Two days after Christmas, I rolled a huge shopping cart into the home-organization department of the Burbank Ikea and threw in so many baskets and boxes and under-bed storage units that my small son (who had been standing in the front of the cart, navigating) decided to clamber out, leaving just enough room for a big wicker hamper. We were there because the prospect of cleaning up the house after Christmas had struck me as unpleasant and oppressive, whereas the prospect of driving out to Burbank and eating a meatball lunch in the Ikea cafeteria had struck me as attractive and spirit-lifting. Best of all, we would not be shirking the work back home; we would be beginning it—or so I persuaded myself. For, like many women of my proximate age and social position (householders, mothers, irritable presiders over vast domestic holdings of Lego blocks and takeout menus and teetering stacks of unexamined shop-by-mail catalogues), I am preoccupied by clutter; almost every domestic task seems to begin (and also to sputter out) in an effort to eliminate it, or at the very least to assign it to a well-chosen receptacle. This shared preoccupation has given rise to a wide host of American phenomena, only one of which is the Ikea home-organization department.
The anti-clutter movement is enormous, having spawned countless books along with magazine articles (and actual magazines), videos, classes, catalogues, and the 1,500-member-strong National Association of Professional Organizers. The "Eastern art" of feng shui is practiced in thousands of upscale, with-it households, and it proceeds from a "clear your clutter" premise. Anti-clutter campaigns make for excellent voyeur sport; the visits to Oprah of the master organizer Julie Morganstern are never disappointing. Sometimes Oprah has Morganstern perform spot inspections of Harpo employees' offices, events that offer superb moments of reality television: office doors swinging open in the manner of an FBI raid; shocked workers blinking into the camera lights, caught in flagrante with their overflowing mail crates and ripening piles of exercise clothes, their half-eaten lunches moldering on paper-strewn desktops. Far more entertaining, however, are the home visits, which are not feared but, rather, highly coveted, and for which the competition is stiff. Viewers write long, importuning letters describing unabashedly the slovenly states of their homes, which they will gladly reveal to a national television audience if only Oprah will send them some help. If the winner is really lucky, it is Morganstern herself who will make a visit, bringing along her Hefty bags and plastic sorter baskets and brisk "nothing shocks me" professionalism. The houses are never squalid; what they are is crammed to the gunwales with stuff—stuff that's been packed into drawers and cupboards and closets, no rhyme or reason to it, and not an inch of space to spare. No matter how big the kitchens are (and many of them are plenty big), they are never big enough, in part because the success of buy-in-bulk superstores has left people with an astonishing, pre-apocalyptic quantity of supplies. The video tour that begins each segment often reveals curious, forgotten outposts of spaghetti sauce or Formula 409 in the garage or beneath the stairs. No matter what area of the house is under consideration (medicine cabinet, linen closet, kids' rooms), it is sure to be an absolute horror. In the old days, of course, this kind of general chaos would occasion a thorough spring-cleaning, with the children sent upstairs to clear out the mess underneath their beds, and Dad dispatched to the garage under similar orders. But nowadays the home is foreign territory, a kind of very large hotel suite unintended for long-term habitation, and when the whole thing gets so overstuffed that it threatens to explode, the time has come to call on an expert.