Hold on to Your Shit

Rachele Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction: Legacies of the Avant-Garde

Palgrave MacMillan, 253pp, £66.99, ISBN 9781137590619

reviewed by Rona Cran

In 1539, according to Dominique Laporte’s eccentric and provocative History of Shit (1978), King François of France, patron of the arts and instigator of the French Renaissance, issued an edict to the city of Paris:

Hold on to your shit. Dispose of it only in the dark night. Remove your pigs from sight beyond the city’s walls, or I will seize your person and your goods, engulf your home in my capacious purse, and lock your body in my jail.

Sanitation engineering may not have emerged until the late nineteenth century, but, as the French king’s edict makes clear, the problem of what to do with our waste, particularly when it impedes on that which is deemed beautiful or valuable, is an old one. As his edict also demonstrates, a ‘capacious purse’ usually helps solve the problem – but, of course, any solution is always temporary, a holding back of an inevitable tide. Whether in 16th-century Paris or 20th-century New York City, waste does not willingly confine itself beyond city walls. As Maurizia Boscagli writes, matter is ‘unruly’; it is also unquiet, and always tells a story.

The relationship between capital, waste, culture, and narrative is at the heart of Rachele Dini’s compelling, insightful, and beautifully-written book, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction: Legacies of the Avant-Garde. About a third of the way through the book, Dini presents a vision of New York City according to Donald Barthelme that flips King François’s plan for Paris on its head: ‘Garbage in, art out.’ Barthelme’s appreciation for the American city’s famously filthy streets is illuminating when applied to Dini’s book. Her overarching theme is ‘the radical potential of waste’ – radical in the sense that waste both disrupts literary realism and capitalist culture, but also because in the hands of the novelists she discusses, waste functions as a powerful tool with which to resist and undermine ‘the capitalist grid’. In turning garbage into art, Dini argues, novelists from de Chirico to Don DeLillo invite reflections on ‘the ways in which capitalism shapes our perception of objects and people, and, relatedly, our aesthetic and moral judgments.’

Situating her readings of a range of authors including Giorgio de Chirico, André Breton, Mina Loy, Samuel Beckett, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Donald Barthelme, and William Gaddis within an argument that views waste as ‘intimately tied with commodities’, Dini persuasively demonstrates waste’s centrality as a trope in ‘countercultural fiction intent upon resisting capitalism’s enveloping of language and art.’ She takes as her point of departure Ellis Sharp’s 1998 novella, The Dump, set in a contemporary, London version of the Paris city limits, where the narrator is in thrall to the ‘enigmatic scraps’ that make up an immense landfill on the fringes of Walthamstow, and is aware of the power of waste ‘to echo and parody mainstream society and throw its peculiarities into relief.’ She proceeds to frame each of her subsequent key texts as meditations ‘on the meaning of value’, exploring ‘the relationship between disposed objects and the human stories that resulted in their disposal.’ Garbage takes myriad forms in the novels Dini discusses. It functions, she demonstrates,

metaphorically, as a sign of a system gone awry, or literally, as an obstacle to production; as a reproach to our compulsion to consume, or as a means to shock and arrest us into thinking otherwise; as something produced and expelled by humans, or as a category to which humans themselves are relegated.

It is also ‘posited in redemptive terms’, whether through Breton’s reclamation of an object dreaming at an antique fair, or Beckett’s waste-dwelling hobos, or DeLillo’s waste managers. The result is an expansive and energetic series of analyses that reveals the use and portrayal of waste in twentieth-century literature to be both dynamic and problematic, from Mina Loy’s use, in Insel, of a ‘homeless scavenger’ to parody the contradictions inherent in the radical avant-garde, to DeLillo’s suggestion that, as Dini puts it:

the capacity for our excretions to subsume us goes beyond the physical – it is not just the physical space taken up by garbage, or what toxic emissions might do to our bodies, that is at stake, but their role in the shaping of individual and cultural identity.

In calling attention to the ways in which it highlights ‘the all-seeing nature of the streetsweeper’, or the resistance posed to ‘the productivist paradigm’ by injured bodies, or the dependence ‘upon homogeneity and a totalising narrative’ of ‘consumerism and war, terrorist plots and organised sports’, what Dini does best is articulate the socio-political power of the literature of waste. In doing so, her book takes on a self-reflexive quality, uniting with the narratives she presents in ‘enjoin[ing] us to relate to inanimate matter and to each other in other ways’, and to see the world and other people ‘for something other than their use-value.’

As Dini herself acknowledges, quoting Susan Signe Morrison, waste in literature is ‘so pervasive a theme, topic, metaphor, and element’ that ‘an exhaustive study of it would amount to an account of the entire Western canon.’ She therefore sets herself a brief designed to narrow the field and focus, choosing to concentrate ‘specifically on waste’s role in testing the limits of realism and the tenets of capitalism, and the intersection between these ideas and Surrealism’. Whilst revealing, it also proves to be somewhat limiting in its specificity, for two main reasons. The first is that, in focussing purely on fiction, it excludes the work of waste-inspired poets like Frank O’Hara, Adrian Henri, John Ashbery, AR Ammons (whose National Book Award winner Garbage (1993) was inspired by a Florida landfill) and Luke Kennard, each of whom might otherwise fit the criteria. Secondly, and more importantly, the result of such a critical Venn diagram is a corpus of writers who are all, with the exception of Loy, white, male, and straight. Where are the women and people of colour in this resistance against the panoptic power of capitalism? What is the queer take on ‘the radical potential of waste’ to counterbalance the heteronormativity of literary realism?

Perhaps such responses do not exist, in which case some discussion is warranted as to why literary depictions of waste, particularly when ‘deployed in the critique of capitalist ideology’ in an avant-gardist tradition, remain the preserve of straight white men. Marguerite Duras and Jennifer Egan are mentioned with tantalising concision, as is (briefly) Scott Herring and Martin F. Manalansan’s ‘compelling’ suggestion that hoarding, or ‘“wayward relationships to material objects” might be seen as both radical and queer’. But writers like William Burroughs, Ralph Ellison, Jean Genet, and Leslie Marmon Silko, each of whom appear to fit Dini’s criteria in several ways, are not mentioned. And although her concluding chapter considers ‘literary depictions of waste since the turn of the millennium’, works like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy (2003-2013), Annie Proulx’s Bad Dirt (2004), or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), which are in various ways connected to Surrealism and concerned with capitalist debris and remaindered humans, do not feature. The homogenous, heteronormative hangover of Surrealism and the ‘Western canon’ looms large over this otherwise excellent book.
Rona Cran is a lecturer in Twentieth-Century American Literature at the University of Birmingham, and the author of Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture.