Lost in the Supermarket
If you read contemporary fiction from the wealthier parts of the Anglophone world, you might have noticed characters experiencing a variety of disturbances while shopping for groceries. Shopping itself is, of course, a perennial theme in fiction, as it is in life. Most great French 19th century novels are about the danger of spending too much on shoes (A Sentimental Education, Père Goriot), or one’s mistress’s shoes (Cousin Bette – really any Balzac novel). A whole host of characters from Madame Bovary to Clarissa Dalloway to Moses Herzog go into the shop giddy with often pitiable desire.
Another group of characters are more conflicted about those desires; at the cash register they find themselves face to face with the hollowness of their satisfactions, with the paltriness of the desires they have been taught to have. Especially in later fiction, the choice between eight different kinds of detergent becomes an arbitrary sign for the meaninglessness of modern life. But neither of these traditional customer experiences are quite the same as the moments of vision the supermarket has occasioned during the last decade or so.
The disturbing quality of the supermarket is a motif in, for example, Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020). Her novel’s narrator, Lizzie, introduces it like this:
We were at the supermarket. All around us things tried to announce their true nature. But their radiance was faint and fainter still beneath the terrible music.
Offill does not mean to offer a diagnosis of consumer culture’s hollowness. The terrible music is not merely terrible as a song produced by Jack Antonoff might be. Here, the word ‘terrible’ still bears the ineradicable trace of terror, present like the ‘forever chemicals’ in your blood. What has been done to things in the supermarket is not meaningless: it is terrible. As the novel builds towards its climax, Offil makes the scale and nature of the terror explicit. By the close, she is asking the reader to ‘Consider the earth’s diminished radiance’. The catastrophe of the global economy, made palpable in climate change is not a vacuous spectacle. What is wrong with the world is actually what is wrong with the world.
Consider the most commercially successful novel featuring one of these moments, Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021). Here, the Rooney stand-in character, Alice, recounts a nauseating time she had trying to buy lunch:
All the various brands of soft drinks in plastic bottles and all the prepackaged lunch deals and confectionery in sealed bags and store- baked pastries – this is it, the culmination of all the labour in the world, all the burning of fossil fuels and all the back-breaking work on coffee farms and sugar plantations. All for this! This convenience shop! I felt dizzy thinking about it. I mean I really felt ill. It was as if I suddenly remembered that my life was all part of a television show – and every day people died making the show, were ground to death in the most horrific ways, children, women, and all so that I could choose from various lunch options…
The sandwich in this case doesn’t just murmur about the general damage to the earth. It unpacks itself, becomes its constituent ‘back-breaking work’. Just for a second, it is not an object, but a reservoir of time itself, millions of years, beginning with zooplankton (what ‘fossil fuels’ are fossils of ) and ending with the sweat of underpaid global southerners, all ground up into your sandwich.
Similar moves – the genre of which we might call the supply-chain sublime – can be found elsewhere, generally in equally climate-conscious fiction. Just taking good novels as examples, we can find discussions of pre- packaged commodities not as objects but as stores and stories of monstrous social relations (as in how society is organised) in Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Lucy Ellman’s Ducks Newburyport, and, in a slight variation, Daisy Hildyard’s Emergency. Where, in the traditional attack on (or embrace of ) consumer culture, what you buy registers an attempt to make meaning – indeed, often a failed self-transformation that actually makes you a sucker – here, what you buy means so much more than you could possibly imagine.
The original sense of the sublime was much like this: the experience of something so much bigger than ourselves that we are confronted with our smallness, the limits of our imaginative or responsive capacities. The Alps are the classic example, as in Percy Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’:
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind…
Shelley and Rooney are both made dizzy by something sublime. Different detergent brands might represent the narcissism of small differences. But they sit a little bit like snowflakes on a mountain, atop the vast difference between the privileged Western consumer and the worker spending their life in ‘back-breaking’ labour, tearing up the earth, to make your treats.
The first of these moments that I remember reading was in 2014, from Ben Lerner’s 10:04. It occurs when the narrator, Ben, is out stocking up on supplies in advance of Hurricane Sandy hitting New York in 2012:
Finally I found something on the list, something vital: instant coffee.I held the red plastic container, one of the last three on the shelf, held it like the marvel that it was: the seeds inside the purple fruits of coffee plants had been harvested on Andean slopes and roasted and ground and soaked and then dehydrated at a factory in Medellin and vacuum- sealed and flown to JFK and then driven upstate in bulk to Pearl River for repackaging and then transported by truck to the store where I now stood reading the label. It was as if the social relations that produced the object in my hand began to glow within it as they were threatened, stirred inside their packaging, lending it a certain aura – the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself now that planes were grounded and the highways were starting to close.
It’s not a specific instant coffee. Indeed, Lerner avoids brand names, or anything that sounds like shorthand with a kind of scrupulousness that is both intentionally funny, and has been, I think, a little bit of a malign influence, a way for writers to generate a cheap estrangement from their own culture. But there’s a purpose to this distancing in Lerner’s work. Brands and symbols foreground a personal relationship with the product. They’re also a way of bringing ‘the economy’ under a writer’s control. Artists (or at least creatives) make brands. They make symbols that convince you to invest them with power. Considered as a kind of human, meaning-making practice, the economy can be made to make sense, as anthropologists used to make sense of Polynesian gift-economies. Such concerns animate novels like William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition or Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, where the economy is a system of symbols and signs. Characters become obsessed with the parallel between artistic meaning and the meaning of commodities. This is not what happens in the novels I’m talking about.
In Ducks Newburyport, which does feature long lists of brand names, the lists’ point is not to distinguish, but to blur, to erase difference: ‘the fact that all in all we’re really just a normal Joy, Pledge, Crest, Tide, Dove, Woolite, Palmolive, Clorox, Rolaids, Pepto-Bismol, Alka-Seltzer, Desitin [then 60+ additional brand names] household like everybody else’. What matters is not just the lack of difference between the consumers ‘like everybody else’, but the lack of difference between the products. They all take resources to make and they all leave a trace in the body. Ducks is a book about contamination, of which meaning is one of the less significant subsets. Of course it’s the narrator’s chief tool, as she tries to make sense of her life, her family and her cancer, but its importance is vastly outweighed by products and pollutants.
In some ways sublimity is the experience of something indifferent. You might have a personal relationship with the Alps, but you don’t matter to them. The same is true of the forces that needed to be summoned, across time and space, to make the sandwich or your coffee. Characters in these books are not bewitched by the symbols of ‘consumerism’. They are well aware of the environmental costs, the exploitation, and of the error of thinking that their most profound desires might be satisfied by the products. But they buy them anyway. Your awareness, in one sense, doesn’t matter. What is one pebble to a landslide? The indifference casts you back onto your own, your human mind.
It’s probably not a coincidence that these abyssal supermarket aisles can be found in novels, that, if not all ‘autofiction’ in the sense of purporting to be the real life of the author, draw on one of the features of that mode that helped make it popular. They do not follow the arc of a character’s life, rather they are attempts to map out the scope and limits of self-awareness. Even Rooney’s pretty conventionally character-driven novel is punctuated by emails that seem to go beyond the needs of characterisation towards thought for its own sake.
This move towards the essayistic might seem a strange choice for authors to make. Being a dupe of social and political forces might be a better story. An uncharitable reader might think that a performance of self-awareness is simply a way of asking to be forgiven. People descended from those displaced by the ‘majesty and murderous stupidity’ of our current economic model might judge the author to be one of the less bad ones, at least.
Certainly, forgiveness is what’s longed for in the 2010s sitcom The Good Place, in which the situation is the afterlife. That show gestures in its own way to the supply-chain sublime, when one character, a demon, Michael, explains why no one gets into heaven any more:
Life now is so complicated, it’s impossible for anyone to be good enough… These days, just buying a tomato at the grocery store means you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploited labour, contributing to global warming. Humans think they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making.
Theodor Adorno probably made the point better when he wrote that ‘wrong life cannot be lived rightly.’ Then again, unlike Michael Schur and his writers’ room, he didn’t have to also tell a 40-odd episode story about personal growth. And so The Good Place proceeds to rewrite the rules for entry into heaven to show that it’s the thought that counts.
But before dismissing such wishful thinking with a reflexive injunction that what matters is structural forces, not personal feelings, it’s worth taking seriously the value of such stories, as stories. As much as their concerns are with the world, these fictions are concerned with their own art. Personal growth is and always will be the driver of the novel, of stories. More important than questions of goodness or complicity, the use of the supply-chain sublime is an attempt to figure out what kind of stories can be told at the scale of the global economy, not how best to tear it down.
One of the things novels typically do, and always have done, is dramatise or exemplify the complex tensions between personal conduct, especially desire, and wider social life. A boy feels the humiliation of his class position more intently because of his love for a girl who scorns his filthy boots, and so on. But the relationship between the average citizen of a wealthy country and the global economy that we are increasingly urged to visualise as a single thing, enmeshed as it is with a global climate catastrophe, is pretty hard to depict through a story, especially, of desire, of couples, and families, the good old-fashioned forms.
Perhaps the one really successful form for depicting the global economy in the twenty-first century has been the novel of migration. But this has largely remained unexplored by white citizens of wealthy countries who seem not to feel they have ways of convincingly voicing migration. So if you stay put in the privileged centre, and have feelings about climate change or any other ‘systemic’ problem, as most of the writers discussed here do, you might instead choose to confront it at the level of your or your character’s thought, their self-awareness. And where does this thought actually get close to touching the global economy? Maybe in the supermarket, where we put our money where our mouth is, where we weigh up our desire for steak against a liveable biosphere. In neoclassical economics, price itself is a measure of desire, after all, a way of making seemingly incommunicable values (physical satiety, concern for the future) speak to each other. Maybe there we can see a character’s desires come into contact with society at large.
These novels in a way all become stories of a developing sensibility, of writerly education. The kind of person who can see the supply chain in the coffee has learned a hard lesson about desire, just as characters in novels have always done. If every purchase and every price, and every forest torn down as response to these price signals, is a function of aggregate desire acquiring an inhuman scale, perhaps the weight of this knowledge helps to turn the mind back towards considering the value of individual lives. If the scene being contemplated is sublime, impossible to really take in, perspective becomes more, not less important. Perhaps being able to see the global scale of a problem testifies to our ability to act on that scale. Perhaps not. The world is still weighing it up.
Hugh Foley’s poetry and criticism have appeared in Poetry Review, The White Review, Poetry London, PN Review, and The Rialto, among other places. He is the author of an academic work on American poetry (Lyric and Liberalism in the Age of American Empire), and several study guides for children. He writes a Substack newsletter, Useless Concentration.
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