Sparsity in Eugene Marten’s “Waste” creates a chillingly bleak atmosphere. In only 116 pages, Marten strings the reader through the daily life of a janitor, Sloper. His removal of others’ waste and his observations of the employees around the office are enthralling. Almost nothing happens in this novella, but the internal workings of the main character keep the reader mesmerized. Threads of story twirl around each other into a braid: Sloper cleans up after the businessmen at work, he finds the dead body of a woman and takes her to his home, he visits his neighbors – a woman in a wheelchair and her caregiver. All the moving parts of this narrative intertwine in ways that are unique and compelling. The palpable loneliness is in every word of this text.

Marten writes in such a minimalistic way that leaves emotion off the page and deep into the physicality of the text. The exclusion of emotion is what makes the novella so emotionally charged. Sloper is unphased by emotion and the responsibility to feel something is placed on the reader. This is unsettling and creates an atmosphere of worry and unease, paired with the subject matter of a huge thread of the story: the removal of a deceased female body from work to Sloper’s home. What ensues in this plotline is not for the weak-hearted. There are extremely intimate scenes between the Sloper and the dead woman. However, it is hardly ever explicit. These scenes build Sloper’s character and his need for companionship in whichever way possible. This is displayed also by his lack of mother figure and proposed marriage to the neighbor woman in the wheelchair later in the text. Palpable loneliness and desire for human connection are so deeply thematic in this text and it pains the reader. I felt bad for this character even through his dirty deeds.

Fiction. A spare and chilling account of the day-to-day experience of Sloper, a janitor in a big-city office building, WASTE explores the import of the discarded–for those who generate it, those who dispose of it, and those who are themselves discarded. From the humble prospect of his station, Sloper uncovers ominous possibility in lives he barely brushes. Brian Evenson says, “Only Eugene Marten can keep a reader enthralled with the minutiae of a janitorial existence…. Precisely and exquisitely detailed, WASTE is a stark little masterpiece.” And Dawn Raffel writes, “[P]itch-perfect. WASTE wastes nothing–not a syllable, a beat, a ragged breath.” And Sam Lipsyte writes, “There is nothing quite like the controlled burn of Eugene Marten’s prose.”

Goodsreads description

The multilayers of Sloper and his psyche are displayed in such interesting scenes that reveal certain characteristics. One of my favorites is his interaction with the neighbor woman in the wheelchair and her caregiver. Sloper meets both of them for the first time and fixates on the speech pattern of the caregiver. The woman in the wheelchair cannot speak, so the caregiver and Sloper are the only characters in the scene who can produce vocal sound. Sloper fixates on the fact that the caregiver speaks and answers his questions in four words or less. It becomes a game to Sloper. He tries to ask her questions that couldn’t possibly be answered in such few words and each time, she still does. The scene ends with Sloper giving up on his little game, only to have to last line be the caregiver saying “So, neighbor, do you come here often?” (35). Sloper had begun to realize the merits of the caregiver’s speech choices only for the scene to end with her bursting his bubble. Marten never has to say anything explicitly, but character is built heavily in these types of scenes.

This is a text that I could read many times and glean something new from it every time: a new underlying concept or emotion in the characters, a new minimalistic writing technique, a new dynamic to the main character. This is truly a horrifying, minimalistic masterpiece. Ultimately, Sloper is a necrophiliac sociopath who observes others in a cold manner. This is the story of a disturbed being that is nuanced and brilliant. This was a strong five star read for me. Plot, writing, character – all done perfectly.