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.”


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.


Postmodernity does strange things to time. We feel, for instance, that we live in a world in which everything is speeded up: it’s hard to keep up with the pace of innovation, the ever-new updating of technology, the merry-go-round of fashion, the wildfire rapidity of the media, the voraciousness of the TV and blog-driven news cycle, the instantaneousness of email and the Internet, and so on.

And yet while some things speed up, others slow down. Above all, the literal transport of people and commodities is getting slower rather than faster. In the air, the mid-twentieth century vision of supersonic passenger travel is long tarnished and dusty: Concorde never became a going concern and was retired with nothing to replace it; most contemporary jets are flown at less than their top speeds, so as to conserve fuel. The same goes on the seas: as The Observer recently observed, modern cargo shipping is now geared towards “super-slow steaming,” and trading vessels take longer to cross the oceans than did nineteenth-century sailing clippers. Meanwhile, on land, the density of traffic in contemporary cities means that road traffic has actually slowed as cars have replaced horses as the primary means of transportation: in London, for example, the average off-peak vehicle speed dropped from 12 to 10mph over the course of the twentieth century.

Cosmopolis cover

Cosmopolis takes such paradoxes of speed and time and would run with them if only it could. Unfortunately, however, its tale is set in a stretch limo that takes all day to cross midtown Manhattan from East to West. So it crawls, instead, albeit very luxuriously, stuck in traffic. But there is plenty to distract us within. For this is a limo that is fully equipped with plasma screen TVs, a microwave oven, a toilet, marble floors, cork-lined walls to keep out the ambient noise, even a map of the solar system on the underside of the roof. It may be a slow ride, but there are plenty of distractions along the way. Indeed, if there is a cosmopolis here, it is not New York, however much the crosstown journey manages to take in a presidential motorcade, a rapper funeral, an anti-capitalist riot, and myriad other encounters in between. It is, rather, the wired automobile as a node for the receipt and transmission of information: some of its screens show the currency markets in real time; others display the news from across oceans and continents; still others are closed-circuit TVs that repeat (in fact, anticipate) what’s happening in the car itself.

It’s possible that the cosmopolis may become smaller still: at one point the limousine’s owner, a twenty-something plutocrat by the name of Eric Packer, uses his wristwatch to hack into various financial systems and wipe out someone else’s multi-million dollar wealth. This same watch has a camera that is “a device so microscopically refined it was almost pure information. It was almost pure metaphysics” (204). At the novel’s end, it is on the watch screen that Packer sees or foresees his own death. It’s perhaps a sign of the novel’s (or the author’s) slight datedness that this digital aleph is a watch rather than a smartphone. In any case, the idea remains the same: space and time can become so concentrated in one point that perhaps it doesn’t matter how slowly we travel in physical space. Or equally, thanks to this instant availability of information, there’s no longer anywhere to run in any case: the car can stand in for the office; there are ever-fewer in-between spaces where we might be out of range of the call of capital.

We might say that the limousine incarnates a smooth space of capital flows that is folded within a rather stickier space of midtown traffic jams and public disturbances, even if (as the novel suggests) these can be effects of the system itself: a turbulence that is innate to the market.

But still the body and its cloying materiality intrudes: the point of the whole lugubrious journey is that Eric is a billionaire in search of a haircut. En route, he also has regular meals as well as a prostate examination and at least three sexual encounters. Some of these diversions can be more or less easily accommodated within the vehicle’s sedate progress along 47th Street: the doctor who examines Eric’s prostate is picked up from the sidewalk and does his business in the car while his patient talks to one of his financial advisors. More generally, Eric’s security detail, under the command of a terse man named Torval “whose head seemed removable for maintenance” (11), are trained to cover his every move and report on the latest warnings from a higher-level “complex” that studies possible threats and dangers to the slow-moving voyage.

Gradually his protection unravels, and Eric finds himself reduced to a naked body on a West Side street–though still as yet in the service of the image, for the occasion is a film shoot for which he has become an impromptu extra. The story doesn’t end there, however, and in a derelict building even as he dreams about “the master thrust of cyber-capital” and its promise “to extend the human experience toward infinity as a medium for corporate growth and investment,” Eric finds that “his pain interfered with his immortality” (207). His pain is “too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible, he didn’t think, to computer emulation” (207).

Moreover, the past also intrudes. Packer’s paid theorist has told him that “the past is disappearing. We used to know the past but not the future. This is changing” (86). And yet it turns out that Eric’s slow march westward is towards the past, not the future. He has been heading towards one particular barbershop, bypassing many others that are more conveniently located, for reasons of nostalgia and familiarity. Despite all his obsession with change and his constant impatience at the fact that even language cannot keep up with the pace of technology, he chooses to return to the barber who has always cut his hair, and who cut his father’s hair before him. He is drawn to the repetition and to the patina of age: “This is what he wanted from Anthony. The same words. The oil company calendar on the wall. The mirror that needed silvering” (161).

The body is not yet as far in the future as it wants to be, Delillo suggests. And yet it is precisely this temporal lag, this sluggardness, that provides comfort. It’s only in the barber’s chair, seeing himself in the mirror (rather than in the various CCTV screens that have surrounded him all day), that Eric finally “remember[s] who he was” (165). Here he can speak, confide in people and trust them: “It felt right to expose the matter in this particular place, where elapsed time hangs in the air, suffusing solid objects and men’s faces. This is where he felt safe” (166).

Eric is wrong, of course. He is not safe in the past, which catches up with him in the form of a vengeful former employee that he himself has long forgotten (if he ever really knew him). But even Eric’s sticky, all too corporeal end is a matter of putting things right. In the end, Cosmopolis is a paean to memory, and to the stickiness of both things and the language used to describe them.

But in a pitiless analysis of its language and style, James Wood excoriates this novel, and not without reason. He’s right, for instance, to say that what he calls the story’s “nineteenth-century heart” is never fully animated. In the end, we don’t really care for or about Eric Packer and his fate. What stays with the reader is the surreal, postmodern shell, rather than the turn to humanism that Delillo wants us to take alongside his unfortunate but unlikeable protagonist. So be it. Some novels crawl along and never quite reach their destination, getting stuck along the way.

Still, Wood goes too far when he argues that “Cosmopolis, so eager to tell us about our age, to bring back the news, delivers a kind of information, and delivers it in such a way that finally it threatens the existence of the novel form.” This book, and others like it that present us with what we might term a science fiction of the now (a vision of the future set firmly in the present day), supplement rather than compete with cultural theory or criticism. The attempt may not finally come off, but for all his techno-dystopianism what Delillo is offering is something along the lines of the plasma screens that line Eric Packer’s limousine: a version of what is to come that is almost infinitesimally but (precisely for that reason) uncannily ahead of what we actually have to live through in our own lives and bodies. This is what science fiction does, and it can only do so as fiction (rather than as futurology), with the freedom to speculate and to invent, if also therefore to fail.