The Aesthetics of Dirt

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

One of the more interesting reviews of James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand is by Richard Gehr who, writing in the Village Voice, sets up a comparison between Ellroy’s novel and Don Delillo’s Underworld. For Gehr, Ellroy is “the anti-DeLillo of American lit. Disarmingly shameless and mediagenic, he is the ambitious, hard-boiled materialist to DeLillo’s elegizing modernist.” Both, however, cover “much the same ground”: they are sprawling attempts to catch the Zeitgeist of mid to late twentieth-century America. The difference between their visions is encapsulated, Gehr argues, in their opening and closing lines. The Cold Six Thousand begins: “They sent him to Dallas to kill a nigger pimp named Wendell Durfee.” Underworld starts: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” And where Delillo’s novel ends with the single word, “Peace,” Ellroy’s concludes with apocalyptic Oedipal violence: “His father screamed. Blood sprayed the panes.”

UHID

I wonder what would happen if we added Infinite Jest into the mix. It, too, is a long novel that cuts between a large cast of characters in multiple settings, slowly drawing the threads between them so as to say something about the country (and the culture) as a whole. Foster Wallace’s concern may be more late- than mid-twentieth-century, and he is more prone to satire than the other two (though in other novels, such as White Noise, Delillo shows a taste for the absurd). But perhaps what unites all three is an interest, bordering on the obsessional, with waste, surplus, and detritus. This, after all, is surely Underworld‘s central theme, from the baseball hit out of the park (in the “shot heard ’round the world”) to the aeroplane graveyards of the Mojave Desert or Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Among his characters are “waste managers” (113), “waste brokers” (102) and even a “waste hustler” (287) and a “waste theorist” (285). Ellroy, in his own way, is both fascinated and distressed by sleaze (note that The Cold Six Thousand is a sequel to American Tabloid), dirt, and the seamy underside to America’s glittering postwar successes, from mob violence underwriting the bright lights of Vegas to the squalid politics and private shenanigans behind the moral triumphs of the civil rights movement. Here, the key term is dirt, not least the dirt that some people have on others: “Mr. Hoover held dirt. Mr. Hoover leaked dirt” (197); “Pete wants new dirt. Pete wants hot dirt” (128); “He stacked piles. He skimmed sheets. He read fast. He rolled in dirt” (469).

In Infinite Jest, the dystopian cast of the novel’s near-future setting is sparked by the presidential election of one “Johnny Gentle.” Gentle is a “famous crooner,” chronic germophobe (“world-class retentive” [381]), and political outsider who has founded the “Clean US Party,” which sweeps to power “in a dark time when all landfills got full and all grapes were raisins and sometimes in some places the falling rain clunked instead of splatted” (382). It is Presidential Gentle who engineers the formation of the “Organization of North American Nations” and who converts much of New England into an uninhabitable toxic swamp (the “Great Concavity”) that he persuades the Canadians to annex to their own territory. By the time the novel is (mostly) set, it seems that waste is catapulted or otherwise thrown from long range into this wilderness, while vast fans ensure that foul fumes do not contaminate cities such as Boston. But the Concavity is not simply one huge rubbish dump. It is also the site of what appears to be an extraordinary means of generating power called “annulation,” by which a process of “natural fusion” converts the toxins into energy. This then produces an equally hideous environment, “the eastern Concavity of anxiety and myth” that, devoid of any pollutants, is “so fertilely lush it’s practically unlivable” (573). There is therefore a periodic lurch from poisoned wilderness to verdant rainforest, depending on the timings of the annulation process and the aerial bombardments of toxic rubbish: “from overgrown to wasteland to overgrown several times a month. [. . .] As if time itself were vastly sped up. As if nature itself had desperately to use the lavatory” (573).

In all three books, dirt is less “matter out of place” (in Mary Douglas’s famous definition) than the very fabric of society itself, or at least what pervades that fabric and cannot be excised from it except at considerable cost. Waste is everywhere, between everything, and as such it is as much a medium of transaction as it is a thing in itself. Dirt is traded or exchanged in all three books, if in different ways: bought and sold, acquired and leaked, catapulted and converted. More fundamentally, it is as though dirt (rubbish, waste, garbage) were what enables exchange in the first place: it is not so much excessive, surplus to requirements, as essential to human sociability. More abstractly, it is what enables bodies to interact with and encounter each other. Infinite Jest has a particular interest in bodies–its first line is “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies” (3), which is as “materialist” an opening as one could desire. Here, people are treated as things, as objects, albeit objects with a life of their own, with the capacity to surprise. (Note the motto: “Do not underestimate objects!” [394].) Some of these bodies, such as those of the Academy’s young tennis players, are chiseled and honed; others, such as those of the inhabitants of the halfway house down the hill are bloated and abused. These bodies seldom interact, but where they do the point of their intersection is a subterranean commerce in drugs or unmarked video cartridges (objects apparently discarded) or via the omnipresent dumpsters that line the streets and the tennis courts. There’s a constant movement between and around these locales as “garbage from the overfull receptacles blows out into the yard and mixes with the leaves along the fences’ base and some gets out into the street and is never picked up and eventually becomes part of the composition of the street” (583). President Gentle’s dream of perfect hygiene is not simply a fantasy (which, if realized, the example of the eastern Concavity shows would soon become nightmare). It is an aversion to life itself.

Where Foster Wallace perhaps differs from Delillo and Ellroy is in his interest in the aesthetics of dirt. This, I think, is the point of his fascination with the deformities produced by exposure to toxic waste: for instance, the boy without a skull, a “Concavity-refugee infant,” who’s worshipped at a South Boston Orthodontist’s house (559). Hence also the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, whose members take the veil, Joelle van Dyne tells us, because they are no longer afraid to hide: “completely up-front and unabashed about the fact that how we appear to others affects us deeply” (535). Dirt is an eyesore or blemish in increasingly plain sight: after all, the title of Gehr’s review is “Ugly America.” But just as life is unlivable without toxins, so perfect beauty is also a deformity: “I am so beautiful I am deformed,” Joelle tells Don Gately. “I’m so beautiful I drive anybody with a nervous system out of their fucking mind” (538). Again, we have a hint that the mysteriously deadly “Entertainment” involves Joelle is some way: its secret is perhaps a beauty that is so entrancing that it reduces its viewers to a shell of their former selves. In Infinite Jest it is purity or perfection that is the ultimate threat. A little dirt, a little ugliness, is far from superfluous or regrettable. It is the lifeblood of society.

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One thought on “The Aesthetics of Dirt

  1. Pingback: Infinite Jest | Posthegemony

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