The Walmart Book of the Dead, by Lucy Biederman. Melbourne, Australia: Vine Leaves Press, October 2017. 70 pages. $12.99 AUD, paper.
When I turned sixteen, I started working as a stocker and cart pusher at my mother’s Walmart Neighborhood Market. She joined Walmart when I was twelve years old, a single mother trying to keep up with the skyrocketing rent in our Texas suburb. On morning shifts, my mom and I even worked together, scanning in DVDs like Short Circuit (1986) that our store kept near the front as nostalgic impulse buys. On weekdays, I worked until 10PM and started my homework after I clocked out. I often came back to an empty apartment, because of my mother’s ever-changing Walmart schedule and the extra part time jobs she had to take on the side.
The night before I took the SAT, my mom and I had to move out of our apartment because we could not pay rent. Our Walmart money could not buy us a two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs. I moved in with my girlfriend at the time, and my mom moved in with her now ex-boyfriend, who was recently arrested on counts of forgery and drug possession with the intent to distribute. I wonder what would have happened if my ex-girlfriend’s parents had not taken me in. I still associate their living room furniture, which served as my bed my senior year of high school, and relaxing with their family dog, a Chow Chow mix, with stability.
Reading Lucy Biederman’s The Walmart Book of the Dead, it takes thirty-four pages to find someone at peace with Walmart. “He’s basically the king of the electronics area,” the section’s unnamed narrator brags. “If you can’t live on the salary they’re giving you here, that’s on you … He pulled himself up by his bootstraps by starting in grocery and working his way into electronics, increasing his hourly salary by, well, it would be rude to say …”. In this section, as in many others, Biederman captures a desperation that feels unique to Walmart. From an associate in the electronics department ready to tell his rags to riches story, to a later narrator who brags about causing a “little domestic scene” at the cash register in order to get away with stealing bacon, Biederman perfectly articulates Walmart’s ability to renegotiate our definitions of happiness, success, and decency within the store’s boundaries.
Biederman’s The Walmart Book of the Dead is fashioned after the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a funerary text with accompanying illustrations and spells to preserve the deceased’s spirit in the afterlife. While the Book of the Dead navigates the afterworld, “the afterworld of The Walmart Book of the Dead,” says Biederman in the promotion materials for her book “is a Walmart.” She believes the Book of the Dead is “as audaciou[s] as any contemporary work of experimental writing.” While much of contemporary experimental writing (see: Chris Sylvester’s Still Life with the Pokémon) is unendingly devoted to popular culture and gives the illusion of being totally independent of influence from classical texts, Biederman utilizes the Egyptian Book of the Dead’s spells and illustrations to give structure to each wave of narrators.
The spells in The Walmart Book of the Dead are chants delivered by unnamed narrators. They are usually brief, but fluctuate wildly in emotional intensity. One disembodied narrator considers the “mystery yeast perfume” of Subway, while the most desperate spell begs us for gas money, “I seriously just ran out of gas and I’m not at all a drug addict, I honestly swear I just ran out of gas … I could turn my life around, please.”
Illustrations follow each spell and usually elaborate on the particular strain of suffering outlined in the text above it. The illustrations are not images, but instead pieces of micro fiction. Here we meet people whose ears are bleeding out, people who are too high to leave the Walmart parking lot, and people who should go to Walmart, but instead spend the night at home thinking about their mother. My favorite narrator is a man caught stealing a CD player from Walmart, who is overcome with sadness when he realizes a CD player is “exactly the sort of item that someone who steals would steal.” Like the spells, no one in the illustrations is given a name. They are unidentified, shapeless life forces that cannot stray too far from a Walmart. Simon and Garfunkel and the O.J. Simpson trial journalist Dominick Dunne make appearances in The Walmart Book of the Dead, but the only entity that appears throughout the book that is allowed to have a name and a physical form is Walmart itself.
“[Walmart] is rarely mentioned in our literature,” Biederman declares in the promotional materials for her book, “I wrote this book in order to mention it.” She is certainly successful on this mission, and it makes me wonder why I have ignored Walmart in my own writing for so long. My mom recently celebrated her fifteenth anniversary at the company; she still has to look at the schedule printed in the breakroom to know when she will work next. She has not seen a dentist since she joined Walmart, but insists her wisdom teeth only debilitate her once a decade. When my mom comes to visit me in Arkansas, she stops in Oklahoma to try her luck at a Choctaw Casino. She has no retirement savings. In Arkansas, I live only twenty-one miles away from Walmart’s corporate headquarters. I often visit the university buildings the Walton family funded, and the stunning American art museum, Crystal Bridges, that the Walton family made possible. As I visit Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, which permanently resides in Bentonville, Arkansas, thanks to the Walton family’s wealth, I remember being functionally homeless my last year of high school while working in their stores. The Walton Family constantly reminds me how well they treat strangers, as opposed to their own employees.
In The Walmart Book of the Dead, Biederman perfectly captures everything about the Walmart work experience, from the “hard FUCK sound” a pallet makes when hitting the ground, to the aforementioned rantings of the “king of the electronics area.” Much of The Walmart Book of the Dead, to Biederman’s credit, comes off as nauseously masculine. At a time when much of the country is learning or remembering the atrocities made possible by male anger and insecurity, Biederman presents us with narrators who appreciate the way “the wall that holds the guns in Walmart throbs,” or a narrator clad in Trump attire who is “proud of his lack of education. Anti-education, he calls it.” Biederman embodies these narrators and allows them to represent themselves fully, with an unsettling mix of hostility, vulnerability, and humor. As one of these narrators quotes from a meme: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate … but that we are powerful without measure.”
A year ago, I successfully defended my thesis to complete a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. I discussed working class neurosis in a graduate classroom within a well-endowed university, in front of distinguished faculty members. A year ago, my mother voted for Donald J. Trump in the 2016 election. She kept her MAGA bumper sticker facedown on the kitchen table, knowing that many would frown upon the gamble on Trump her and many of her coworkers were making. When we are angry with loved ones, with institutions, with entire governments, and wonder how human decency fell off a cliff, Biederman’s The Walmart Book of the Dead serves as a capable roadmap. Although the text is structured to make Walmart ever-present and perennially culpable, the company’s exploitative behavior towards the working class and minorities has become such standard operating procedure across the country, that the aimlessness of Biederman’s narrators always feels like our current, collective, aimlessness. Like the Walmart electronics employee who shops at CVS “so as not to abuse his Walmart employee discount”, and who convinces himself “[i]f you can’t live on the salary they’re giving you here, that’s on you”, Biederman’s The Walmart Book of the Dead guides our souls through the power structures we are most likely guilty of enabling and that undoubtedly lord over us.
James Ardis is the author of Your Arkansas: A Strategy Guide (Gauss PDF, 2016), a project that combines psychosis and video game strategy guides. His writing has most recently appeared in FreezeRay, Devil’s Lake, and Leveler. His most recent criticism is available at The Collagist, Entropy, and The Rumpus. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.