We are a society of consumers. In any of America’s 4,135 Walmart locations, you may find us observing our grotesque sacrament of consumption, enrobed in Duck Dynasty apparel and attended by trains of resource-gobbling offspring whose ominous chants for Monster Energy Drink and Despicable Me talking figurines can be heard halfway to the parking lot. We buy it; we break it, tire of it, or allow it to spoil; and we discard it. We are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and Black Friday is, as it were, our Black Mass. So, at any rate runs a popular line of self-flagellation — but to what degree is it true?
Jonathan Miles’s new novel, Want Not, hopes to make us think long and hard about this question. The book opens on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. Its three narratives, which cohere thematically but don’t much intersect in the contrived manner familiar to moviegoers, follow freegan squatters in Manhattan; the loathsome owner of a collection agency, his troubled wife, and his stepdaughter; and a middle-aged liguististics professor grappling with his failed marriage, his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, and a difficult project drawing on his knowledge of dead and dying languages.
The squatter plot recalls Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy (2011), a novel about a Florida anarchist collective. There is, if not quite a love triangle, an odd domestic arrangement: Micah and Talmadge take on Matty, Talmadge’s childhood friend and fresh out of prison in Oregon. They lecture him about freeganism in a way that is also for the reader’s instruction, just as one Dan Brown character might explain the Priory of Sion to another. Gradually, these characters do assume real depth; a flashback to Micah’s own off-the-grid childhood and subsequent wanderings (as far as India) furnish the book’s most exotic, poetic passages, as in this description of Indian poverty:
It wasn’t the makeshift blue shanties and lean-tos, or the women thrashing clothes on rocks, the men squatting to defecate in the shade of Peepal trees, or the naked, cinnamon-colored children cooling themselves in puddles — all this was too familiar, even nostalgically comforting, to faze her. What wrenched her, instead, was the unnatural landscape of the poverty: the scale, the density, all the degraded details. The coolant-green, battery-acid-yellow swirls in the puddle those children were cooling in. The mustardy burning-trash haze that strangled the breeze those women were sucking into their lungs as they paused between thrashings.
Matty goes through the motions of learning to scavenge, to salvage — in one very effective nail-biter of a scene, he is nearly flattened in a trash compactor — but his eye is on the main chance, and what he comes to find in his friends’ lifestyle is not salvation so much as criminal opportunity. Endowing Matty with this mercenary streak was a canny move on Miles’s part. It reveals a mature understanding that not everyone can be brought sincerely into the fold, that people will want what they want no matter how fully they may try to engage with the arguments of the pious.
As for Elwin Cross Jr., the linguist, we encounter him just as he’s killed a deer with his Jeep Cherokee. There was, conveniently, a time in Cross’s youth when he pored over “the Foxfire books as if they were Talmudic scrolls,” and under the influence of wine and nostalgia he decides to take the kill home and butcher it. Waste not, want not. Miles describes this process so vividly and in so dignified a manner that, rather than making the reader squeamish, it may have him clicking over to the Cabela’s website. Other things that Elwin refuses to discard include his technically totaled Jeep; Christopher, the drunken, buffoonish son of his abusive neighbor; his father’s memories; the endangered languages of micro-ethnic groups.
This may sound a bit too elegant, even pat, but it is mild in comparison with Dave Masoli, Miles’s laziest creation. Masoli is a Frankenstein’s monster of stereotypes. “An hour after eating Thanksgiving dinner,” Miles writes, Dave “was staring into the toilet with wide-eyed awe and admiration.” Yes, we are in for a bathetic rhapsody to a bowel movement — in Dave’s view, a whole bowel symphony — and like the scatological tableau in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, it doesn’t rise above the level of Tucker Max gross-out merely by being in an upper-middlebrow novel. It takes the book’s kitchen-sink approach to waste too literally and too far.
Dave is obnoxious, greedy, unscrupulous, homophobic, racist, a cigar aficionado, and, of course, a Republican. Ostentatiously humanizing a caricature like this, as Miles ultimately does, may be worse than having drawn the caricature in the first place. It suggests that Miles believes he is being imaginative, or insightful, or even shocking in proposing that a person such as Dave might also possess a soul. That most people are walking contradictions should cease to astonish around the time one’s history teacher reveals that Hitler was a vegetarian and Stalin wrote love poetry.
Miles’s plot, his superflux of character and incident, is at times as bloated as the America it examines. Want Not seems to crave pride of place with such “sprawling” books as Infinite Jest and Freedom. Miles includes an unsubtle advertisement for his own simile-laden prose style on the first page: One of his characters is “an inveterate analogizer who couldn’t help viewing the world as a matrix of interconnected references in which everything was related to everything else through the associative, magnetizing impulses of his brain. Back in college he’d read that this trait was an indicator of genius.”
Want Not isn’t a work of genius, but it is a triumph of careful planning. It is a book designed for book clubs and high school classrooms. Its themes and morals are, like one of those barn-owl-pellet science kits, both easy to unpack and, if considered in the right frame of mind, fascinating. Its reach may exceed its grasp, but it earns that oft-abused adjective ambitious. With the lone exception of Dave Masoli, Miles’s characters are well drawn, convincing, and easy to care about; his prose is intricate but reads at a good clip. But the greatest compliment one can pay Want Not is that it turns out not to be a didactic novel about reducing, reusing, and recycling. It may be just the opposite, a subversive argument that we are focusing our attention on the wrong sort of waste.
Elwin’s project is to help prepare a warning for a New Mexico HAZMAT dump, a message that will be intelligible to a civiliation of 10,000 years hence. It is an exercise in deep-time communication, and based on a real-life project at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. For all that well-educated Americans enjoy trash-talking themselves and their consumption habits, the deep-time warning makes us seem optimistically conscientous. Man, if by some miracle he endures another 10,000 years, may face far more serious threats than the presence of a radioactive junkyard. Yet he insists on making an effort to protect our children’s children’s children, ad infinitum. Good for him.
Call it love or humanity or something like it. But let’s not forget our actual children. The book describes one heartbreaking miscarriage, one live birth consigned to and rescued from a dumpster. Miles’s main characters are people who need to be picked up, dusted off, and repaired. Sometimes one suspects that Miles is instructing us not to worry so much about abstractions. “[G]arbage was the only truthful thing civilization produced,” Matty thinks, “because that’s where all the dirty secrets went.” Ask any archaeologist: We are that garbage. We’re all headed for the same scrap heap, as is our species, as far as deep time is concerned. It’s to our great credit that we look to the future, but we shouldn’t let our very fleeting present go to waste, either.