"They’re not things … they’re your missing people. They’ve turned. They’ve been objectified."
Edward Carey's Iremonger trilogy, a middle-grade children’s series that reached its conclusion last fall, is a marvelously creepy, grimy set of books — Roald Dahl by way of Bleak House-era Charles Dickens. It’s also a trenchant critique of capitalism.
It's not new, of course, for children's literature to contain a moral lesson or even to critique social mores. In general, children's literature tends to suggest that we should all love one another more than we do, and then the way that love expresses itself is inflected by the particular author's political and social views.
So we have the Narnia books, in which love is sacrificial and Christ-like, as opposed to Edmund's greedy and egotistic longing for superficial rewards. We have the Little House on the Prairie books, in which love is best expressed as libertarianism-inflected survivalism.
And now we have the Iremonger trilogy, where love means living in defiance of capitalism.
The Iremonger books depict a world in which endless consumption has filled the world with trash, workers literally become their labor, and the rich work tirelessly to strip the poor of their humanity. It is, in other words, our own world — but the evils of capitalism have been literalized. It's a morality play for the post-recession era.
SPOILERS follow for the first book in the trilogy, Heap House.
In the Iremonger books, objectification is literal
The series is set in Victorian England, where the Iremonger family members are the custodians of London's trash. Banished to the borough of Filching, they grow ever-richer by forcing the poor to sort through the "heaps" — enormous dunes that contain years' worth of London's accumulated garbage — in search of discarded treasures.
Most heap-workers die young, suffocated in mountains of trash and filth. Those who survive are literally objectified by their labor. Because in the world of the Iremongers, if you're not very, very careful about the types of things you spend your time with, you'll find yourself turned into a thing. It's a disease known as Heap Fever.
Only the Iremongers themselves are safe from Heap Fever. They've developed a kind of vaccine for it. At birth, each member of the family is assigned what's known as a "birth object," a mundane item they must carry with them for the rest of their lives. But unbeknownst to much of the family, the "birth objects" are all people who have succumbed to Heap Fever and been turned into physical things.
It's not a particularly subtle metaphor, but that doesn't make it any less effective. The Iremonger trilogy takes place in a world in which workers are conflated with their labor; only the rich are safe, and they protect their own humanity by exploiting the bodies of the poor.
The labor of the poor is not only dangerous but viscerally, nauseatingly disgusting. Carey describes walking on the heaps as "like walking upon a creature. … Only the creature, whatever it was, wasn't living, it had died some time ago and we were out picking upon its great rotten body, it was hard in one place, soft in another, you slipped about, and sometimes just plunged a bit."
The trilogy is filled with descriptions of rotting garbage and slime and rats, one grandiloquent neo-Victorian description piled on top of another. You can almost smell the trash.
Outside of Filching and its heaps, it is the very richest and most privileged of all — especially Queen Victoria herself — who consume and consume until there is nothing left by trash, and who then make dealing with that trash the labor of the poor until it suffocates or consumes them.
In order to stay human in this world, you need a name
Enter Clod Iremonger, one of our two heroes. (Carey loves to play with words, so all of the Iremongers have slant-wise names: Clod for Claud, Pinalippy for Penelope, Moorcus for Marcus, Rippit for Rupert.) Clod is almost 16, and he’s very fond of his birth object, a universal bath plug that he carries around on a fob chain. He is untroubled by the fact that all his life, he’s been able to hear the plug murmuring "James Henry Hayward. James Henry Hayward," over and over. And it's not just his plug that murmurs: Clod can hear the voices of all the birth objects, ceaselessly repeating their human names, over and over and over again.
In the Iremonger universe, names are the most lasting and persistent symbol of humanity. So it's not an accident that when the Iremongers hire servants — choosing only impoverished distant relatives with some diluted Iremonger heritage — the first thing they do is strip away the servants' names.
"In this house," Mrs. Piggott said … "you shall be called Iremonger, you mustn’t think anything of it, it’s just our way, it is the custom here, you understand. … You shall be called Iremonger like everyone else, only I and Mr. Sturridge the butler and Mr. Briggs the underbutler and Mr. Smith the lock and Mr. and Mrs. Groom the cooks have their names, for we have high positions and they have need, those upstairs, to summon us by our names, but everyone else is just and only Iremonger. There now, do you understand, Iremonger?"
"My name is Lucy Pennant," I said.
"No. You are not being quick, my dear."
Servants, like the rest of the Iremonger family, are inoculated against Heap Fever — but only to make them more valuable workers. They're still forbidden from keeping their names, because names would make them individual human beings. Lucy Pennant, who joins Clod as our second hero, is determined to hold onto her name, but the Iremongers twist it and warp it into Lossy Permit and Looky Pineknot and Lorky Pignut until she can barely remember what it is.
And ultimately, what makes Lucy and Clod heroic is that they recognize the importance of names. Lucy clings to her name and her personhood in the face of a system that is determined to strip her of both, and Clod manages to recognize the names and, eventually, the personhood of those who have been objectified.
The Iremonger books, like all classic children's books, are profoundly moral
This is not to say that the Iremonger books are a treatise on Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. They’re much more interested in piling word games on top of each other and coming up with ever-more disgusting descriptions of trash than they are in debating the nuances of economic theory.
What the Iremonger books are, really, are new children's classics. They have the wit and the verve and the life of children's classics — and they have the morality.
A Wrinkle in Time treats evil as compulsory conformity and defeats it through familial love; Harry Potter treats evil as fascism and defeats it through sacrificial love.
Evil in the Iremonger books is an evil that makes sense to children growing up in the midst of a global recession, the first generation in a century to face the possibility of a worse quality of life than that of their parents.
In the world of the Iremonger trilogy, to reduce a person to their labor, or to throw them out like trash when they're no longer useful, is both common and evil. What is rare and what is heroic is to insist on the personhood of yourself and of those around you.