The first time I was introduced to the idea of a supermarket was in an American Literature course, in Updike’s classic short story “A&P.” “I bet you could set off dynamite in an A&P,” says Updike’s cocksure narrator Sammy, “and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists and muttering ‘Let me see, there was a third thing, began with A, asparagus, no, ah, yes, applesauce!’ or whatever it is they do mutter.” Before Sammy, I had never considered that a supermarket was anything noteworthy or possible to disdain. Then came literature.
This March, I went into Walmart to buy my son a birthday present. When I found a particular Lego set he wanted in a clearly marked clearance section, I was sure I had struck gold—or at least a bargain. Then, the wrestling began: after a stocker’s blessing I was met with a clerk’s questioning, then waiting and waiting for a manager’s override, interspersed with another customer cashing out a voucher she wasn’t apparently supposed to. Between my bargain shopping and this other customer’s shady action, I suddenly had a vision of this clerk as gatekeeper between a multinational leviathan and middle-class Midwesterners who felt they were carting away riches one pocketful at a time from Sam Walton’s hoard. Finally, someone came over with a key and punched three buttons, and I made my getaway with the Lego set at—get this—less than half price. I had fought the dragon and won.
Like Sammy. Except not at all like Sammy.
By now, I know that the supermarket and its psychic data—that’s Delillo’s White Noise talking—is a trope. I was reminded of this again recently in stumbling upon supermarket scenes in both The Hurt Locker and The Wrestler, both of which feature the supermarket as the setting for the male protagonists’ crises. In The Hurt Locker, as Sergeant First Class William James faces a wall of cereal boxes and supermarket muzak, we can feel its absurd impenetrability. In The Wrestler, meanwhile, the cereal boxes are the perfect props for Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s meltdown and blood-smearing exit—Sammy on steroids. If in Updike the supermarket signals sameness and conformity, in The Hurt Locker it signals seemingly infinite choice and resulting meaninglessness, and in The Wrestler, it becomes just one more faux backdrop of the human bodily tragedy.
Something about these scenes conjures up Moby-Dick in my mind: Moby-Dick as a wall “shoved near” to Ahab, as the “pasteboard mask” that Ahab would “strike through.” For James, the cereal aisle is a brick wall; for Randy “The Ram,” it’s a façade beyond which is just another aisle.
Of course, it’s not just a façade. In Being Consumed, philosopher William Cavanaugh reminds us how the practices of consumption can actually detach us from the material world. There is a chain of production with iron links from raw materials to the Lego factory down to Walmart all the way to my purchase, and at each link in the chain are specific people. It’s these links that modern consumerism seems to want to keep from us. And it’s this abstraction, says Cavanaugh, that the embodied practice of the Eucharist counteracts.
To see anew the transactions of our lives—to recognize the leviathans and the gatekeepers and the hoarding and the misplaced heroism—may be the first step toward meaningful embodiment and understanding our need for Eucharist. And it’s those moments of recognition that can open up in a work of art, even at the supermarket.