Hundreds of years before Lunchables, bottled water and disposable razors, a proverb warned us, “Wilful waste makes woeful want,” which we’ve since trimmed to the even more thrifty phrase “Waste not, want not.” And yet we’re still throwing out 40 percent of our food and producing more than four pounds of garbage per person per day, raising great putrid effigies of each of us on the horizon.
Perhaps the only thing more shocking than all the stuff we throw away is all the stuff we don’t. This year, hoarding was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That was a late recognition of the anxiety driving the fastest-growing segment of America’s commercial real estate industry: self-storage. The Wall Street Journal notes that investors consider the business “recession-proof.” Apparently, no matter how bad things get, we’ll always cling to our junk.
Whether you’re a chronic hoarder or a censorious neatnik, make room on the shelf for this terrific new book from Jonathan Miles called “Want Not.” Best known for his first comic novel, “Dear American Airlines,” Miles is back with a complex, often hilarious, ultimately moving story about who we are and what we discard — subjects that have always been more intimately linked than we care to admit. “Want Not” is — someone’s got to say it — the best trashy novel of the year.
The story moves along three tracks simultaneously, building toward that annual feast of plenty and refuse: Thanksgiving. (Remember, most of what we know about the Pilgrims and the Indians — and all ancient peoples — comes from their immortal garbage.) Among Miles’s cast is a couple of devoted “freegans” squatting in an abandoned building in New York. Talmadge, a guileless young man, dropped out of college and almost died during a bad drug trip at Burning Man. He was saved by Micah, a female anti-consumer messiah, who was raised in the woods and remains determined to live outside the world of getting and spending. Taking a moment away from slicing rescued tofu and limp carrots for their Thanksgiving feast, Micah explains that “foraging is about refusing, on a totally personal level, to join in the overconsumption that’s just, just sucking the life from the planet. It’s about shunning commodity culture, or disposable culture, whatever.” Micah’s humorless orthodoxy (and rancid cuisine) would test anyone’s patience, and Miles’s imitation of her dreadlocked radicalism comes close to mockery, but his sympathy for her keeps this thread of the novel from ever sounding shrill or cynical.
Cynicism gets free rein, though, in another story line involving an obnoxious collections agent named Dave Masoli. He’s a miracle worker who can extract payments from junk debts, bills written off long ago and tossed in the financial waste bin. The key to Dave’s success, Miles explains, “was never to listen to the debtors . . . because then some empathetic instinct might kick in, causing their problems — the ex-husband gone south with his chippie, the disability preventing them from working, that sort of thing — to infect your problem, that being how to most efficiently convince them to pay money on a debt they had every liberty to ignore.”
Appropriately, this section on filthy lucre opens with a shockingly hilarious toilet scene that should make Jonathan Franzen flush with envy. But unlike the infamous talking turd of “The Corrections” or the bathroom disaster of “Freedom,” in “Want Not,” the excremental moment emerges from the dark theme of the novel. As Freud insisted, the way we regard our waste is linked to what we value, how we behave, who we are — profound questions, indeed, for the most obliviously wasteful nation on Earth.
That issue reaches its most glorious expression in the novel’s third story line: the tale of a linguistics professor whose wife recently abandoned him. We meet Dr. Elwin Cross on the night he hits a deer while driving home. Against all wisdom (and sanitation), he decides to stuff the carcass into his trunk and dress it for eating. That bloody scene eventually reaches a fantastic peak of absurdity, but even after the drama passes, we’re left to enjoy Elwin’s self-deprecating wit for the rest of novel. Overweight by at least 100 pounds, overwhelmed by a houseful of physical and emotional baggage, he feels used and useless: “Numb and fatter,” he thinks. “That was the best suit he could drape upon his future.” And his fatalism isn’t much soothed by his study of the world’s cast-off tongues: “Of the world’s 6,500 languages, only 600 would survive another generation, and what was Dr. Elwin Cross Jr. doing about it?”
In one of the book’s cleverest philosophical asides, Elwin is asked to help devise a warning to mark the nation’s repository for 800,000 drums of radioactive waste. How, the government wants to know, can we speak about our most toxic dregs to the next 400 generations? Elwin isn’t very hopeful about being able to communicate anything meaningful over that distance, and the assignment seems even more futile given the trouble he has communicating over just a single generation with his own father.
We’ve come to expect the gears of these multi-track novels to suddenly click together and form some mammoth narrative machine. But like a fastidious recycler, Miles largely keeps his story lines in three separate bins, letting them serve as independent facets of this fascinating exploration of the nature and meaning of our garbage. Then, when we least expect it, the characters brush against each other — sometimes with life-changing consequences.
Those moments contribute to a countervailing force in this reflection on the persistence of trash. Even as “Want Not” paws through the bones of prehistory, the wasteland of our modern economy and the ashes of the future, Miles’s elegant and thoughtful voice suggests that all is not lost. The novel may begin with prickly satire, it may dig deep into America’s disposable lifestyle, but it ultimately pivots to scenes of surprising tenderness. Despite our extravagant waste, despite our carelessness with each other, despite that temptation to despair that everything is flotsam and jetsam, Miles offers a heartfelt affirmation of human value.
That’s what makes this a novel to hoard.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Jonathan Miles
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 389 pp. $26