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The Paris Overview – “The Useless Silence of Items”: Annie Ernaux and the Superstore

The Paris Overview – “The Useless Silence of Items”: Annie Ernaux and the Superstore

2023-05-01 10:29:00

Inside of the Wal-Mart supercenter in Albany. {Photograph} by Matt Wade, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Licensed beneath CCO 3.0.

The primary and solely time I went to the Walmart in Iowa Metropolis was surreal. After I was in highschool, my mother and father’ business-oriented small press had revealed a e book referred to as The Case Towards Walmart that referred to as for a nationwide client boycott of the corporate; the creator denounced all the things from the superstore’s destruction of environmentally protected lands to its sweatshop labor to its knockoff merchandise. So by the point I made a pilgrimage out to the superstore at age twenty-one, I hadn’t stepped in a Walmart for practically a decade, and it had acquired this transgressive energy—the very act of crossing the edge was as shameful because it was thrilling. Instantly, I sensed the shop’s anonymizing energy: exterior, I used to be close by the Iowa Municipal Airport, en path to the Hy-Vee grocery retailer; inside, I used to be anyplace. I didn’t know what I anticipated, however it was great, and horrible, and bizarre, and empty, but additionally stuffed with stuff. In the actual world, I used to be allergic to animals, however I discovered myself hypnotized within the pet aisle: snake meals, dry cat meals, moist cat meals, Iams, I’m what I’m. Every shade of paint chip within the Benjamin Moore show bouquet was extra erotic than the one earlier than. Primrose Petals, I Love You Pink, Fairly Pink, Scorching Lips. All the things was too vibrant, oversaturated, illuminated in fluorescent Tremendous Soaker–degree excessive beams. I wasn’t excessive; I didn’t must be. I barely noticed one other human, however the accumulation of issues constituted many lifetimes of residing. I used to be in a mass graveyard—a spot outlined by, as Annie Ernaux places it, “the lifeless silence of products so far as the attention may see.”

From November 2012 to October 2013, in Have a look at the Lights, My Love—revealed in 2014 in France and in 2023 in an English translation by Alison L. Strayer—Ernaux recorded her visits to the Auchan superstore in suburban Cergy-Pontoise, an hour northwest of Paris. Like all of Annie Ernaux’s works, Have a look at the Lights performs a proper sleight-of-hand in the easiest way, with the texture of a dashed-off journal however the felt expertise of a deeply philosophical meditation on the character of purchasing, voyeurism, late-stage capitalism, class, race, and need.

The Auchan superstore, the locus of Ernaux’s e book, is a nesting-doll “self-contained enclave” inside Trois-Fontaines, a conglomeration of town’s private and non-private establishments: publish workplace, police station, theater, library, and many others. Ernaux describes the apparently regular, bustling village of Trois-Fontaines as a trompe l’oeil city, a privately owned company heart that shuts down at night time. “There’s a vertigo produced by symmetry,” Ernaux writes, “bolstered by the truth that the area is enclosed, although open to the daylight by a giant glass cover that replaces the roof.” I’m reminded of the indoor mall in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas—the Discussion board Retailers—with its sky-painted ceiling reminiscent in zero methods of the Sistine Chapel. The roof cycles from gentle to darker blue in an accelerated but elongated model of time: days are thirty minutes, however there are not any weeks or years.

Trois-Fontaines touts itself as having each service that folks want, after which many that folks don’t. Along with the flagship Auchan superstore, there are: salons, pharmacies, a daycare, cigarette distributors, wheelchairs on mortgage, free bogs. And but, Trois-Fointaines has no lifetime of the thoughts: the bookstore and café closed way back. Although Trois-Fontaines has the looks of a bustling small neighborhood by day, as a result of it’s privately owned, the middle’s sealed off after enterprise hours: “while you stroll by it late at night time,” Ernaux observes, “after getting off the commuter practice, its silent mass is extra desolate than a cemetery.”

Have a look at the Lights doesn’t lay out a quasi-legal case in opposition to Auchan, neither is it a snarkily supercilious theoretical takedown of mall tradition. Somewhat, Ernaux faces the tougher emotional reality: you possibly can hate all the things the superstore stands for, and you’ll really feel someplace on the boring spectrum of bored to mildly uncomfortable while you enter, however finally, the superstore provides an actual alternative to really feel the sides of your individual anonymity, one you don’t get anyplace else. There’s a sure vulnerability in admitting that you just need to lose your self and that you just may end up amongst a group of objects you didn’t understand you wanted. There’s a bootleg pleasure in aimless shopping on this scale: like working, or swimming, or mendacity lifeless in corpse pose, there’s a relentless give up to bodily expertise. Caught in an inventory of countless stuff, you don’t have to decide on, or suppose; you possibly can simply be.

Floating by the aisles in Iowa Walmart, I couldn’t cease itemizing issues—camo baseball cap, Dustbuster, rest room brush—muttering a late-capitalist rosary: hail Massive Mouth Billy Bass stuffed with grace. Ernaux’s e book’s eros lies in its lush lists, the place we get to luxuriate in particulars. But Ernaux instantly acknowledges the need of restraint in each recording and experiencing, so to get pleasure from with out tipping into reckless abundance: at “an island of unfastened Italia grapes in bulk,” she notes, folks eat just one or two, “with a type of collective sense of permission whereby people restrict themselves to a couple grapes and are additional stored in test by others’ eyes upon them.” Auchan is a tempered Eden. As in purchasing, the e book’s pleasures lie in visible commentary, however even easy descriptions have a sure sharpness beneath the never-ending lights of her gaze. That is actuality in excessive definition; all the things has edges. But the superstore is that this bizarre mixture of a blur and hyperfocus. On a macro degree, Ernaux floats by the area; she’s alone, and she or he’s observing folks and objects as if suspended in jelly, accumulating objects for a future model of themselves that may by no means exist right here. We’re all the time trying to find the self we reside exterior the superstore.

There’s an amazing second when one other shopper asks, “Are you Annie Ernaux?” By this level, Ernaux has revealed practically twenty books and is called one thing of a public determine. “I can’t get used to the query,” Ernaux writes. “She is stunned to see me right here. She hates Auchan and virtually by no means comes right here. I inform her that I come usually and don’t thoughts it.” Maybe the fan is attempting to seem embarrassed to be caught in such a primary area, projecting that Ernaux can be above it; Ernaux reassures her that she comes usually. However as soon as she’s been outed as herself, she has to go right down to the principle ground “earlier than I can get better my tranquility as an nameless buyer.”

The superstore, in its simultaneous blur and hyperfocus, permits Ernaux to each see social ills in vivid element and switch them into a wierd subcutaneous layer faraway from actuality. Ernaux is making a form of catalog, however this isn’t so simple as it appears. She wonders whether or not to explain somebody as “a Black girl” or “an African girl” or just “a girl,” although she is aware of, per Toni Morrison, that to erase defining options will implicitly “whiten” the lady, to “textually deny her visibility.” Ernaux doesn’t tackle, right here, the act of gendering on this description—ought to she write feminine presenting? Keep on with particular person, which could instantly indicate male? Or would particular person in a purchasing context recommend feminine, through which case, it will be extra essential to mark a determine as explicitly male?

And as Ernaux continues to return to the shop, and stock not simply its stuff however its folks, she notices the deeply ingrained segregation, even on this supposedly egalitarian area. “There are folks, whole segments of the clientele, who won’t ever meet,” she writes. “Over the previous fifteen years, it has not been the presence of ‘seen minorities’ that I discover in a given place however their absence.” That disjunct extends to the shop’s employees: “We get informed off an increasing number of, it’s getting worse and worse,” a cashier tells Ernaux. “Within the language of mass distribution,” Ernaux notes, “the ‘prod’ of the cashier is the variety of objects scanned per minute. Three thousand per hour is taken into account a great quantity.” The cashiers don’t have any autonomy. The superstore sells the dream that we’re all the identical, and but, its very stratification on all ranges highlights how a lot we pull ourselves aside.


Whilst folks store greater than ever, tides have culturally shifted away from brick-and-mortar monoliths. Malls and superstores are bleeding out; Mattress Tub & Past is the newest to affix the nice Bankrupt Past. Arguably, this isn’t a tragedy. And but, there’s nonetheless one thing within the superstore’s vacancy that’s not like some other form of area; it’s deeply problematically promoting all the things, and it reifies hierarchies, however it’s additionally weirdly equalizing, its flatness and singularity of goal. “Upon leaving the superstore,” Ernaux writes, “I used to be usually overwhelmed by a way of helplessness and injustice. However for all that, I’ve not ceased to really feel the attraction of the place and the neighborhood life, delicate and particular, that exists there.”

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The vacations exemplify that promise and mirage of this place. December is the superstore’s time to fairly actually shine: “On the inclined transferring walkway,” Ernaux writes, “beneath the glass roof, we ascend towards the lights and garlands hanging down like necklaces of treasured stones. The younger girl in entrance of me with a bit of lady in a stroller seems up and smiles. She leans down towards the kid. ‘Have a look at the lights, my love!’” However while you exit the shop, you revert again to the world exterior the self-contained universe, the world past couture and counters and contours—when you escape the shop in any respect.

Have a look at the Lights was written pre-pandemic. By the beginning of 2021, many lengthy dormant purchasing facilities had been remodeled into vaccination websites. However whilst this growth felt in some methods just like the dystopian finish of the superstore period, it additionally appeared acceptable that the mall develop into a web site of hope, a magical jolt that would rework us into the following section of our lives. Deserted mannequins with exquisitely sculpted torsos and no faces watched us get our arms jabbed, within the hope of buying one thing apart from our present lives.

So Have a look at the Lights, My Love illuminates each the magic and the hellscape of the superstore. This can be a area divorced from nature, its personal ecosystem and echo chamber of horrors, the place night time is day and day is day. Ernaux’s diaries doc her entrances and exits from the shop, and the writing reveals that she’s caught there for complete days: if she’s charting who’s within the retailer from 8:30 A.M. to 10 P.M., she’s been there earlier than dawn, past sundown.


Adrienne Raphel is the creator of Pondering Contained in the Field: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling Folks Who Can’t Stay With out Them. Her newest assortment of poetry, Our Darkish Academia, was revealed by Rescue Press.

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