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1Waste is a somewhat Unidentified Literary Object in which the reader follows the meanderings and explorations of one Sloper in a literal wasteland. The character is a janitor in a faceless and nameless building and his job is to clean and collect the trash, at night, after most of the employees have left. He lives with his mother, more precisely in the basement, underneath his mother’s apartment and her stomping feet and he is subjected to her angry yelling against the tenants of the floor above hers, away from her sight and she from his. He feeds on the lunches his mother sends down the chute into the basement and on the leftovers he secretly collects in the empty offices and eats his findings while hidden in the elevator. Sloper is not quite an underdog but rather something of an invisible man in spite of his “big thick body” (4). He “[isn’t] much of a talker” we are told (32), and he barely speaks. And when he does, “he [is] a language unto himself” (23), a sign perhaps of his almost solipsistic nature. The narrative is in the third person, written in a prose creating a sense of detail without affect yet paradoxically contributing to the horrific moments in the text, made all the more gruesome by their being depicted with as much precision and distance just as Sloper’s careful cleaning of the building is. The narrative is indeed punctuated by a series of events: a dead body that comes down the trash chute in the building and which Sloper collects like the rest, the death of his mother in his abode, the circumstances of which are delivered by successive strokes, the mysterious death of a father, possibly eaten by fish and the finale, replaying the gothic trope of characters buried alive. Add to this the main character’s secret worship of dead bodies and necrophilia, and the clinical descriptions of his daily tasks take on an ominous dimension, fueled by his former employment at the morgue, evoked here and there in the novel. And what the reader gets is a disturbing and fascinating novel, somewhat demanding, with putrefaction at its core, pushing to its limits Donald Barthelme’s notion of junk or dreck, the snapshot of a culture of waste that feeds on the failures of the land of opportunities and on a constellation of semantic and literary associations.

2Sloper is to clean trash, not garbage, as we are told early in the novel: “The service preferred the janitors call it trash, not garbage, no matter what it smelled like” (11). The difference between the two words is tenuous, yet it establishes from the start the opposition between the corporate world for which Sloper works and the character himself. Preferring “trash” to “garbage” draws the line between “clean” waste (trash being combustible or non-combustible material likely either to be recycled or disposed of but immune to putrefaction) and abject waste (garbage pointing rather to organic or vegetal remains likely to be decomposed by microorganisms). The choice of words and the insistence of the text on such a choice highlight from the start several things.

3First, it delineates the social hierarchies that prevail in the novel and structure space, a mirror to the oscillation between clean and abject. The corporate building is a character of its own, comparable to a great machine likely not only to frame the daily and nightly worlds of those who work in/for it, but also to enclose the past. It is as though the building were to be rooted in the memory of a past which combines the clichés and the violence inherent in a process of conquest and eradication, as suggested by the “more traditional sensibility” that “preside[s]” in the new outfit of the top floor:

Historical. A bare-chested Indian whipping a herd of wild horses over a jagged escarpment. “Red Man’s Gold”, the sculptor declared. In the reception area a bulky squaw tended a pot hanging from a rough tripod. A tepee rose behind her out of the snow, in the foreground a frozen creek. A mountain man approached holding a rifle, leading his horse by the bridle. The frame was a rough-hewn rectangle of wood, chipped and scarred, that looked to have survived the era it now enclosed. The president preferred landscapes. (50)

4The description of the works displayed in the reception area is as frozen as the creek in the foreground and the introductory word, “Historical” is rendered all the more ironic and violent as it suppresses any form of context whatever. It is as though the word, singularized on the page, suffered no contradiction, but the authoritative, even authoritarian, truth-value it wishes to convey is reduced to the expression of stereotypes (the bare-chested Indian, the squaw, the tepee), traces of a world long ago destroyed. The herd of wild horses is replaced by a single bridled horse, probably through the action of the rifle (the mountain man, friend or foe?). The alliteration in /i/ (wild-rifle-bridle) creates the line along which the process of erasure is completed, nature tamed and Indians under domination. The Indian is translated into the language of market value (Gold), at odds with the relation of Native Americans to land, reduced to being just a brand (Red Man Gold being a brand of tobacco), a piece of advertising for the faceless and nameless power that dwells in the building. Only traces of “History” remain, contained within the cheap frame of a narrative that no longer holds.

5Each floor of the building is devoted to a specific trade: investment bankers on the 18th floor, production on the 5th floor, IRS accountants and employees panicking over the annual statement on the 24th floor, not to mention a partner in charge of legal matters, all the way up to the top floor, accessible only by taking a shuttle from the story below and necessitating a special key to get in. Whereas traces of human presence are to be found on all the other floors, the top floor appears as the quintessence of abstraction and of featurelessness. Even though a president is mentioned, the floor is indeed devoid of signs that it is peopled in the daytime, except for footprints whose job it is Sloper’s to erase:

When you took the footprints out in the offices you had to work around the furniture. In the open areas you worked in long single strokes, wall to wall, and when you reached a wall you started back in the opposite direction so that the grain of the pile swept both ways and the footprints disappeared in stripes, two shades of absence. (49)

6Shades of absence: this is the actual stuff the novel is made of. More than absence, what prevails are shades because, just like the waste Sloper collects, they are traces of inaccessibility, figurations of objects or beings perceptible only through the faint prints they leave on the ground, fleeting prints at that because they are subjected to strokes and stripes bound to disappear come daytime. Those “two shades of absence” condense in a beautiful phrase the ghostly nature of the text, underlining the ineffable presence of absence. Ghosts are indeed everywhere present, exhibited as all that has been erased and yet keeps resurfacing in this anonymous, mechanical, dehumanizing corporate world that tolerates no stain or blot on its surfaces of power. Not only can Sloper be seen as such a ghost, whose near invisibility allows him to enter and even violate the intimacy of the employees, but it also seems as though repressed elements keep coming back.

7Allusions, direct or indirect, pepper the text, allusions to the past, but also to literary forefathers. Most characters are nameless, reduced to their function or to their place in the social organization of the corporation. When they do bear names, the latter sometimes convey meaning. The surveillance agent is thus for instance called “Dedlow or Ludlow” (5) and the hesitation contained in the conjunction encourages the reader to read something in the two names. What they have in common is obviously the insistence on the low position of the character, both from a social and moral standpoint. He is a bully and takes a sadistic pleasure in handing the wrong keys to Sloper and chastising “the street people”:

He did not like being asked for keys—it would take him away from the monitors, especially those looking out on the exterior entranceways and alcoves, where street people frequently came to pee or defecate. These locations were fitted with loudspeakers, and the kid would watch and wait for that singular relaxed moment critical to the act before barking into the microphone: “This is not a public restroom! Take your business elsewhere!” Some fled though they’d already gotten started, and some finished what they’d begun (6).

8But the hesitation between Ludlow and Dedlow broadens the perspectives, bringing back to mind the Ludlow massacre of coal miners in Colorado in 1914 protesting against their work conditions in coalfields, and Dedlow might evoke the fictitious character of George Dedlow, a wounded Civil War captain, maimed in the war, reduced to trunk and head, and experiencing the presence of phantom limbs. In both cases, the names resonate with Eugene Marten’s novel, the former delineating the deadly opposition between the corporate world and the workers (the woman on the 24th floor, before disappearing, “[goes] to the ladies’ room carrying a magazine called The Progressive”, a magazine founded in 1909 by US Senator Robert M. La Follette and which tackles civil rights and civil-liberties related topics, 19). The other possibility brings back to fiction, but also to the haunting power of the Civil War and to ghost limbs in keeping with the ghostly presences in the novel.

9Sloper is said several times to be “not much of a reader” apart from the pornographic magazines his mother tears to pieces and in which there is indeed probably not much to read. Yet, his name, itself mysterious, unusual and possibly polysemic, brings to mind Bigger, the character of Native Son, which is also the name of a bar the character in our story never dares to enter. But again, Sloper appears as a maimed or deteriorated version of Bigger, bearing in its middle only one consonant, a shady version maybe of Bigger, an indication also of all the social and historical symbolic amputations the text brims with. And from that perspective, Sloper may also be read as a distorted vision of James Weldon Johnson’s ex-colored man and Waste as a rewriting of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Indeed, many allusions to passing for what one is not are made in the novel. For example, it is one of the things that fascinate him with the woman on the 24th floor about whom he has fantasies, wondering “if maybe she was passing for something she wasn’t, if there was something in her blood that was darker than her skin” (17). He also relishes having been called “Nigger” by his fellow workers at the morgue. And in the end, he does pass for what he is not, hiding his secrets in his basement and the pilfered food in his Rubbermaid carriage. But more than that, the web of references and the allusions to color partake in the sense of uneasiness created by the book, a form of recycling akin maybe to Sloper’s trade as a cleaning agent. In the character of Sloper, the Biggers and ex-colored men of the world appear like obsessions that haunt the character and the text, as an unresolved and unhealed wound at the heart of the society depicted in the novel, a token of the failure of the e pluribus unum motto.

10Those hierarchies and separate categories are inscribed in a chain whose ends never meet, mediated as they are by the careful segmentation of social and literal space. Interactions are scarce and when they occur, they create a sense of disconnection more than anything else. Sloper, the man from the basement yet also the ghost that haunts the upper floors is hardly ever addressed, spited as he is and even remaining at times totally invisible. It seems as though everything in the novel pointed the inadequacies of language, as shown in part by the necessity to adapt forms of communication to a multiplicity of idioms that fail to merge into a common language and need to be translated, an indication that social and linguistic origins remain enclosed into their own, separate spheres. The cafeteria in the corporate building is for example the place of the non-melting pot, where “everyone [sits] grouped roughly according to nationality, each table a linguistic faction” (21). A downward movement is thus performed when Sloper receives orders: “Speaking through the supervisor via the assistant, the building told Sloper a compromised had been reached” (3). The sentence works like the chutes down which waste (at work) and laundry (at home) reach Sloper, words tumbling down a line of segments (the supervisor, the assistant) which are merely the vectors of a disincarnate presence (the building), with its aura of almightiness, as if words were entirely disconnected from bodies. The irony is not lost on the reader when the sentence seems to stage a surprising short-circuit, bringing the building and Sloper close together in the syntax and seemingly uniting top and bottom whereas the linguistic chain is made of non sequiturs just like the waste that falls down into the basement is composed of remnants, of bits and pieces that do not cohere.

11Sloper is thus not a talker and language is at best mediated (sometimes by beeps when his paraplegic neighbor expresses herself cyborglike), at worst totally inadequate. And yet, it is also the place of fruitful collisions, creating unexpected and sometimes disturbing connections. I will take just one example, from the beginning of the book. The following sentence opens the second paragraph: “Flesh settles against bone, assuming new shapes, but Mexican is sloppier.” If the paragraph goes on about food (the leftovers of the employees’ meals), this sentence nonetheless opens an array of possibilities. It could have been uttered in the morgue, or by a medical doctor (unlikely), or by a murderer fascinated with decaying bodies. It seems to state at once that the novel will deal with bodies that (turn to) matter, ominously anticipating one of the meanings of waste”—kill. The text is ambivalent enough to rule out (or not) the possibility that some sort of serial killer hovers over the text: Sloper? The partner whose moments are interspersed with first narrative depictions of crimes, real or imagined? The result of Sloper’s hallucinatory imagination? An unknown criminal? Mystery remains until the end as to the death of the woman on the 24th floor. There is not much of an investigation either, but her body does turn to matter that keeps transforming itself into less than a corpse. But here again, language is all powerful and its force stems paradoxically from one who barely speaks, because precisely, he does not master language. Whenever he sees the woman on the 24th floor, the only one who is nice to him, he tries to speak but “Sloper never knew what to say to her. There were too many words to choose from. His mind would arrive at good and cool and his mouth would be unable to decide. It would come out gool” (19); which turns her unwillingly or at least unconsciously into a ghoul, an evil creature that eats human flesh, bringing into the picture the gothic elements that surface in the world of the mad man in the basement.

12Again, Sloper is not a talker and yet, he knows how to tell a story. As said earlier, the text is in the third person, but everything is filtered through the character’s gaze. Besides, the reader is sucked into the narrative by the omnipresent second person pronoun, that partakes as much in the impersonal tone of the novel as in a form of address. Because the reader has access to the character’s thoughts and perceptions, the dumb (in all senses of the term) Sloper appears indeed to pass for what he is not and turns out to be a manipulator, his dumbness concealing maybe “the treacherousness it obscures” (a sentence that recurs in the novel). When his mother dies, he takes his time dialing 911 because he knows “the trick was to come up with a story no one else could find a way into” (63) and he does so, carefully constructing the story he will feed the police and carefully suppressing details that would allow them to build an incriminatory narrative. Even though privy to Sloper’s thoughts, the reader shares only bits and pieces of the story of the character whose skills at storytelling result not only from the extreme rationality of a deranged character who knows that what matters in the end and in all fields, is the narrative arranging events according to the truth one wants to impose.

13Waste is in a way “a story no one else can find a way into, which is for the best. Because, if it allows moments of recognition, it also keeps the reader in doubt, leaving open all the linguistic and referential possibilities that are disseminated in the text as many poetic moments.

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Bibliographie

MARTEN, Eugene. Waste. New York: Ellipsis Press, 2008.

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Référence électronique

Sylvie Bauer, « Waste, by Eugene Marten: Lost in the Wasteland »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22687 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11x2x

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