Don DeLillo’s 1997 Underworld defies the conventions of usual landfill novels by demanding the visibility of waste rather than its invisibility. The psychological storybook that surrounds waste disposal in the twentieth and twenty-first century, I would argue, is increasingly one of blame, guilt and embarrassment. The waste we create on a daily, monthly, yearly basis is unacceptable and dramatically impacting our environment. It is no surprise that the main method of waste disposal involves digging a whole, burying our waste and covering it up with soil in the cleverly named ‘Sanitary Landfills’. We have a desire to see our waste disappear, whether we are watching the garbage man carry away our trash bags, or flushing our waste down the toilet (DeFina, 1991).
And, actually, opinions on landfills has changed dramatically in the twentieth century. As Martin Melosi states:
During the 1950s and 1960s, the prevailing wisdom among those involved in solid waste management was that sanitary landfilling was the most economical form of disposal, and at the same time offered a method that produced reclaimed land.
By the 1970s, however, solid waste professionals and others began to doubt the adequacy of the sanitary landfill exclusively to serve the future disposal needs of cities. The major point of discussion was the problem in acquiring adequate space.
This is interesting because it suggests an evolution in the way people think about waste and landfills, which on the one hand is met with the desire to make waste invisible through the use of landfills, but ALSO the desire to make landfills themselves invisible. So we see in America, large landfills being created on the periphery of cities, and the newly termed NIMBY syndrome: Not In My Back Yard (the twentieth-century attitude that dictates that landfills can be created, just not anywhere near me and my family.) In a study by Jenkins, Maguire and Morgon, a discovery was made that some communities are even offered monetary compensation for the inconvenience associated with living near a landfill.
This short documentary describes in real terms exactly what it was like to live near Fresh Kills, the landfill at the heart of DeLillo’s novel. One man describes how people would have to hold their breath and run from their cars to the mall because of the stretch. What this video makes clearly evident is the fact that despite the attitude in America concerning waste, there was no real attempt made to make Fresh Kills, or its waste, invisible. This is what DeLillo encapsulates in his novel by showing the landfill not through the perspective of passers by and residents, but through the waste management business.
Considering the highly negative attitudes towards the smell of Fresh Kills in the Borough President’s Office documentary, DeLillo has another one of his main characters, Brian, present a strangely paradoxical reaction to the sight and smell of the landfill. In an early scene, Brian visits the ‘three thousand acres of mountained garbage’, and DeLillo writes that ‘Brian felt invigorated, looking at this scene’ (1998:184). What should inspire disgust, here inspires delight. Brian even recognises the smell and the way in which ‘the wind carried the stink across the kill’ (1998:185). The phrase “the wind carried the stink” is repeated twice in this scene. DeLillo uses it as though it is a chorus, with the half-rhyme of ‘wind’ and ‘stink’ making the phrase even more whimsical. However, the phrase is also contradictory as, on the one hand, Brian enjoys the experience, but, on the other hand, readers are encouraged to have a negative response with DeLillo’s use of the word ‘stink’. It holds pessimistic connotations in comparison to more neutral words such as “smell” or “scent”. Predilection is not a warranted reaction to a landfill; therefore, DeLillo compromises the trustworthiness of Brian’s opinions through inconsistency.
Fresh Kills Landfill, with its almost religious stature as a sacred place, changes the aura of the environment into something very different from reality. The landfill becomes a space that is both made visible but justified in its visibility: we should see the waste we produce, even if this is purely to remind us of its existence.
DeFina, A. (1991) What happens to waste? Find out with field trips. The Science Teacher. 58(9), 12-17.
Jenkins, R. Maguire, K. Morgan, C. (2004) Host Community Compensation and Municipal Solid Waste Landfills. Land Economics, 80(4), 13-528.
Melosi, M. (2002) The Fresno Sanitary Landfill in an American Cultural Context. The Public Historian, 24(3), 17-35.
written by Layla Hendow, PhD researcher at University of Hull