Reviews

Materials of the Self

A review of Luke Geddes's new book, "Heart of Junk."

Luke Geddes wants us to think about stuff. Not the indeterminate matter that we refer to when we wave our hands in generalities: you know…stuff. But specific material (pack up your stuff and get out), the tangible—and in some ways intangible—items that make up our belongings: the books on the shelves, the music collection, the Eames lounger, the Le Creuset bit of cookery. If our personalities are constructs—momentary personas we build based on social context—what does our stuff say about us? Does it matter that we scout for first editions of our favorite novels, or dig for original mono mixes of The Stooges 7” singles?

This idea of stuff is what Geddes is interested in examining in his debut novel Heart of Junk. Why this stuff and not that stuff? Why is it important? What stuff should we get rid of, and what should we keep?

It’s fitting that Heart of Junk takes place in The Heart of America, the largest year-round antiques mall in Kansas. Here, any manner of stuff can be displayed with pride, put on a pedestal, fondled and fetishized. Each chapter of the novel is devoted to a different character, one of the damaged and doomed denizens of the mall.

High-strung Margaret, seller of high-end cut glass: “There were artifacts and then there were knickknacks. There were knickknacks and then there was junk.” Lee and Seymour, along with pissing off Margaret with their pop culture iconography, are aging gay hipsters who wonder how to hold on to their dying relationship as well as their punk-rock ethos in Wichita. Delores talks to Barbies and they talk back. Ronald deals in postcards and is delusional, but really, just wants someone to talk to and ease his grief. Mall owner, Keith, has accepted losing the mall and losing his wife, but is still clinging to his frayed relationship with his daughter. They are all recognizable, and none of them are likable. 

Geddes employs a third-person limited point of view, introducing each character in a sort of vacuum. And this is the joy of the novel. Geddes shapes and molds each character in relation to the stuff they own, sell, and covet: Seymour makes sure people know that he wears Red Ball Jets sneakers, Delores longs to own Growing Up Skipper. Not only does the use of objective correlative provide a vivid psychological representation, it also implicates us, the reader: what you carry, what you wear, what is it transmitting to those around you? Geddes knows which characters to stick with, and which ones to move on from. Some are better drawn than others, but it is to Geddes’ credit that each are imbued with their own voice and vitality. 

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a missing child pageant queen, Lindy Bobo (it’s hard not to read: Honey Boo Boo or JonBenet Ramsey). She is the novel’s McGuffin. The idea of her, what exists because of her absence, allows the characters to act. There is little action in the novel—lots of thinking, lots of talking—but when it is time for doing (and big, important things are done), the action serves as revelation and allows for real, meaningful change in more than one character.

Heart of Junk is a character driven book, and as such Geddes knows that we are all these characters in our little way. Geddes doesn’t so much skewer our current materialistic society as pick at it. Picks at it until it starts to bleed enough that we have to take notice. Take notice of the stuff we use to tell the world who we are, or who we want to be seen as, at least; the stuff that populates our Instagram posts, the stuff that stands in for experience: reproductions of verisimilitude, simulacra functioning at its highest.

When we buy new stuff, or show it off to others, it’s an attempt at something else. Seymour, while talking to Ellie, sums it up: “Nobody ever bought anything to make themselves happy. They bought things to fill […] an aching void in their curio cabinets, closets, hearts.” If we get rid of our stuff, what is it, really, that we’re afraid we might lose?

FICTION
Heart of Junk
By Luke Geddes
Simon & Schuster
Published January 21, 2020

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