How ‘Things’ In Fiction Shape the Way We Read

How ‘Things’ In Fiction Shape the Way We Read

How ‘Things’ In Fiction Shape the Way We Read

Sarah Wasserman’s recent book looks at how the objects we take for granted in stories can reveal even deeper meaning.


In the prefurnished apartment where I have spent most of the last year, I am surrounded by things that seem to vibrate strangely with something like life. On my desk, there are three interchangeable coffee mugs and another, for unknown reasons, that is special to me. There is a lamp that came with the apartment, whose bulb needs to be fussed over every time I turn it on. There are my beloved books, some of them dragged with me from apartment to apartment since college, gathering grime and dust on the shelves. There are certain objects of sentimental value—a reproduction of a painting that I bought at a museum last January, which I have propped against the wall. There is an empty plastic bottle of sparkling water, of which I am ashamed, and which will get crushed in next week’s recycling but which will also likely endure in another form like most plastics on the planet. Indeed, much of this stuff may, bizarrely, outlast me. Alternately, like a wine glass I knocked over last week while vacuuming, some of it may get smashed to smithereens.

Much of our material world is caught somewhere between disposability and permanence. It is not always clear what will last or what won’t; we stumble upon old stuffed animals from childhood that have strangely endured beyond the versions of ourselves that played with them. Or some things have an afterlife in new forms, one guaranteed by recycling or alteration. “Consumer habits shaped by a national ideology of progress and innovation have given rise to a frequently binary relationship to objects: either they persist, archived or curated to help stabilize individual and collective memory and identity, or they are disposable, cast out of sight and out of mind,” writes scholar Sarah Wasserman in her recent book, The Death of Things. “But between these two poles exists a greater number of objects that are neither quite lost nor quite present; neither dead nor alive, they are instead dying, coming to us in an ongoing state of ceasing to be.”

In The Death of Things, Wasserman writes about these paradoxes of permanence and transience that define our relationships with many objects. She describes the shifting material landscape of 20th-century America, and the changing relationship between Americans and their stuff during a time defined by the rise of cheap consumer goods, an increasingly globalized economy, wars and violence of all kinds, and changing cities defined by urbanization, gentrification, and displacement. The Death of Things is not entirely about the American relationship with trash, nor is it a book about hoarders and collectors and others trying to hang onto the fragments of the past. It is instead, she writes, “a book about books about disappearing objects,” a literary study that explores the way objects’ disappearance and persistence has been represented on the page, especially in 20th century novels. Wasserman’s incisive book considers what fiction can tell us about living among things that are so frequently disposable, such that we “confront at every turn not so much the death of things, but their perpetual dying.” The Death of Things manages to show us quite a lot, too, about how fiction can serve as its own kind of cache—one that doesn’t preserve ephemera, exactly, but creates its own kind of afterlives for fading things.

The pages of 20th century American literature are stuffed with stuff. When you begin to read for things, you will encounter them constantly: baseballs, bric-a-brac, books within books. There are dolls, chairs, paperweights, cans of ground coffee, red wheelbarrows. The plethora of objects on the page has fueled a branch of academic inquiry dubbed “thing theory”—a capacious subfield that ties together strands of material culture studies, art history, and literary studies, among other arenas. In his foundational book, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (2003), Bill Brown proposes a rereading of texts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to “ask why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or re-make ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies.” Brown reads for the relationship between things and ideas, and puts forth an account of literary objects that extends beyond commodity fetishism, a reading that stretches toward the strange vibrations of matter in literature and our lives.

Versions of this heuristic are flourishing in other humanities disciplines, too, among them philosophy and political science, often challenging the traditional distinctions between subject and object. There is a whole genre of popular literature dedicated to “object lessons” and investigations of “the private lives” of everything from coffee cups to car engines. Indeed, Wasserman asks, “Who really thinks of matter as static and stable anymore?”

Wasserman is not really reading for the presence of the thing but its absence, or more precisely its disappearance. Unlike other thing theorists, she is not so much interrogating the way we live among objects but rather what is generated by the constancy of their death. She homes in specifically on the category of “ephemera”: objects that were not made to be saved, like stamps and playbills and ticket stubs, which were often pinpointed to a specific event or time. “Unlike the stubborn fact of the obsolete object, ephemera are a fleeting currency,” Wasserman writes. “Unless cared for or accidentally preserved, they vanish into an unknown or unseen horizon. Defined by their imminent disappearance or destruction, ephemera call into question our most basic assumptions about matter.” What is generated, Wasserman asks, by the experience of living with things that are vanishing constantly? And, paradoxically, why does so much ephemera seem to persist, at least partially, saved in collections or now even suspended in digital libraries centuries after they might have been trashed?

In six chapters—on the writings of E.L. Doctorow and Michael Chabon; Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison; Philip K. Dick and Philip Roth; Thomas Pynchon; Marilynne Robinson; and Don DeLillo—Wasserman takes an expansive view of what constitutes ephemera. Indeed, her starting point might seem strange because it exists on a massive scale: the shining city of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which appears in E.L. Doctorow’s 1985 novel World’s Fair and Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Fiction about world’s fairs have been widely examined by critics interested in material culture, for their object lessons in technological progress, imagined futures, imperialism, and consumerism. But, Wasserman argues, many analyses of the world’s fairs have elided the central fact that their grounds were built to be destroyed—that the objects on display were “dying things housed in model productions that inevitably became mausoleums of modernity.”

Both Doctorow and Chabon touch on the decay and dismantling of the temporary cities in their novels. Their fictions pose questions about the doctrine of progress that the fairs were explicitly designed to promote. In World’s Fair, the narrator’s father visits the pavilions of Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands, to “pay his respects to these nations now lost.” Even at the fair’s opening, Wasserman argues, these pavilions had become a kind of ephemera. They marked a prewar moment that was in the process of passing, and already pointed to losses and impermanence. Rather than heralding progress, these pavilions would become a reminder that even nations disintegrate, just like the rest of the fair’s shining objects” But many of the fair’s objects were not totally erased. After the fair’s closing ceremony, Wasserman tells us, the Trylon and Perisphere, the two monumental modernist sculptures that became the central symbol of the fair, were stripped of their casing and melted into 40,000 tons of steel for ships, shell casings, and gun forgings in the American war effort. These things of the fair, then, were destroyed—but also endured strangely, in an afterlife inflected with death.

Wasserman argues that ephemera can include things that we might think of as fixed in urban environments: “signs and billboards, but also storefronts and subway stations, all things that reveal to readers everything that persists amidst radical transience.” She zooms out to include markers of infrastructural change in a chapter on Himes’s and Ellison’s depictions of mid-century Harlem, a neighborhood that was in violent flux amid “urban renewal.”

Himes and Ellison, Wasserman argues, “made indelible fiction from the paradox of gentrification, depicting Harlem in the mid-twentieth century as a black space undergoing a process of constant transformation that is never complete.” One way in which both writers do this is in representing how change is represented in the urban environment. In Himes’s novel Blind Man With A Pistol, one of the detective novels collectively known as the Harlem Cycle, he includes a sign that reads “chicken auto insurance, Seymour Rosenblum.” Temporalities overlap in this sign: The word “chicken” is a ghost from a bankrupt restaurant that was replaced by an auto insurance business with a white owner. This layering of past and present is indicated in an object in flux, but also one that appears to passersby sturdily embedded in the city’s infrastructure, such that white motorists keep stopping and asking for the chicken auto insurance.

Depictions both of sudden changes and the palimpsests of signage and structures of ownership in Harlem, Wasserman argues, help up as at once to recognize the loss inherent to gentrification and the significance of what endures. Representations of ephemera like these allow us to witness a moment in a spatial and temporal process, to freeze in time (or in writing) the layers of past and present.

One lesson here is that many types of things can disappear: mittens, coins, stamps, keys, grocery lists, ticket stubs, love letters, books. Cars are stripped for parts. Laptops containing repositories of our information fail to turn on one morning and become junk. Buildings are razed to the ground, and the signs on storefronts are cycled through year after year, representing change that is at once paper-thin and surprisingly deep. These material transformations exist on wildly different scales, but in all cases it is significant to read, and look, both for what disappears and what remains.

Lost things can persist, too, in the pages of books. Poet and novelist Ben Lerner wrote that he thinks about the novel as a “fundamentally curatorial form,” one which allows him to assimilate and rearrange objects into new contexts on the page. They can be real-life things, slightly altered, or entirely imagined ones. These real-imagined things can be textually destroyed, as in Lerner’s 10:04, when a damaged Jeff Koons sculpture gets thrown on the ground. Narrative fiction, as Wasserman’s readings demonstrate, has the unique ability to hold within it all states of an object’s life, from creation to destruction to the traces it leaves behind. This is, I think, why considering things through fiction is so fruitful; a narrative can imagine and hold a material world that is not in a single state, but in flux. As a result, her take on thing theory can help us see clearly that the material world around us is changing constantly, whether these changes are immediately visible, and whether it is happening quickly or slowly; it can allow us to consider the effects of both destruction and preservation. The novel, then, Wasserman argues, can function “as a storage medium that can save ephemera from the ravages of time and capitalism while simultaneously speaking to their disappearance.”

One of the most total acts of destruction that Wasserman writes about comes at the end of Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel, Housekeeping. The narrator, Ruth, and her wayward aunt, Sylvie, burn down their ancestral home before they flee the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho. It is a strangely ecstatic moment, and one that has often been read by critics as a kind of burn-down-the-patriarchy scene, a full movement from the domestic, repressive sphere into a new state of liberation. Wasserman reads the ending of Housekeeping differently, in part because she reads less for the annihilation of the domestic order than for the transience of things in a novel littered with minor objects.

In the final pages of Housekeeping, Sylvie begins to burn magazines that have stacked up in the house as a result of her neglectful domesticity. “I saw the fiery transfiguration of a dog, and the bowl he ate from, and a baseball team, and a Chevrolet, and many hundreds of words,” Ruth says. Magazines that lasted long past their issue date and which depict iconic images of Americana go up in smoke. Then, so does everything else.

Sylvie and I (I think that night we were almost a single person) could not leave that house, which was stashed like a brain, a reliquary, like a brain, its relics to be pawed and sorted and parceled out among the needy and parsimonious of Fingerbone…. For even things lost in a house abide, like forgotten sorrows and incipient dreams, and many household things are of purely sentimental value, like the dim coil of thick hair, saved from my grandmother’s girlhood, which was kept in a hatbox on top of the wardrobe, along with my mother’s gray purse. In the equal light of disinterested scrutiny such things are not themselves. They are transformed into pure object, and are horrible, and must be burned.

The images of burning things that Robinson writes are imprinted in my memory. I reread Housekeeping surrounded by the things I see daily on my desk: books, water bottle, poster, mugs. But almost none of these have the vividness of the burning house in Housekeeping. To read Wasserman’s book is to closely consider the power of these very real unrealities. Lost things often abide, and in fiction, they are given another kind of life. The Chevrolet and the dog and his bowl and the coil of the grandmother’s hair in flames are strangely more tangible to me in their nonphysical presence than my surroundings. These fictional things endure, in the moment of their burning, in the pages of our books.

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