As its title suggests, vignette collection “The Wal-Mart Book of the Dead” by Lucy Biederman (Vine Leaves, 2017) serves as a bridge between two worlds: the living, or at least those with real-life experience working at or otherwise depending on a Wal-Mart, and the gods, those unseen architects and beneficiaries of American Late Capitalism. A tribute to “The Egyptian Book of the Dead,” the short fiction in this collection strikes the unlikely balance between the use of archaic language and descriptions of modern cultural and socio-economic forces. (“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” may have provided influence as well.) Incantations include “Spell: Standing in Line in the Gods’ Domain,” “Spell to Not Let a Man’s Truck Be Taken From Him in the Gods’ Domain,” and “Spell for Not Being Stuck Alone in an Alternative Dimension Forever.”
This collection also serves as a bridge between the worlds of poetry and short prose. Each entry, usually about a page in length, includes a spell to cast while the reader passes through the experience of shopping (or working) at a Wal-Mart. The prose itself is poetic, and I would argue for its definition as “poetry.” (Categorization matters little, however, and should not distract from the work.)
The narrator switches with each story to offer a new perspective on the hierarchy of Wal-Mart employees and the culture that birthed the enterprise. Troubled boyfriends shop for guns, the desperate sleep in their cars in the parking lot, and a cashier suffers thirst because a power-mad manager has banned employee bathroom breaks. This collection showcases a dizzying list of methods for shoplifting at Wal-Mart.
Let’s return to that woman barred from relief in the restroom (from “Spell for Not Eating Shit in the Gods’ Domain”): she was formerly incarcerated and intimidated into silence about abusive workplace realities. This narrator repeats the sentiment that after prison time, she is lucky to hold any job at all, thus introducing the collection’s voice for the incarcerated population of the U.S. Biederman’s thesis is clear in “To Know the Name of Those Who Are the Seven Gates of the Gods’ Domain, Their Guardians and Announcers.” The apparent Third Gate of the Underworld (perhaps the third layer of oppression that operates inside and outside of Wal-Mart stores) is the prison system. Here is the incantation: “Oh Lord, do not let me be like Albert Woodfox, 43 years in solitary in Angola Prison for nothing—nothing—nothing, who I thought about every day for several weeks, then thought of no more… And Lord, do not let me be like Haleh Esfandiari, who in 2007 went to visit her ailing mother in Iran and was accused of being a spy and put in Evin Prison, a scholar, a journalist, an activist for the freedom of women throughout the world. And Lord, do not let me be like my dad’s client, a philanthropic Democrat who ran a fleet of regional food service vehicles, sent to Cook County Prison for 11 months after a sham trail brought by the Republican-led USDA.”
This true litany left me feeling bereft after it laid bare the pipeline of the poor and people of color into the prison system of the United States. It also suggests that Wal-Mart is a part of the prison industrial complex, sustained by workers too weakened to demand better conditions. It’s an unsettling, though not inaccurate, claim.
Other gates of the Gods’ Domain include environmental degradation and climate change, the distractions of social media (for isn’t World of Warcraft a portal to another world?), barriers to education, and income inequality, to name a few. See “Spell for Passing Along the Land Route” for the anxieties of Black Wal-Mart patrons caused by the unfounded assumption that they are shoplifters or otherwise breaking the law. Anxiety further springs from the knowledge that police officers have and may again take the lives of Black citizens for presumed shoplifting. For shoppers of color, entering any retail establishment may very well be entering the Land of the Dead.
One of Biederman’s major accomplishments in “The Wal-Mart Book of the Dead” is that these larger forces, those of the Gods (or systemic oppression), are detailed in ways that are cogent effective, and yet, still humanizing. Each narrator is believable, though they reveal larger issues through their personal experiences. Done in the space of short individual pieces, this is no small task.
This makes Biederman a successful Virgil, a mortal’s guide to the unseen forces that damn mortals to poverty, deprivation and despair while they live (and work at Wal-mart). She also forces us to take a look in the mirror and see ourselves in a world haunted by oppression.
Laura Eppinger is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry and essay. Her work has appeared at the Rumpus, the Toast and elsewhere. She’s the blog editor at Newfound Journal and her full publications list lives here.
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