A driving force and reoccurring symbol and element in Nicolas Dickner’s novel Nikolski is garbage; representing connected yet distinct meanings for each of the three main characters. For the unnamed narrator it represents putting old memories to rest and starting on his own path. To Joyce trash also catalyses a new beginning, however this is caused by the reinvention of things discarded much in the same way as she ways. Noah as well finds his identity buried beneath layers of waste, but he also finds stability and the concept of things permanent and complete, trash being a place of dissimilitude, functioning as a field of study and wonder.
The element of garbage not only propels the plot forward, but ties the characters together in a tight and intricate web. We are first introduced to the concept of garbage early in novel. Within the first few pages we meet both the unnamed narrator, as well as his late mother, through the removal of the thirty garbage bags containing what’s left of her belongings. “The two trash collectors hop down form their vehicles and stand there, dumbstruck, contemplating the mountain of bags piled up on the asphalt.
The first one, looking dismayed, pretends to count them. I start to worry; have I infringed some city bylaw that limits the number of bags per house? The second garbageman, much more pragmatic, sets about filling the truck. He obviously couldn’t care less about the number of bags, their contents, or the story behind them” (4). While the removal of the garbage seems at most strange to those not directly involved with the objects as more than trash, Dickner establishes that it can be representational of much more.
Through the removal of the trash both the narrator and his late mother we find it a sort of resurrection. Her last breath is taken by her belongings themselves, reconstructing her lost secrets and history to provide the narrator with a more in-depth image of who his mother truly was; bringing her background into the narrator’s foreground. His rebirth however, is much more permanent. The sorting and removal of these memories act as the opening of a door, a ritual necessary to perform before he can move on with his life alone; the memories more or less put to death like his mother.
He engages in this ritual once again towards the end of the novel, when he decides to sell his precious books in order to detach himself from the permanent settlement he has maintained and plunge into a nomadic journey of self discovery, akin to ones experiance by the other main characters. In this way, the events that make the unnamed narrator a dynamic character are wedged between metaphorical garbage bags, reflecting the way minuscule things in our lives, assumed to be useless or unimportant to the onlooker, can be of great importance in influencing the future.
Comparatively, trash also plays a large part in the rejuvenation of Joyce’s life. For her, trash is more than discarded excess, representing a building block and gateway into her life of piracy and the creation of her new identities. Her views of garbage are exemplified by the metaphors Dickner uses when describing her dumpster diving exploits: “Joyce swallows her saliva and plunges her hand below the trash. At the other end of the cable she can feel the cold edges of a computer. The stench of sour milk grows stronger.
She holds her breath and set about clearing a path through the bags. After a long while, the machine emerges from the plastic like a slippery fetus” (104). The juxtaposition of trash (commonly seen as the end of a life cycle) and birth (the great beginning) reflect the conceptual recycling upon which Joyce’s brand of piracy heavily relies. She creates her preliminary treasures from the waste bins of those around her, assembling her tools from odds and ends essentially creating an object of exponential value from things the general public would regard as useless.
She then takes her creation and personifies it with a name and a purpose, a sentiment it reciprocates providing Joyce a career of sorts and several new identities. We can see this practice of recycling reflected in the work of the unnamed narrator at the used bookstore, giving new life and new purpose to discarded stories. Here we see how Dickner employs trash as not only symbolism, but also a connecting element used to illustrate the interconnectivity of the three main characters, and by extension society as a whole; the world being n infinite cycle of coincidences and behavioural patterns. In a like manner Noah, also revels in garbage as treasure. While Joyce, like Thomas Saint-Laurent opts to dumpster dive for her gold, Noah finds himself immersed in archaeological fieldwork. With both characters having found themselves abandoned and more or less thrown out of the minds of their parents, we are lead to believe that while the two of them search through the discarded, perhaps they are looking to be found either by themselves or by someone will appreciate an aspect of them disregarded by the general public.
Noah’s dig on the “prehistoric campground” (160) of Stevenson Island where “the challenge is to reconstruct the campers’ identities and their way of living on the basis of small scraps of refuse strewn over the landscape” (160) exemplifies this aspect of self-discovery. By itself Noah’s immersion in archaeology when “as a rule, archaeologists don’t take much interest in nomads. The more a population travels, the fewer traces it leaves behind.
They prefer to study civilizations that settle down, that build cities and produce large amounts of garbage” (132), is also very telling in regards to Noah’s developing identity. While having had a nomadic upbringing and leaving very few traces not unlike his ancestors, his background is entirely oppositional to this field, his choice to now to study permanent cultures and what they have left behind, reflects an emotional shift. He is now seeking out things that are permanent and complete and can give him more direction than an old road map, or the book-with-no-face.
In this regard, trash once again finds itself representing a new beginning for Noah, much in the same ways as it did for the unnamed narrator. He finalizes the end of his nomadic beginnings by neglecting to hold on to the three-headed-book and instead adding the his map to it once more. Although garbage is introduced early in the novel, it’s importance in the novel is not explicitly discussed until we come across the character Professor Thomas Saint-Laurent, who teaches Noah that “there’s nothing more interesting than garbage.
Garbage teaches us more than infrastructures, buildings or monuments. Garbage reveals what everything else tries to hide” (132). For Noah, Joyce and the unnamed narrator, garbage became an artifact, a treasure, an invisible thread binding them together, a story, a door to open or to close and above all, what makes a person who they are and gives us insight to who they may become.