“What We Excrete Comes Back to Consume Us”: Waste and Reclamation in Don DeLillo’s Underworld

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    Abstract

    This paper historicizes the depiction of waste and recuperation in Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), whose fiction since the early 1970s has repeatedly examined American culture through its excretions. DeLillo’s novels repeatedly posit waste as the underbelly of consumer culture, a “mass metabolism [threatening to] overwhelm us,” while also reflecting upon the extent to which recycling has been subsumed into a cluster of values that collectively serve to justify continued growth. These narratives effectively confirm the reservations of Marxists in the 1970s, who anticipated industry’s co-option of environmentalism. Recycling in DeLillo’s novels is alternately cast as an obsessive-compulsive effort to classify and order; a derivative attempt to make art out of the nation’s most humiliating secrets; and, in Underworld’s closing narrative about a Kazakh toxic waste removal company, the most extreme form of unethical commercialisation of a devastating event. At the same time, DeLillo suggests that garbage can be put to historiographical or archaeological use: through language we might begin to reclaim meaning from our excretions. I seek to shed new light on the text by treating the waste matter represented therein in concrete rather than symbolic terms, and by showing how DeLillo in fact uses psychoanalytic or metonymical interpretations of waste only to deconstruct them.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages30
    JournalISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment
    Publication statusPublished - 5 Apr 2019

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