A Writer Reads: Trash as Literary Treasure

(A post from guest author Mary Burns)

My Struggle 3What is literature going to do with the no garbage movement?  In the third volume of My StruggleKarl Ove Knausgaard leaves indelible images of the dump where he and his childhood friends found stacks of dirty—in  all senses of the word—magazines that they snuck away and hid in the woods.  Margaret Laurence’s, The Diviners, features a refuse collector as one of the principal characters, the unforgettable Christie.

“By their garbage shall ye know them,” Christie yells like a preacher, a clowny preacher.  “I swear, by the ridge of tears and by the valour of my ancestors, I say unto you, Morag Gunn, lass, that by their bloody goddamn fucking garbage shall ye christly well know them.  The ones who eat only out of tins.  The ones who have to wrap the rye bottles in old newspapers to try to hide the fact that there are so goddamn many of them.  The ones who have fourteen thousand pills bottles the week, now.  The ones who will be chucking out the family albums the moment the grandmother goes to her ancestors.”

The DivinersHaving just returned from our local dump, I can tell you there’s little to spark a writer’s imagination.  The impassive guy in the trailer who is responsible for the before and after weighing of vehicles and giving directions?  He is the face – the main character – of the garbage dump.  If he came out from behind the window where he operates the electronic scales, he might prove to have as much potential as Christie.  But, as it is, he remains only a face at the window of the trailer in the garbage dump.

Actually it isn’t called a garbage dump anymore, but the landfill site, as if land needed filling.  Who has ever heard of hollow land, unless it is honeycombed with tunnels or mined, which creates a similar effect.  A long drive uphill through forest leads to this bald place at the top.  No smoke evoking The Inferno, but the smell of something burnt coming from somewhere.  Open sand-clay ground dug out in places for “bins” that are actually big craters below grade, easy to throw things into.  One for scrap iron, one for building materials, others I was discouraged from investigating, because people are not supposed to wander around.  A separate turn off leads to discarded-appliances-ville, where naked white fridges blandly shoulder over stoves and washing machines as if in some apocalyptic Best Buy franchise.

With a small load of scrap metal, the remains of a rusted out barb-b-que, I got nowhere near anything like what Christie saw.  There has to be a place for ordinary garbage—from the one-can-per-household our garbage trucks are allowed to pick up—but it was nowhere in sight.  Perhaps beyond a slope where there was a sign, NO ENTRANCE.  At bin number four, a kid of about eighteen—tall, hard-hatted, high-voiced—helped me unload my trunk. “Nope, no bears,” he said, “not since the electric fence was put up.  We can’t keep out anything with wings, though.”  We looked to the sky where a handful of large crows swept towards what sounded like an eagle.  Eagles are not as profuse in summer as in winter when there can be … did he say thousands?  His words got lost in the grind of a truck motor, or in my distraction.  There’d been a small job to do yes, to justify the trip; but I’d had expectations for this dump.  Fantasy exceeded reality again.  My camera remained on the passenger seat.

UnderworldA civilization is defined by what it throws away, reminds a review of Don De Lillo’s Underworld.  But how it’s thrown away says quite a bit, too.  The recycling movement has transformed town dumps.  What is thrown away is dissembled, washed, flattened, and divided into pieces that may be barely recognizable for what they were once part of.  A challenge to piece together a novel from this disparateness, but maybe free verse, as in this by A.R. Ammons: (From Garbage)

“much can become of the clear-through plastic

lid: it finds security in the legit

museums of our desecrations–the mounds, the

heights of discard . . .”


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