From the Cemetery to the Junkyard: The City of the (Non) Dead

The production of “human waste,” or more correctly wasted humans (the “excessive” and “redundant,” that is the population of those who either could not or were not wished to be recognized or allowed to stay), is an inevitable outcome of modernization, and an inseparable accompaniment of modernity. It is an inescapable side-effect of order-building (each order casts some parts of the extant population as “out of place,” “unfit” or “undesirable”) and of economic progress (that cannot proceed without degrading and devaluing the previously effective modes of “making a living” and therefore cannot but deprive their practitioners of their livelihood).

—Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives

The cemetery, the first symbolic landscape that Kennedy introduces in the novel, is the abode that welcomes all and distributes the ruins of time into avenues, walks, and edifices. This perfectly planned city parallels too closely the social differences and the urban planning of the world of the living. The fact that “the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods” (1) is Francis’s first observation as he rides up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery with Rudy, a fellow bum, getting ready for a day’s work. With its avenues and monuments, the geography of the dead is more than a surface to traverse and leave behind after a day’s work. As described in the novel, the cemetery is the locus of heterogeneity and multiple narratives; it is not closed, coherent, and integrated, but engages a variety of discourses (cf. Massey 2005, 19). In fact, in “Other Spaces,” Foucault analyzes the cemetery as paradigmatic of the heterotopia that changes its function “according to the synchrony of the culture in which it occurs” ([1967] 2008, 18). Kennedy not only changes the function of the cemetery, but takes it out of its physical boundaries to encompass Albany as a whole. There is what Doreen Massey calls a “throwntogetherness” (2005, 140) peculiar to the cemetery that transforms it into an open place where distinct trajectories and stories coexist. As in novels such as The Hell Screens, by Alvin Lu (2000), the dead, that deeper layer of the present, are as awake as the living, and constantly interpellate Francis for his violent past. Francis, the in-depth observer, is alternatively a patient or defiant confidante, defending his behavior or sympathizing with the circumstances of his own dead. His palimpsestic spatial coordinates comprise those of the living and those of the dead, and he is able to see and listen to both. Like a pilgrim traversing the updated geography of purgatory, Francis seems to be in the midst of a dream vision, and characters “naturally” parade in front of him with their personal histories and cautionary tales.

Francis will also be reminded of the existence of the seven deadly sins, humorously updated by Rudy, his fellow bum, into the “seven daily sins.” The sojourn in this updated purgatory still has the purpose of repentance, and soon enough Francis finds himself purposely walking towards Gerald’s grave, where his son weighs the appropriate response to his father’s visit. The main impediment to his absolution is not that Francis dropped him, which was accidental, but that he abandoned him and the family when his presence was most needed. Francis eventually talks to Gerald, and this particular dalliance marks the first act of contrition in the novel that allows him to “remember everything” in the expanding “panoramic memory” (18) of the novel.

This is Francis Phelan’s updated purgatory, a tertiary space of simultaneous temporalities and ontologies, where the objective and the subjective live side by side, where the real and the imagined, the present and the past “consort together,” to use Hawthorne’s phrase, in the texture of the city.6 This intersection is verisimilar, in part because Kennedy situates us in a cemetery on Halloween, but also because there is a conceptual continuity between the physically dead and the social death of the homeless (Giamo 1996, 7). As Francis roams around the nocturnal town, we are allowed glimpses of the brotherhood of the desolate, the residue that is socially dead and refuses to go: “Bodies in alleys, bodies in gutters, bodies anywhere, were part of his eternal landscape: a physical litany of the dead” (9). This litany of the excluded refigures the Whitmanian celebration of the living and presents a residual vision of society, of those who, made redundant, literally clutter the margins of society. As opposed to the industriousness that characterizes regular society, the homeless seem to be idle and cultivate an attitude of indolence. As portrayed in the novel, the homeless population, like junk and garbage, lacks a place. Ejected by the system, the homeless bear the mark of social dissolution. For the rest of society, they carry around their own coordinates of exception and abjection, for they represent the undesirable excrescence that deforms the otherwise manicured texture of society. However, the homeless’s gloomy presence is necessary inasmuch as it feeds the fantasy that “social space in general is essentially an organic whole. Constructed as a negative image, the person without a home is seen as ‘the source of conflict in public space,’ created to restore positivity and order to social life” (Deutsche 2002, 402). The transient, the nomad, bears the symbolic importance of social blame, for it is him or her that “prevents society from achieving closure” (ibid., 403). The homeless thus figure as the remainder of society; it is through the hypothetical subtraction of this remainder that reality is founded and gathers strength (Baudrillard [1981] 1994, 143). This falling out of a presumed organic or symbolic space in society is intricately related to lacking a place, a center, or a base. For a home is not only a place, not only an individual or interpersonal haven that shelters dreams, but also a fundamental unit of social order that presupposes “a belief in family, stability, income, prestige, cleanliness . . . private ownership” (Giamo 1996, 12). No matter the kind of material the physical home is made of, the home is a vortex of order and coherence. Hence, to lack a home, to be a nomad, is tantamount to living outside the accepted cultural and ideological scaffolding of society, as well as the kinds of control that make the participants of that community reliable and trustworthy (Scanlan 2005, 32).

It is only fitting that Francis’s second day of work starts in Rosskam’s junkyard. If riding up the road of Saint Agnes Cemetery the protagonist noted the inescapable symmetry between the living and the dead, the junkyard provides another instance for assessing the adjacency of spheres and their mutual interdependence. Rosskam is the junk collector who goes from house to house on a wagon, buying rags and bottles, old metal, junk, papers, and clutter in general. He trades in the realm of the secondhand, whatever is no longer used, whatever needs to be disposed of. From the brotherhood of the dead, Francis moves to the “thinghood” of the useless, the physical clutter of market capitalism. Small wonder that Francis is taken aback by what seems to be another dream vision of a different kind of dead:

His eyes roved over a cemetery of dead things: rusted-out gas stoves, broken wood stoves, dead iceboxes, and bicycles with twisted wheels. A mountain of worn-out rubber tires cast its shadow on a vast plain of rusty pipes, children’s wagons, toasters, automobile fenders. A threesided shed half a block long sheltered a mountain range of cardboard, paper, and rags. (91)

Francis offers not a litany of the dead, but an enumeration of the discarded and disposed of. This juxtaposition offers us a vision of consumerism pressed and packed together in unprecedented collages, another oblique Whitmanian litany of America. The junkyard welcomes what has been devalued just like the cemetery welcomes the physically dead. Obstinate in their presence, and terminal in their absence of activity, things simply sit there, casting a general gloom, freed from the drudgery of having to be useful. Arranged in unprecedented orders, they just wait like empty signifiers, piled up in colorful, variegated layers, just like Francis and his entourage of bums clutter the margins of the visible city without much to do, thus defying the American work ethic. There appear, moreover, further similarities between the homeless and the junkyard: just as the objects are deprived of a former, “happy” life of usage in the face of the immediate fact that they are junk, the homeless seem to have been forever homeless, as if there were no personal history behind them, as if the present automatically erased the past. Like discarded objects, the homeless move below the visibility level of the city; to society, they are already dead, and they seem to be arranged on the same ontological level as the “sprawling scatter of pans, cans, irons, pots, and kettles, and a sea of metal fragments that no longer had names” (91).

It is in this undifferentiated geography of the undesired, however, that Francis finds the ability to piece together his own history. In the fashion of Irving Wohlfarth’s (1986) concept of the historian as chiffonnier or rag picker, Francis pieces together his “Proustian finds” (146) while he rummages through memory. As he drives around town on Rosskam’s wagon, he treads on the well-known geography of his childhood and early manhood. His spatial practices become a way of returning to the past, for memories are lodged in specific places that continue to bear the traces of past experiences. It is therefore possible to argue that revisiting them may unlock past hopes and desires that previously seemed to have been overtaken—and defeated—by the passage of time (Szondi [1962] 1988). When Rosskam returns from one of his sex-calls, he asks Francis if he had a nice rest. “It ain’t rest what I’m doing,” Francis answers. And indeed it is not, for his particular rag-picking in the past breaks the boundary between a past life—a successful career as a baseball player and a devoted father and husband—and the present; at the same time, the salvaging of memories unlocks the visible geography of the city. Space and memory intersect as Francis emerges into a visible Albany ready to return home.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >