throughout the novel that Walter Berglund and Richard Katz, an odd couple-type duo
by first appearance, are loaded with entitlement and rivalry. (Franzen 70) Both hope to mentor

Carsella 10
each other, yet this is mitigated by their fierce competitiveness. Yet, the attraction of the two men
to each other is undeniable. When they mutually decide to walk away from each other, Patty
intervenes consciously or subconsciously, negating the fracture. Patty reflects:
Where Eliza imagined a gay thing between Walter and Richard, the autobiographer now
sees a sibling thing. Once Walter had outgrown being sat on and punched in the head by
his older brother and sitting on his younger brother and punching his head there was no
satisfactory competition to be found in his own family. Hed needed an extra brother to
love and hate and compete with. And the eternally tormenting question for Walter, as the
autobiographer sees it, was whether Richard was the little brother or the big brother, the
fuckup or the hero, the beloved damaged friend or the dangerous rival. As with Patty,
Walter claimed to have loved Richard at first sight. (139)
No matter what occurs, Richard and Walter need each other to exist. Eve Sedgwick describes the
power of homosocial relations as desire rather than love:
I have chosen the word desire rather than love to mark the erotic emphasis because,
in literary critical and related discourse, love is more easily used to name a particular
emotion, and desire to name a structure For the most part, I will be using desire in a
way analogous to the psychoanalytic use of libido for the affective or social force, the
glue, even when its manifestation is hostility or hatred or something less emotively
charged, that shapes an important relationship. (Sedgwick 2)
Sedgwicks argument is steeped in the historical. She reaches back to Athenian relationships of
power, documenting homosocial bonds as educative as they were sexual, but most importantly as
an exchange between men, leaving women to be oppressed and conscripted into the labors men
found contemptible:
Male homosociality was a widespread, licit, and very influential part of the culture.
Highly structured along lines of class, and within the citizen class along lines of age
The love relationship, while temporarily oppressive to the object, had a strongly
educational function Along with its erotic component, then, this was a bond of
mentorship; the boys were apprentices in the ways and virtues of Athenian citizenship,
whose privileges they inherited. These privileges included the power to command the
labor of slaves of both sexes, and of women of any class including their own.(4)

Carsella 11
Moving a bit closer, temporally, Sedgwick points to Ren Girards study on homosocial
relationships power, that deal not only with inheritance and labor distribution; rivalry itself is a
potent desire for control.
Girard traced a calculus of power structured by the relation of rivalry between the
two active members of an erotic triangle. What is most interesting for our purposes is
its insistence that, in any erotic rivalry, the bond that links the two rivals is as intense and
potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved: that the bonds of rivalry
and love, differently as they are experienced, are equally powerful and in many sense
equivalent. In fact, Girard seems to see the bond between rivals in an erotic triangle as
being even stronger, more heavily determinant of actions and choices... (21)
These men are playing with fire in multiple spheres of existence, leaving little for Patty to do
other than pity herself, which she recognizes as crossing a line into unattractiveness, and vie for
popularity, a type of power, within the home. (Franzen 192) Patty works for this in her
relationship with Joeyshe forces a triangulation between herself, her son, and Connie. That
doesnt prove to be as combustible as preferred, so it alters into a triangulation between herself,
Joey, and Walter. All in the hopes of getting one or both of these men on her side. From the
outset in Good Neighbors, Patty aligns herself Oedipally close to her son, inevitably creating a
rivalry between herself and Connie. Notably, Connie does not ever truly indulge the potential
viciousness of this rivalry. Once Joey chooses to individuate by moving in next door, Walter
throws himself into rivalry with his son to protect Patty, screaming like a maniacshes totally
lost itand Walter starts yelling again, DO YOU SEE WHAT YOURE DOING TO YOUR
MOTHER? (25) Pattys longtime weapon of retreat into self-deprecating misery that she
verbalizes openly, inappropriately, with Richard and Joey is her only outlet. It is her useful
trigger to send Walter into a moral, personal, and professional tizzy.
Because there is no intercourse to blur the lines in her family triangulation, Patty has less
success with power. However, the power of this dysfunctional family dynamic informs the

Carsella 12
temporal dysfunction of neoliberal society practices. Patty is not interested in her sons actual
futurehis relationship with future partner Connie is a sore subject for Patty for much of the
novel. Patty is more interested in her son as an object to mirror her values and value, and as a
legacy. Legacies of course connote death, and repetition only of what has come before. There is
an implied responsibility to the past that trumps future change or evolution.
Patty hopes for a deep connection with her son to validate her being, to take her side so
that her present slights may be remembered and carried into the future. She attempts this by
teasing intimate conversation, of which Joey seems to want no part. When her passive aggression
does not evoke the sympathetic response she desires from her son, she offers him material
Do you want me to send you some money?
He smiled in the darkness. He liked her in spite of everything; he couldnt help it. I
thought Dad said there wasnt going to be any money.
Dad doesnt necessarily have to know every little thing. (260)
As an aside, Walter bows out of this forced rivalry when Joey seeks his own validation
for his business ventures. In Bad News, Joey and Walter differ on what constitutes corruption,
and rather than invoke Patty as a means to put Joey in his place, Walter waves the white flagI
dont even want to know what youre doing anymore You can tell it to your mother, but do me
a favor and leave me out. (428) This has a profound effect on the father/son dynamic, played
out by the end of the novel.
Returning to the exchange between Patty and Joey, Patty attempts to confide in Joey why
she wants him to be happy, the affect behind the money. He refuses to allow her to finish, refuses
to validate her point of view and allow her selfhood to be expressed. His reaction afterward is
hatred, and the urge to vomit. (261-262) The only man that does acknowledge Pattys
interiority, by way of his own, is Richard. This is all unspoken, of course:

Carsella 13
Walter was the star in Pattys drama, Katz merely an interesting supporting actor. For a
moment, in what passed for his soul, a door opened wide enough for him to glimpse his
pride but he slammed the door shut and considered how stupid hed been to let himself
want her. (400)
With that, the leverage of sex, both gender and intercourse, has been described at length. As Eve
Sedgwick asserts, this leverage point is a point for the exchange of meanings, between gender
and class the sets of categories by which we ordinarily try to describe the divisions of human
labor. (Sedgwick 11)
Freedom, as previously stated, is adept at conveying the neoliberal politics with which he
takes issue, mapped onto middle class domestic life with which he likely takes even greater
issue. As a novel of realism, rather than experimentalism, and a novel so focused on the
relentlessness of frustration and dysfunction writ large in every sphere of existence, it would
seem that Jonathan Franzen finds neoliberalism and its effects to be inescapable doom. Every
relationship is exchange and mediation, with no room for interior pause and contemplation. All
the realms overlap in Franzens formulation. The representation of such circumstances is just as
stifling as the real thing.
While Jonathan Franzen grapples with the domestic implications of neoliberal politics
by way of signification, Helen DeWitt is hunting bigger game. Her novel Lightning Rods does
not have a scathing, ironic Randian hero like Walter Berglund to play out neoliberalism, nor is it
interested in this type of signification. (Williams 94) DeWitts novel plays out neoliberalism
experimentally, namely, by blowing it up and playing it out to a potential logical conclusion. It is
both humorous and formidable.
Lightning Rods utilizes a formulation of triangulated relations between two men and one
woman literally, rather than affectively as in Freedom. The initial feelings of absurdity and
incredulousness toward the Lightning Rods, Inc. business model is supported by DeWitts

Carsella 14
experimental mode. Yet the absurdity can be distracting. To mitigate this, I turn now to a
subconscious dialectic occurring between DeWitts novel and Nina Powers 2009 critical book
One Dimensional Woman. Helen DeWitt blurbed this book, so it seems safe to say she is familiar
with Powers arguments and finds them, at the very least, to be engaging:
At a time when the media make minstrelization look like the only game in town, the
acerbic wit, historical breadth and sheer imaginative inventiveness of One-Dimensional
Woman provoke the subversive belief that feminism could again be a radical force for
Thus, utilizing Nina Powers formulation of the contemporary neoliberal workplace as a site of
gender politics may be quite fruitful in accessing Helen DeWitts political commentary in
Lightning Rods.
No discussion of the current fortunes of women can take place outside of a discussion of
work. (Power 17) This assertion begins the first chapter, The Feminization of Labor, of
Powers book. She then quotes Karl Marxit is only when women enter work outside the
sphere of the domestic economy that transformations in relations between the sexes really
start to happen. (17) Immediately, Powers argument foregrounds the office, a beacon of
economy, as the site of transformation for gender relations. She also infuses the conversation
with a particular brand of criticism. Powers next move is to describe the feminization of
power, which requires the laborization of women.
The feminization of labor, drawn from Cristina Morini, is used to define not only the
objective aspect of the quantitative increase in the active female population but
increasingly underlines the qualitative and constituent character of this phenomenon.
Thus, the laborization of women: the way in which females are cast as worker first and
only secondarily as mother or wife, or any other identity position not linked with
economic productivity. (20)
There are a variety of visual signifiers for the laboring woman in the contemporary workplace,
seemingly to differentiate, or individuate the potential ambitions available to women. However,

Carsella 15
with the rise of an immaterial, post-Fordist labor infrastructure, individual labor is no longer
individual for anyone. All work has been stripped of distinction, as Nina Power describes:
All work has become womens work, even that of men As Virno puts it, correctly
understood, post-Fordist professionality does not correspond to any precise profession.
It consists rather of certain character traits.25 At this point in economic time, those
character traits are remarkably feminine, which is why the pragmatic, enthusiastic
professional woman is the symbol for the world of work as a whole. (21-22)
The position of worker is synonymous with the position of supplicant in post-Fordist neoliberal
Christina Morini argues that transformations in the organization of work, particularly the
rise of precarity, means that labor itself has become essentially feminized:
Work is an effective occasion for the emancipation of women in the face of male
oppression, albeit within the limits set by the hierarchical organization of work. Thanks to
the level of generalized precariousness, which has been transformed into a structural
element of contemporary capitalism, work which becomes a woman, is tantamount to
saying that the fragmentation of the service provided and the complexity of the
dependence/absorption which women have experienced at various times in the labor
market, ends up becoming a general paradigm irrespective of gender. In this sense, it can
be maintained that the figure of social precariousness today is woman: in cognitive
capitalism precariousness, mobility and fragmentation become constituent elements of
the work of all persons irrespective of gender.24 (21-22)
Despite the smokescreen of freedom that new, idealized labor projects, the feminines status as
harbinger of danger rings true. It rings for all participants of the patriarchal male system of
powerlate capitalist economy. The precarity of neoliberal practiceblurring the lines between
the private and personalthe personal is no longer just political, its economic through and
through, the blurring of the on-the-clock hours, and the conflation of production and
consumption is now pointedly gendered. (26)
The female body has long been fragmented, broken apart and rearranged into a position
of fracture and inferiority. If it can be extrapolated that the feminine is an experience shared by
all laborers in a precarious economy, then both men and women may be represented as a
collective of bodiesall the limbs functioning as autonomous assets. Any sort of wholea

Carsella 16
career, a complete body or bodies working in unison for a complete task, a laborer of both
external and internal value, are all unnecessary and perhaps unattractive for labor. The body has
become colonized by various business interests. (25) Nina Power is exceptionally articulate in
describing how the body is broken down into useful parts in her chapter Youre Like an Advert
for Yourself:
If men and women are at all times supposed to be a kind of walking CV this body is
the prime locus for any understanding of the way in which the logic of employment
overcodes our very comportment One must capitalize on ones assets at every
moment and that nothing prevents your full immersion in the glorious world of work.
If we accept the argument that the division between free-time and labor time has
become extremely blurred in recent years well give you something obviously crap in
exchange for a kind of performance that reveals that there is nothing subjective, nothing
left, hidden behind the appearance, that you simply are commensurate with your
comportment in the world. You are your breasts. All of this marks a very serious
transformation in the relationship between women and their bodies. Far from flaunting
their assets in the hope that the refracted attention will filter back to their person as a
whole it is the assets, the parts, that take on the function of the whole. The allpervasive peepshow segmentarity of the contemporary culture demands that women treat
their breasts as wholly separate entities, with little or no connection to themselves, their
personality, or even the rest of their body. All autonomous organic agency of a moral,
rational or egoic nature is dissolved into auto-objectivization. (24-25)
In the way that Richard Katzs penis works as a divining rod for his decision-making and
intuitive interpersonal skills, the sexually charged body parts of a female must take on their own
character and assert autonomous power. The sexual power of the human body has been
transmogrified into a self-commodification mise-en-abyme, the body always ready for either
production or consumption, or both.
As alarming as this is, there is a deeper vacuuming going on that Power elucidates.
Interiority is not nearly as commodifiable as the body, and may in fact get in the way of eternal
readiness for the taxonomy of penetration provided by capitalism.

Carsella 17
Objectification implies that there is something left over in the subject that resists such a
capture, that we might protest if we thought someone was trying to deny such interiority,
but its not clear that contemporary work allows anyone to have an inner life in the way
we might once have understood it. The blurring of work, social, personal and physical life
is almost total. If feminism is to have a future it has to recognize the new ways in which
life and existence are colonized by new forms of domination that go far beyond
objectification as it used to be understood. (26)
In literature, interiority functions as a prominent feature of humanity. The internal lifethoughts,
emotion, utter affective experience has long been prized as essential, or utterly truthful. Jonathan
Franzen confronts the internal confusion of the neoliberal workplace by representing the
decentering of sense of self, creating a residue of repression and hostility. Walter describes what
keeps him up at night, this fragmentation Theres never any center, theres no communal
agreement, theres just a trillion little bits of distracting noise (Franzen 232) It is blatantly
obvious how similar navet and cynicism are in this statement; despite recognition of a greater
existential crisis, the cognitive dissonance of Walters politics remains strong. Yet, Franzen only
capitalizes on the recognition of Walters cognitive dissonance in order to comment on these
politics. Helen DeWitt, on the other hand, powerfully exercises the potential of experimentalism
by precisely enacting the fragmentation of the body, the premium placed on round-the-clock
openness to business opportunity, and the loss of interiority. Again, humorous and formidable.
In the remainder of the body of this paper, I will be ticking through the concepts and
contextualization offered by Nina Powers gripping arguments, applying them to Lightning Rods,
and assessing how Helen DeWitt enacts and furthers these questions and assertions to alter the
shape of literary formulations of neoliberalism.
It would seem that the fragmentary, relentless, politicized features of liberalism are
precisely what is needed for a Joe to appear. In the wake of a hurricane, Joe is able to
successfully transform his private fetish, portrayed as utterly passionless, into a widespread

Carsella 18
public utility. For the office environment, Lightning Rods comes to be on par with Internet in
terms of productivity value. What is interesting to note about Joe is his similarity to Patty
Berglund, insofar that they both refer to themselves in the third person. Somewhere around
midnight the idea came to him. Joe, he said, youre in big trouble. (17) Patty disallows
herself the opportunity to become a subject. Joe is using personal historicizationutter
subjectivity, in order to instruct the perceived reader on how to behave as laborer and participant
in society, a non-communal collective that is not one. (Power 62) Joe is in no kind of trouble,
but Patty is. This seems to be an underlying statement on objectivity, the expected role of the
feminine, again enacting precarity while the ability to be subjective allows the individual to only
create precarity.
One of Joes most marked characteristics sustained throughout the novel is his lack of
distraction. He is disinterested in the short-term gains distraction supplies. (DeWitt 59) Part of
Joes winning personality is that he recognizes the utter obliteration of self, replaced with utter
readiness to commodify for any and everyone. His beliefs in how to attain success reflect his
utter adherence to what Nina Power describes, nothing prevent your full immersion in the
glorious world of work. (Power 23-24):
Its important to give that new job 101%, 25 hours a day, 366 days a year. You simply
cant afford to have any distractions. If the reason you gave up your old job was that it
was not sufficiently remunerative to enable you to meet your commitments, you may well
find yourself with some debts which it would be distracting to deal with at this time. Its
absolutely vital to start the new job in an area where any difficulties you may have
experienced in the past are unlikely to lead to unwelcome distractions. (DeWitt 6)
Joe, as a one in a thousand man who achieves a certain level of success, introduces the concept
of blame alongside distraction. It would seem that distraction is purely meant to take in the
consumer, and should an individual hope to succeed, hope to create consumptive opportunities,

Carsella 19
they better not get sucked into distraction as well. Joe is able to go off on imaginative tangents of
invention, and despite his brief entertaining of unrelated thought, Joe instinctually snaps back
into the producer mindset: The really interesting thing was that instead of getting side-tracked
the way he usually did he just thought: Screw that. (23) Apparently, the producer extraordinaire
mindset may use the rhetoric of penetration to stave off mental fragmentation.
Joe may have a handle on mental fragmentation, he has an even better on how to
effectively fragment the female body. As if to say, Helen DeWitt sees Nina Powers commentary
on breasts, and raises autonomous vaginas. What better anatomical part to represent exchange
and production? Joe does not have a vagina, I feel safe in saying. Though he does understand the
procedure of exchange associated with female anatomy and that he must adhere to this. The body
is about whats on offer, a la Nina Powers walking CV. (Power 21)
Joe: If youre a salesman, you have to deal with yourself the way you are. Not how
youd like to be. If you dont have what it takes, you can waste a lot of time asking
yourself How can I get what it takes? The question you should be asking yourself is, Is
there something else that takes what I have to offer? Because if theres something you
can succeed at, just the way you are, you wont have to waste a lot of time trying to
change yourself. Which youre never going to be able to do, anyway A salesman has to
see people as they are. Most people spend their lives trying to avoid doing that very thing.
Most people see what they want to see. (DeWitt 21)
Nina Power: So conditioned are we to think that our behaviors are individual (a degree
is an investment, starting a family is a personal choice), that we miss the collective
and historical dimensions of our current situation. (34)
The connection between these two selections is resignation, and the concept that success in a
neoliberal post-Fordist economy has to do with hyperawareness only of the individuals bodily
possessions. A result of this is the flattening of individuality for the laborer into amorphous
customization. Since interiority has been evacuated for the sake of productivity, the only
important discernible difference between laborers is how marketing is reflected upon and
incorporated into a body.

Carsella 20
Joes constant attention on how humans may do well to behave similarly to animals, that
humans ought to extrapolate the animal experience and identity as biologically-customized, and
utterly open to opportunity is of note. Particularly when considering the differences of interiority
between animals and humans. The inciting thought process behind Joes everyone should be
like a salesman speech is his attention to herons, sandpipers, pelicans and how naturally they
fish. Does it say Where theres a will theres a way and go flying low over the waves, beak or
no beak? Like hell it does. (DeWitt 20)
When Joe hits a snag, doubting that he perhaps shouldnt go ahead with the lightning rods
invention, he considers the procedures of dog waste, extrapolated onto human bodily function.
He considers why its okay for dogs to deposit turds on the sidewalk, but not humans, And by
actually looking at the question he was able to come up with the answer. (53-54) Is a successful
neoliberal laborer animalistic? Are the rules of the animal kingdom for gender and hierarchy
applicable to the office place? There is an argument being made in Lightning Rods to this effect.
Yet it is the out of sight, out of mind feature of civilization that galvanizes Joes enterprise:
Instead of a young girl jeopardizing herself by standing on the street in a dangerous
neighborhood, putting herself at risk you give her the opportunity to work in the safety
of an office environmentHer pay reflects the fact that she is providing an outlet for men
who would otherwise be putting themselves at risk. But the whole thing is conducted in
privacy The whole point of the arrangement is to avoid giving anyone cause to
offense. (54)
Offense is a wasted opportunity for penetration, after all. And the opportunity to feign the
qualities of the animal in order to get a leg up in employment is highly cynical of the value of
what it means to be human.
Helen DeWitt gamely incorporates into Lightning Rods the concept of the one in a
thousand laborer. Which is not a high figure at all.

Carsella 21
Perhaps one woman in a thousand would see this as no more than holding hands. Were
looking for that one in a thousand. I need hardly say that the difficulty of finding such
individuals is reflected in the pay. (44)
Once Joe fully embarks on his business venture, he discovers it is not difficult at all to find that
one in a thousand woman who can handle what his positions require. In his initial pitch, Joe
makes it clear that the office is the best place for a woman, regardless of her personal life. In fact,
her professional life may be the best version of a successful personal life. The professional is the
sphere with more opportunity for enhancement, and the site of safety from uncomfortable
I believe women identify their own objectives. Why, I could tell you storieswe had
one woman, a very bright gal, had her heart set on law school. She was looking at five,
six years of night school. When I outlined the package we were offering she said, Thats
me taken care of then. In two years I can earn enough to pay for a full-time program. But
its not just for the career-minded. Many women today find themselves bringing up a
family alone. A woman with a young family to support may find herself working several
jobs, evenings, weekends. Through no fault of her own she is not there to give the moral
guidance of a responsible adult. The children drift into drugs, crime. If I can give a
woman the opportunity to make her own choices you can bet Im going to do it. (45)
It is low-hanging fruit to mention that of course Joe, as a male, has the power to give a woman
opportunities to make her own choices as opposed to the woman having agency. But I mention
it nonetheless.
Once the feminine is fully integrated into the workplace under Joes direction, his
invention of the lightning rod creates complete male/male/female triangulation, along with what
of the deplorably overlooked Shulamith Firestone and her 1970 tract, The Dialectic of Sex:
Firestone takes seriously the implications of what she calls cybernetic communism, the
total emancipation of women (and men) from the shackles of biology via advances in
contraceptive, reproductive technology and alternative models of work and social
organization (Power 64)

Carsella 22
Once biology may be overturned in favor of not personal freedom, but financial gain, the
refinement of neoliberalism that Helen DeWitt is after may emerge. Her character Roy, the avatar
of the bloated, filthy, caricaturish consumptive figure of greedy, arbitrary power structures that
helped germinate neoliberal capitalism. He is alluded to early in the novel by way of his
trademark M&Ms:
[Joe] had read about a case where a man had harassed a woman by dropping M&Ms in
the pocket of her blouse and getting them out, and his firm had to pay her a million
dollars. Or it might have been more. (DeWitt 24)
While this may not have necessarily been Roy who perpetrated this crime, the customizing detail
of affinity to M&Ms as violating tool implicates him anyway. Roys fateignorance and
disappearance, condemn him for crimes his ilk have committed. Perhaps better putRoy is put
out to pasture because his slovenly position of power is outmoded. No explanation is given for
him being out of the loop as far as the existence of this new innovation. The scene when Roy
mistakenly perches in the portal is certainly hilarious. Roy continuously has the smoking gun, as
it were, right under his nose. After all, he is introduced in a chapter titled Trouble. His motto
on people, as a person in personnel, is tellingly different: One of the things you learn is never to
be surprised by anything people do. (113) Immediately, Roy is known to be slow on the uptake.
This spells doom for his success before you can say Jack Robinson, so to speak. He cant fathom
the turn that neoliberalism has taken in his office space.
The constantly mediated version of sex the lightning rods invention provides calls forth
facile comparisons to pornography. Pornography is the correct description of neoliberal
capitalism, yet the sexual aspect is the wrong comparison to draw when speaking of Helen
DeWitts office play.
The sheer hard work of contemporary porn informs you that, without delusion, sex is
just like everything else grinding, relentless, boring (albeit multiply boring) But sex-

Carsella 23
as-work is the lesser partner in the invention of porn-capitalism. Where does it all end up,
after all but in the money shot. The trajectory of the money shot is the history not only of
filmed pornography but also the sheer explosive pointlessness of capital itself,
[emphasis mine] abasing itself in a repeated act of onanism that blinds and silences the
other in a gobbet of slightly disappointing sexual-Tippex. (Power 51)
Truly, the biological and the economic are unified in Lightning Rods. The germination of new
life, as signified by copulation, is beside the point. Yet the instinctual drive to come to orgasm is
not. Repititive masturbation means not only openness to penetration, but relentless production;
this redefines not only an individuals mental process, but ones biological processes.
Experimental fiction allows Helen DeWitt to escape facile caricature of hefty, complex
concepts and politics. A realist representation of questionable politics arouses suspicion, for the
writing and even the author may appear too polemical, too opinionated, and thus too easily
brushed off by personal disagreement. Experimental representation, enactment of questionable
political principles, allows the reader to suspend suspicion as to what the author is getting at.
Focus on the narrativethe hows and whys of what is depicted are a back-door pathway to
thoughtful critique.
If one is to look closely at the formal features of this novel, it takes no time at all to
recognize how difficult it is to summarize or explain. Lightning Rods can be thought of as
fictional take on the American Dream mythos success story. It can be seen as an autobiography
of a paragon of business. It can be taken as a portrait of the fusion of man and his product. It can
be taken as a sexual satire of the office. Choosing any one of these to categorize Lightning Rods
would diminish and flatten the work Helen DeWitt put into this piece.
The temporal choice having Joe retelling his story makes the question of success an
inevitable truth. That the novels arc can be imagined as a flow chart displaying exponential
growth and profit signifies a roller-coaster-type ascent into a future. All possible roadblocks to

Carsella 24
Joes innovation are solved in the flip of a page. Joes way of speaking triggers the idealistic
pabulum of mid-20th century cultural references, and that times illusion of capitalist manifest
destiny. That there is a bit of an imperialist undertone to a man who deals in feminized labor is
no surprise upon reading One Dimensional Woman, who takes much time to articulate how
feminism has been hijacked to form a rhetoric of neoliberal capitalism. (Power 11) It is the play
with history and the temporal that sears the page in Lightning Rods. That Joe is so able to
circumvent difficult renders him an avatar of the neoliberal stranglehold in the 21st century. Not
only bodies, not only ideology, but history itself has become atomizedthe past, present and
future are omnipresent and available for use.
In Freedom, this relentless sameness across the board howls bleakness, and settles for
that. Helen DeWitt, in contrast, is able to redefine the bleakness. Helen DeWitt puts a face on all
the conjecture and signification that occurs of a more realist text. The slicing and dicing of
bodies, of sexuality, of identity revolve around a central series of questionswhat happens to
society if the concepts of neoliberalism are taken to a logical conclusion? What would that look
like? How far away is that eventuality? Do we care? Whats to be done about it? DeWitt does not
double down on the idea that knowing, or awareness of the faces of neoliberal troubling is
enough as Jonathan Franzen does. While he is quite effective at replicating the sticky wickets of
family and politics, he only goes so far. It seems Helen DeWitt took great pleasure in making
blatant the absurdity of gender, of labor, and the simultaneity of importance neoliberalism causes
in all facets of existence. Her efforts are what cause the reader to laugh, take a breath, and then
do a double-take in recognition of the underlying machinations of Lightning Rods neoliberalism.
The last line of the novel, In America anything is possible, is the perfect double-edged sword

Carsella 25
of societys hope, and societys shadow. (DeWitt 273) That it is a line attributed to George
Washington, which feels wrong, furthers the distortion of history mapped onto possibility.
So what does savaging idealism have to do with all of this? Certainly, it is clear that the
idealized version of the individual as a unique, valuable by virtue of ones self has been thrown
out the window. Certainly, it is clear that the ideological, idealized feminine remains a site of
precarity for the patriarchal systems of economy and politics, no matter how laborized or
feminized they have become. Such systems have selective memory. I hope that it is clear that the
utilization of mid-20th century ideals of an American Dream for all, of self-actualization, of using
the past to create a vastly wonderful future is purely a ploy in this millennium. The promise of
the pastthat all participants could craft a legacy of their greatness is far from a guarantee for
the rights and equality of society in the future. Marketing potential opportunity is starkly
different from being future-focused, and this defines neoliberalism in a new way. Taking
Freedom and Lightning Rods into consideration as a lens, it would seem that neoliberalism has
no interest in forging new idealsthe affective fuel for forward momentum and development.
Neoliberalism and its features are doing quite well cashing in on known histories, positions, roles
and ideals. This is the essence of societal precarity.
My hope in concluding is not to be trite. At the end of the research and the evaluation of
these two novels from two different modes of fiction, it seems that neoliberalism, along with its
endless circulation of the past, is propelling society toward a post-human return to a simpler,
animalistic state. A de-evolution. The neoliberal novel asks us how many times a person can be
chopped up and reduced before personhood disappears. The neoliberal novel asks the reader to
desire identity, to strive for an undigested answer. The neoliberal novel seems to thirst not for

Carsella 26
idealism, autonomy, or authenticity, per se. Thats old news. Thats what gets one into a pickle.
Rather, it thirsts for the relief of something essentially stable.

Works Cited

Carsella 27

Berlant, Lauren. After The Good Life, An Impasse: Time Out, Human Resources, and
the Precarious Present. Cruel Optimism. Durham and London: Duke
University Press, 2011. Print.
Brouillette, Sarah. Introduction. Introduction. Literature and the Creative Economy.
California: Stanford UP, 2014. 1-19. Print.
Brouillette, Sarah. Work as Art/Art as Life. Literature and the Creative Economy.
California: Stanford UP, 2014. 34-55. Print.
Brouillette, Sarah. Conclusion. Literature and the Creative Economy.
California: Stanford UP, 2014. 200-208. Print.
Irr, Caren. The Resurgence of the Political Novel. Introduction. Toward the
Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Columbia UP,
2013. Print.
Power, Nina. One-dimensional Woman. Winchester, UK ; Washington, USA: Zero
Books, 2009. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Introduction." Introduction. Between Men: English
Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. 1-15. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles. Between Men:
English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. 16-27.
Williams, Jeffrey J. "The Plutocratic Imagination." Dissent 60.1 (2013): 93-97. Project
MUSE. Web.