Sunday, September 04, 2005

Product Placement

In Ian McEwan's Booker longlisted "Saturday" this very contemporary novel is tentative, but telling in the cultural details it includes. It's safe enough on the recent history - the known, and non-dateable events leading up to the war in Iraq - and, since although this is the story of a certainly rarified family (a neurosurgeon, a newspaper lawyer, a 7000 sq. ft. house in Fitzrovia) they also have 2 teenage or just older, children, there's the need for a certain verisimilitude. Thus, there's a pierced midriff, a single reference to "a rapper on MTV", and to transferring music to a computer. Amidst the Tate Moderns, the "Not in Our Name", and the detailed locale; and an unstinting detail about the medical procedures of a contemporary neurosurgeon, McEwan stays well, and sensibly clear of what he doesn't know so much about. The son is a blues musician, a cleverly anachronistic way of not requiring local knowledge, the blues having stopped its development somewhere around '56. (Though I'd have liked to think even a contemporary blues musician would be listening to the White Stripes and particularly the Black Keys...) The daughter, a poet, and one, again incongruously, influenced by Larkin and Henry James! In Martin Amis's last novel, "Yellow Dog", the earlier inventiveness of his satirical style is mixed, somewhat uneasily with "real products." A sarcy-reference to fashion labels like "FCUK and TUNC" would be a poor joke bottom of the bill of the "Frog and Bucket" and whilst in the distant past he'd invented the wonderfully colourful beer, "Peculiar Brew", later Amis can't quite decide what to invent and what to put in verbatim. So they drink Stella, but also a series of shots named from his imagination. There's a messiness here, that, can be fun, and when he gets it right its still invigorating, but which diverts the reader somewhat. In a fiction, particular, you want to believe in the whole world however bizarre it might be, and these mis-treads unsettle the conviction. Re-reading Tom Wolfe's introduction to the New Journalism, and the piece from Hunter S. Thompson, on "Hell's Angels", I'm reminded that this search for truthful detail, in both fiction and non-fiction is ongoing. In the latter, a reference to the wrong band or brand will stand out like a sore thumb; in the former, a slightly mistaken cultural reference can date badly. Yet American fiction has long been unafraid of product placement - a consumerist culture perhaps hardly needing to invent the everyday detail of packaging. For me, one of the pleasures of writing contemporary fiction is getting the "real" right. There's a great quote in Jay McInerney's "Model Behaviour" where he deadpans that a character's father has "all the classics, Grisham and Clancy" (I think I've missed one, but the book's not quite to hand). It tells a lot both about character, and about the cultural gaps between father and son. But just as this accuracy is appealing, I also like being able to make things up. It seems a matter of "weight" - how important is the detail? An imagined detail has to carry something in it's name - and I guess, I've always preferred to invent pub, shop and street names, than use the real ones, even if they're clearly based on a rael place. Yet, cultural details can be stamped so strongly, that there's a case for using the real thing. I've not yet wrote a post iPod story, but I guess they'll come - and I kind of think the ubiquity of that brand means I'll play around with it, and create my own model. Bands, and authors are harder to fake. Part of sensing the character is to sense their book and record collection; yet even the most obvious contemporary choices can read anachronistically shortly afterwards. Simply to stick with the classics or the non-temporal. Any book can cope with the weight of a couple dancing to a Marvin Gaye song, for instance, whether set in 1985 or 2005, but the "Crazy Frog" will doom it to the moment. In some ways, for an English novel, the avoidance strategies of "Saturday" are a superb example, sticking to chronological and geographical fact, but avoid any cultural pitfalls. It probably goes without saying, that though it avoids the messiness of "Yellow Dog", the novel lacks a little colour and bark in comparison. It will be interesting to read a younger writer, say Zadie Smith's next novel, and see what strategies she uses for describing this teemingly busy contemporary world.

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