Waste, Eugene Marten. Ellipsis Press. 132pp, $10.00.
Eugene Marten’s Waste is blurbed up by the Lish School (including Lish himself) so I was expecting a quirkily written, intelligent effort more concerned with the structures of its sentences than narrative cohesion; what I got is a brutal, disturbing little novel that works beautifully both for those who read for story and those who read for the artistry—or at least those who read for those things but who can deal with a shocking amount of physical and psychological trauma distilled down into sharp, tight sentences.
The problem with reviewing Waste is it’s hard to talk about what’s so disturbing and brutal about this book without giving anything away, given that it’s a breezy 116 pages of big type and wide margins. Waste is about a janitor named Sloper, a manchild whose “life was an awkward silence.” He seems to be somewhat developmentally disabled, suffering the crippling social inadequacies that come along with that condition. He eats the leftovers from the garbage cans in the office that he cleans on the night shift; fantasizes about the women whose pictures he sees on the desks with their husbands or children (“When she was gone he jerked off in her shoes and cleaned them out with germicidal foam. You could use it on anything but woodwork”); lives in the basement of his mother’s home with wild neighbors renting out the upper floor; spies on the invalid neighbor and her caretaker.
Waste is foremost a study in isolation, not only socially but professionally: “Employees worked late and offered to trade jobs with him, without smiling. Or they said nothing, just sat motionless at their computers while he emptied their trash, looking buried, sealed in. He’d seen a movie once. A U-boat stranded on the ocean floor, sweating out depth charges. The look on the faces of the crew, the same pressurized dread.” Marten creates interesting parallels here: Sloper’s isolation from the workers whom he only sees if they stay late, the office workers’ isolation from the world as they sit in empty cubicles, and then the reversal as Sloper almost feels sorry for them and their jobs while he goes about doing a job that most people would not want to do.
Waste is a book in which there’s almost no language wasted, nothing extraneous. Sloper finds leftover food from a party in a garbage can and eats it in fear of discovery: “Sometimes you couldn’t wait for the microwave in the travel agency. You crossed your legs on the floor next to the trash can, alert to footfalls, the whisper of clothes, the jingling of keys. There were close calls. The rustle of paper in the fax machine was like hearing a ghost.” Even better, this description of the awful social interaction which takes place every day when Sloper arrives at work to get the keys from security bears quoting at length:
When asked for the keys the kid would, with the elaborate discomfiture of the mortally inconvenienced, roll his chair back from the console to the key box behind the desk, groping inside with considerable difficulty and reluctance, looking only with his hand, his eyes always on the monitors, eventually returning with a set of keys, proffering them with renewed disinterest, and on the point of dropping them into your palm, suddenly retract them, saying, “Whups, wrong set. You want number 4,” or “Sign the log first, fireball,” or would withdraw them in increments, making you reach further and further in for them, saying, “How’s that? Wrestling’s fake? Huh, fireball? Get you in one of them holds, see how fake it is then.” All the while never looking away from the screens.
The routine is set in place, and brings with it all the despair that comes with such a regimented, endless cycle (though not just for the janitors, but the office workers as well); it doesn’t seem to bother Sloper, who seemingly excels at his job.
There’s a major plotline of the book—the major plotline—which is written about in visceral and disgusting detail but which you can’t really bring up since there’s a pretty significant spoiler factor that comes along with even mentioning it, and ruins the surprise of discovering it in the book. But I will say that it’s base and brutal and in keeping with the loneliness and isolation and semi-brainlessness of Sloper’s life, in keeping with his significant difficulties with social interactions. Marten’s novel is moving and completely repellent, both of which are intentional reactions provoked by the author.
Scott Bryan Wilson is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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