When a Whole Foods supermarket opened recently in my New York neighborhood, I expected it would immediately be packed to the gills, and it was; I expected the nearby markets to panic and redouble their advertising, and they did. But those ads tended to focus on things like specials, bargains and low prices: “Your groceries shouldn’t cost your whole paycheck,” taunted the sign in the window of Fairway. What I didn’t expect was that the entire block-long facade of Whole Foods would be covered with 10-foot-tall ads, which make no mention at all of prices, or even of what is sold inside the store.
These ads, rather, constitute a kind of propaganda for the idea of Whole Foods. Each is a full-length color photograph of an attractive person, with a motto superimposed. Some display the happy patrons of Whole Foods being spiritually and ethically nourished by the experience: these bear slogans such as “Eat Like an Idealist” (a beaming pregnant woman with a young girl by her side) and “Be a Thorn in Time’s Side” (a beautiful woman in late middle age). The message is made explicit in the poster showing a father and his son, under the words “Healthy Food Does Good”: shopping at Whole Foods is both good for you (keeps you young, makes your children thrive), and also good in itself, a kind of ethical act.
You know it is ethical because of the other posters, the ones that feature Whole Foods’ workers and suppliers (or at least the models who represent them). The images of customers are all of white people; the workers, by unmissable contrast, are almost all black. (This is either a nod to the reality of Whole Foods’ business model or a wordless appeal to racism, or both.) But the people who raise the crops and man the registers at this market are themselves, the posters leave no doubt, spiritually fulfilled by the experience. “Values Matter,” says the poster showing a smiling man in a Whole Foods apron and cap. “Feed Your Better Nature,” reiterates a beaming woman holding a basket of fruits, a secular Demeter. Best of all, you can enjoy all this socially just plenty without worrying about the environment. “There are a lot of fish in the sea. We think some should stay there,” says the legend over a serious-looking man, presumably a fisherman, standing by the water.
Whole Foods, it’s clear just from walking past the store, is not only in the business of selling food—most of which is, to be honest, perfectly indistinguishable from the sugary, processed stuff on sale everywhere, though it comes in store-brand boxes. Whole Foods is also selling stories; it is a corporate writer of fiction, whose multimedia oeuvre is made up of everything from billboards to wall treatments, cereal boxes to store uniforms. Everything conspires to reinforce the message that spending a lot of money at Whole Foods—as you must—makes you a good person and a good citizen of planet Earth. Being ethical is the ultimate luxury item—too good, the store implies, for the poor, who can’t aspire to such humane consumption.
It’s fitting, then, that Whole Foods has itself begun to make a number of appearances in actual, literary fiction. Over the last five years, as the store expanded its presence in New York and across the country, writers responded by incorporating it into their mental maps. And it’s not just that we see characters shopping at Whole Foods; the store’s image and ideology, its social meaning, have been a subject for novelists to explore and, in general, attack. It may be too soon to identify a genre of Whole Foods Fiction—a 21st-century counterpart to the “supermarket realism” of the 1980s—but we’re on the way there.
Whole Foods is irresistible to novelists because it is a corporate example of the oldest comic subject, hypocrisy—the counterfeiting of virtue but someone who is not actually virtuous. As it happens, the generation of writers born in the 1970s and 1980s, who have emerged in strength in the literature of the last decade, is especially preoccupied with hypocrisy. In particular, they are fascinated by the affectation of “niceness,” of inoffensive enlightened behavior, by people who don’t even realize that they are not really that nice. Those people are usually men, particularly when they are dealing with women.
Take Nathaniel Piven, the anti-hero of Adelle Waldman’s 2013 bestseller The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Nate would call himself a nice guy—liberal, egalitarian, well-meaning—but over the course of the novel we observe that he is actually a bastard. He first meets Hannah, the genuinely nice girl he will seduce, frustrate, and finally abandon, at a literary dinner party in Brooklyn, where the discussion turns to his latest essay. Its subject is “how one of the privileges of being elite is that we outsource the act of exploitation.” “Conscience is the ultimate luxury,” Nate remarks.
Inevitably, the example that comes up is Whole Foods: “Take Whole Foods. Half of what you pay for when you shop there is the privilege of feeling ethically pure…. All they have to do is put some picture of an earnest lesbian couple on a cereal box and we just assume it comes from some free-love workers’ paradise. It’s in our self-interest to think so because it allows us to buy in good conscience, just like we buy everything else.” It is a cunningly designed scene, for as the novel progresses, Nate himself will turn out to be the Whole Foods of boyfriends: impeccable on the surface, but actually just as exploitative as any of his peers. Indeed, his high-mindedness is the strategy he uses to justify his bad behavior. Ignoring Hannah, blowing hot and cold, is in Nate’s mind simply respecting her autonomy—not expecting her to be “clingy” in a stereotypically female way. Just so, Nate’s demographic shops at Whole Foods without bothering to find out if the company really is more ethical in its practices, or healthier, than any other store. They prefer the image of virtue to the hard reality.
If any supermarket can claim that virtue, it’s surely the Park Slope Food Co-op, the Brooklyn institution where members take turns working at the store and all the goods are carefully sourced on labor and environmental grounds. In Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04, the narrator—named “Ben,” and closely if unreliably based on Lerner himself—is naturally a member of the Co-op. “I liked having the money I spent on food and household goods go to an institution that made labor shared and visible and that you could usually trust to carry products that weren’t the issue of openly evil conglomerates,” Lerner writes.
At the same time, however, he is extremely cutting about how ecological concern, in this context, is really a blind for selfishness and self-praise. He overhears a woman at the co-op complaining that she had to take her child out of the local Brooklyn public school because the other children are all hopped up on “soda and junk food,” and so can’t be expected to behave and concentrate. It is not lost on Lerner that those children are largely black and Latino, and that this is “a new biopolitical vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety.” This line of critique can be transferred with equal justice to Whole Foods, whose posters leave no doubt of the racial identity of its imagined customers; those images conjure a place where white people who genuinely care about their children are willing to spend extra to defend them from inauthentic ingredients.
There is a conscious irony, then, in the way Lerner uses Whole Foods—the Union Square branch in Manhattan—as the setting for one of his novel’s most resonant scenes. The book opens on the eve of Hurricane Irene, in 2011, with New York City preparing for a devastating storm that did not actually materialize. (At least, not until the next year, when it took the form of Hurricane Sandy—which is the backdrop to the end of 10:04.) The narrator and his best friend, Alex, meet at the store to stock up on supplies, and as he gazes at a package of instant coffee, Ben has a vision of the whole global economy in action—the coffee “harvested on Andean slopes,” “dehydrated at a factory in Medellin,” flown to New York and repackaged and trucked to the store for sale. “It was as if the social relations that produced the object in my hand began to glow within it as they were threatened, stirred inside their packaging, lending it a certain aura—the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself….”
This Marxist epiphany, in which commodity fetishism reveals itself at the heart of consumption, appropriately takes place in the market that does the most to conceal its own economic relations. Looking at the ads, you could imagine that Whole Foods takes part in some kind of good-natured barter economy, as if it were a scaled-up version of the Park Slope Co-Op rather than a publicly traded company. For Lerner, in keeping with one of the main themes of 10:04, this vision of the glowing package is a glimpse of an impossible utopia, where exchange is not based on exploitation. But of course, he is forced to succumb to Whole Foods just like everyone else: He ends up heaping a plate with “an incoherent mix of overpriced perishables,” the cooked dishes which doubtless offer Whole Foods its highest profit margin. Like Nathaniel P. and his friends, Ben lives in a world where you can see through Whole Foods but not escape it.
By contrast, Paul, the protagonist of Tao Lin’s 2013 novel Taipei, does not even bother to think about what Whole Foods represents. He simply gorges himself there, in a way that renders the whole idea of grocery shopping rather sinister and grotesque. The book is a provocatively affectless chronicle of Paul’s life, which consists almost entirely of going to parties and restaurants, with interludes for sitting around and taking drugs. The act of ingestion is practically the only activity that seems to command Paul’s attention, as you can see from the way every pill taken is scrupulously recorded by name and dosage (“Cristine sold Paul eight 36mg Ritalin and ten psilocybin chocolates,” runs a typical sentence).
The other thing Paul compulsively ingests is food, often from trendy restaurants, but also, with some regularity, from Whole Foods. Indeed, as Paul leaves New York for visits to various acquaintances in other cities, Whole Foods comes to seem like an extraterritorial setting, a place that can be relied on to be the same everywhere. Browsing a Whole Foods in Ohio, while tripping on LSD, becomes a kind of autistically self-soothing exercise. “‘I can’t tell what I feel,’ said Erin, and automatic doors opened and they entered the produce section, where they held and examined coconuts…Paul, in line to pay, considered saying the word ‘Kafkaesque’ to describe getting their coconuts open.” In Toronto, Paul finds another Whole Foods to vegetate in: “In Whole Foods the next day, for around five hours, he ate watermelon and looked at the Internet….” In New York, he does MDMA in another Whole Foods (possibly passing Nate and Ben Lerner’s narrator in the aisles). And arriving in Pittsburgh, it’s the first thing he asks about: “In Whole Foods he walked aimlessly at a quick, undeviating pace, with a sensation of haunting the location. He ladled clam chowder into the largest size soup container, chose a baguette, stood in line.”
The only way to dispel the Whole Foods myth, Lin suggests, is to ignore it altogether: to allow this site of ideology to become just another site of consumption, a fancy feeding trough. In time, perhaps, that is the destiny of Whole Foods, to be just like any other supermarket chain. For now, however, it still functions as something more—a cultural signifier, a capitalist mytheme, a subject for debunking. At the very least, I think about these books every time I shop there.