Throughout the past few years, our attention has been drawn to Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic stories. We have been enamored with vampires and obsessed with werewolves. We have been compelled by the struggles of our heroines stuck in stark Dystopian worlds that are bent on control and destroying the independent nature of humanity. And yet, a small trend began to emerge right beneath our noses. This trend straddles the realm of the Urban Fantasy genre and is completely outside of where this genre has been going recently. Instead of shocking us with the horrors of what could be, this trend grabs our attention with its clever tongue-in-cheek. It uses description and setting in a memorable way and forces us to look in the mirror and evaluate what it is we as a society value. The theme or trend I am referring to, I shall call the theme of “stuff.”
Yes, stuff. I have now read two writers (and there could easily be more) who have utilized this theme to enhance their storytelling and scene-setting. The first is a well-known writer, the author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk. In his 2011 book, Damned, Palahniuk introduces us to Hell through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. But the narrator isn’t important. What is important, for this conversation at least, is all of the stuff that occupies Hell. Palahniuk’s depiction of Hell feels a little reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Even so, it is so much more than that. Hell is a place full of, for a lack of a better word, crap. There is a lake of saliva, a Shit Lake, a Dandruff Desert, a Mountain of Toenail Clippings, a “noxious Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm” and many more. Popcorn balls and wax lips serve as a sort of currency. Hell is basically a place where disgusting literal pieces of humans and human life land in order to further torture the occupants of Hell.
The second writer (who may also be well-known but prior to my reading of one of her books last week was unknown to me), Sarah Beth Durst, published a book called The Lost in May 2014. This book also utilizes a theme of “stuff.” Her purpose is different from that of Palahniuk and her items are decidedly less gross. In The Lost, the main character, Lauren Chase, winds up in a town called Lost and cannot leave until she figures out what it is she herself has lost which caused her to wind up in this strange, magical place. Things people have lost can range from literal items to figurative things such as yourself, your way, your purpose. It’s a clever little quip in my opinion and a lot of the story makes me think of a modernized and more grown-up version of Alice in Wonderland.
The town of Lost itself is also full of things that people have lost. These objects (ranging from cookies that fall behind the couch to paper clips, jewelry, priceless works of art, lunch boxes, whole houses and the occasional dead body) become the source of survival for the people who have become trapped in the town and they cover the landscape. The people of Lost operate on a barter system and spend their days scavenging for supplies (perhaps a half-eaten burger that hasn’t yet rotted for dinner?).
You may be wondering about the actual purpose of all of this stuff in stories and what the authors are trying to say. At its basis, it is a symbol for all the waste in our world and a poignant reminder of how important objects are, or at least are perceived to be due to pop culture’s fixation on stuff. In Palahniuk’s story, the waste is largely organic and human which suggests our overpopulation or overzealous occupation of this planet. In The Lost, the accumulation of junk that is likely coveted at the time by the original owner but then forgotten is symbolic of our societal dependence upon objects for the derivation of self-worth and our individual identities coupled with our transient nature. This illuminates the reality of the lack of importance that “stuff” has in the grand scheme of things.
Personally, I would be surprised if these writers were not in some way influenced by what we see concerning the importance of objects in various places in pop culture. TLC features television shows like “Hoarders” which is a depiction of the reliance on stuff in an extreme way (plus all the psychological bits) and “Extreme Couponing” which features the stock piles of people who are, at their basis, just glorified hoarders. Other shows reveal all the objects that wealthy athletes or movie stars accumulate. With these, and many more, it’s easy to see how fixated our society is on possessions.
Because our visual entertainment is not simply laced with objects but is instead completely overrun by them, it makes sense that a writer or two (and maybe more) would pounce on these things and use them to tell their stories. It’s a great way to connect with your reader through an idea with which they are already familiar. But, these writers take this concept to a level that far exceeds the depth of our television programs. As I read Damned and The Lost, I appreciated the cleverness of the writers which could be seen in the objects that appear in their worlds. And particularly with The Lost, I imagined the coincidental irony of using product placement for advertising in the film version of this story (not that a film version is on the horizon. It’s just something I thought about while reading).
The theme of “stuff” is not only an intriguing and clever literary device utilized by writers to draw a vivid picture of the worlds their characters occupy or to draw metaphors with the plot. This theme also cries out for humanity to reconsider its superficial preoccupation with transient objects and it urges them to remember the things that truly matter because if we do not, we may find ourselves up to our hips in human waste sooner than we think. Or maybe it’s just storytelling. Either way, it makes you think.