Product Placement in Fiction

I’m not completely against describing products and cultural minutiae in fiction, but I have a distinct problem with the way Tricia Sullivan does it in Maul. This fascinating novel, an interesting cross between hard science fiction, riot grrls gone wild and cyberpunk which has yet to pick up a U.S. publisher, deals with a two-strand narrative. In the distant future, a Y-virus has wiped out nearly every male on the planet, leaving male clones (taken from existing tissue) to carry out a simulated program that involves teenage girls battling in a mall. Sullivan’s novel is stacked to the nines with ideas. In fact, as if channeling Kathy Acker’s ghost, it opens daringly with a girl masturbating with a gun and somehow manages to elude heavy-handedness. It’s truly the work of a writer to watch.

However, Sullivan’s too obsessed with girls wearing Red Hot Chilli Peppers T-shirts or handing over a Snapple. Okay, Tricia, we get the consumerist angle. It’s clear enough by the title. But why would Sullivan choose bands like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers who have long lost their lustre in the present among the teenage crowd. Why not take a speculative fiction environment and create brand new companies? Isn’t that a good deal more fun?

But even more infuriating is how these pop cultural asides get in the way of Sullivan’s fascinating effort to explore feminism. The product concentration detracts from the intellectual expose and dates the book almost instantly. Which is interesting because it was published in 2003.

Conversely, Richard Yates’ fiction (which I’ve finally begun reading after Lizzie threatened to have several Young Republicans remove one of my testicles) hasn’t dated at all. Even a story like “A Glutton for Punishment,” which deals with a 1960s-1970s corporate environment (and should date), still packs an emotional punch, while achieving a startling purity. I suspect that it’s because Yates avoids product placement and uses sparse terminology (“cubicle” is mentioned once) to describe his environments. He is more concerned with what a character is feeling, the look on another person’s place, the heat of a room, etc.

I used to believe that this so-called literary product placement was of value in fiction. The immediate example that came to mind was an image from a Stephen King novel that I can’t immediately recall: something along the lines of a Skippy peanut butter jar filled with coins. The image’s startling presence, however, has more to do with the effort to remove all the peanut butter from a jar and use it as a piggy bank.

The problem with using brands as shorthand for character attributes is that, when we’re considering the perseverance of fiction, today’s telltale brand could be tomorrow’s failure. (Who can’t chuckle at the Pam Am flight seen in 2001, which immediately undermines its future?) I’m inclined to believe that unless fiction involves a specific time and place, on the whole, brands really don’t belong in literature.

“Real Life” Fiction

Maud points to “literature from the underground” from the ULA, everybody’s favorite group of Knut Hamsun/Henry Miller flunkies. One suspects that the ULA’s problem is their aversion to editing. So as a service to the ULA’s genius writers, I’ve decided to help them out with the first two paragraphs of Emerson Dameron’s “Uptown Valhalla”:

Thursday evening, 8:34 PM. I jerked awake on my brother?s couch in Uptown. [How does one jerk awake on something as uncomfortable as a couch? A couch will deaden your back muscles and hinder the waking process.] ?At least I don?t have a hangover; that?s a goddamn miracle,? I thought [Why express this as a thought? Shouldn’t he be feeling this or the omniscient voice expressing this?], right before the railroad spike went in one ear and out the other. [Who the hell are you? Pheinas Gage? This makes no sense whatsoever.] I glanced at the coffee table. I shoveled my hands in my pockets. Wallet and keys were not forthcoming. [To shovel is to dig and unearth some sediment. One cannot shovel and produce nothing. It is like applying a shovel to air.]

Fortunately, my sibling [Your brother? Your sibling? Does he have a name? Is this even relevant?] had a few twenties stashed in a Pokemon Stadium cartridge [Aren’t these unnecessary pop cultural references what you’re damning Dave Eggers about?] on the bookshelf. I left the apartment and plodded toward a local jazz club, rubbing the fresh, acne-like bumps on my scalp. [Did you recently shave your head or is this supposed to be metaphorical? This sounds more like eczema rather than “acne-like” description that fails to tell it like it is. Clarify.] It felt like a TB test was coming up wrong. [Yeah, and I feel like a simile tossed out in desperation.] A nest?s worth of defiant hornets buzzed ?round my circulatory system. [Make up your damn mind. Does his head hurt? Is he suffering from a condition? This is incoherent rubbish.] These weren?t coke bugs. I know what those feel like. [Too bad that we don’t, becaue you’re incapable of clarity.] They look for escape routes, whereas these li?l fellas seemed to be on some sort of reconnaissance mission. [Ho ho ho!]

Now if I were a literary editor, the above bracketed statements would be racing through my mind. I’d toss this story out in an instant. This isn’t “real” writing. It’s junk. I’m sorry to be rough on Mr. Dameron. I’m sure he’s a nice guy. But the ULA has yet to offer a compelling reason why we should subsidize people who put together this kind of drivel in one draft while others spend years starving in rat-infested garrets actually developing their craft. Like it or not, there are some people who can write, and there are others who can’t.

You want real life, Wenclas? I’ll show you rooms of starving writers (and patient spouses) turning out novel after novel, receiving rejection slip after rejection slip, and continuing despite the fact that 90% of everything is crap and that bleary-eyed editors are beleagured by “aspiring writers.”

The simple truth is that when a story has so many foolish inconsistencies embedded within its first two paragraphs, even the most experimental editor won’t have the patience when the piece is competing against a vertiginous slush pile of manuscripts. And I say this is a good thing. As readers, we only have so much time in our lives to devote to the neverending amateurs and incompetent moonlighters who pester like self-entitled whiners. And even then, we have to choose from what’s published.

The ULA wants to “overthrow” the literary establishment. Well, that’s silly. Because, for the most part, these people know what they’re doing. They read perhaps more than any of us. Granted, money plays a sizable role in their decisions. But then money plays a sizable role in everyone’s decisions. Even the wannabe Bohemian writer who spends hours of his time railing against the machine rather than writing a novel.

I’d have more respect for the ULA if they were actually promoting something of value. But they are a first-class literary sham. They’re the assholes you encountered in high school who wanted divisiveness for the sake of divisiveness, fools who would spend a whole lifetime making enemies, rather than truly “fucking up the shit from the inside” like the best of subversive novelists. And as such, they deserve no respect: not from you, not from me, and certainly not from anyone who seriously cares about literature.

Why I Am Avoiding DBC Pierre

Not one motherfucker in the States says “fucken.” What was the point in spelling it this way? If we are to look at this from a phonetical standpoint, it comes across as “PHUCK-EN” (not to be confused with “PHUCK-IN,” aka “PHUCK-EEN,” often used in tandem with the first letter of the alphabet in expressing surprise and very good in a sentence like “I was fuckin’ Joaquin Phoenix”).

If DBC Pierre had substituted “fuck me,” “fuck you” or “motherfucker” instead of “fucken,” then there’d be no problem. There would instead be verisimilitude. But the conundrum stands: Pierre/Finlay/Whatever the Fuck Pseudonym That Booker Winner is Using Today seems to think that we Yanks say “fucken ‘ell” a lot, or some truncated version thereof, which is a very Brit thing to say in terms of phrasing and pronunciation.

And besides, when it comes to intransitive verbs, Americans are inclined to shorten “ing” to “in.” We just hate those fucking Gs. Plus, the idea of following a great word like “fuck” with something as dour as “en” just doesn’t mesh with the American character. And, as such, the “en” thing is about as American as pronouncing the last letter of the alphabet “zed.” Perhaps because deep down inside, we Yanks want to “fuck in,” implying a desire for indoor copulation. Whereas “fuck en” implies entropy, sex begrudgingly begun to appease the s.o. and get through the night, the obligatory task.

Well, fuck that. And fuck fuckin’ Vernon God Little.

Entertainment, Not Literature

Two Blowhards has a very interesting post up about the differences between book people and movie people. The book world’s inability to appreciate or understand the craftsmanship of writing a popular novel is what continues to keep John P. Marquand’s name (for one) from being celebrated as a great writer. As I’ve said more than once, Marquand, winner of the Pulitzer in 1937, is , for the most part, out-of-print today. His books, which offered a grand mix of satire and entertainment, were extremely popular during his time and still hold up well today in their careful observations of middle-class life.

But because Marquand could not find universal acceptance among critics who were quick to condemn him because he was a solid storyteller, because he dared to put his name on the popular Mr. Moto books rather than hide behind a Starkian non de plume, if you find his paperbacks at all, you’ll find them housed within trashy covers that make Marquand come off as a sensationalist (“One woman’s climb to the top!”), which undervalue his abilities as a stylist or a satirist. Or you’ll find the covers for the later books, which desperately try to plug Marquand as the greatest American novelist since Sinclair Lewis. And who wants to fall prey to that kind of marketing? For later generations who know nothing of Marquand, this paperback cover Lamarckism has pretty much killed Marquand’s shot at surviving the fray or being remembered. It was only the Pulitzer and the resultant curiosity about The Late George Apley‘s narrative structure that drew me to the book and allowed me to discover him. Otherwise, I might never have heard of the guy. And yet how often are we attracted to a ribald movie poster or a DVD cover that isn’t too far removed from Harlequin romances?

How many of us are willing to enjoy a well-made monster movie like The Thing from Another World or even a not-so-well-made monster movie like The Blob? We have no problem intellectualizing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines or even the three Matrices, which are, let’s face it, enjoyable crap. But confess that you like even a handful of Stephen Kings (full confession: I like King) or that you liked Elmore Leonard’s novels more than Salman Rushdie’s post-Satanic Verses work to a roomful of literary snobs and you’ll either be led to the door or dismissed as a hopeless case. John Updike declared Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full as “entertainment, not literature.” But as far as I’m concerned, A Man in Full or Bonfire of the Vanities are gripping reads laced with honed prose and careful observations. I would kill to have had the skills to write either of these. But I have known intelligent people to put these labels aside and enjoy half-baked crap like Zoolander or the last two Austin Powers movies.

Where Howard Hawks can be extolled beyond measure as a consummate artist of grand entertainment, years after Rio Bravo was panned on its release, by the same measure, Marquand still falls by the wayside in the book world. While the auteur theory can be applied across the board to an artist like Stanley Kubrick and an entertainment-oriented director like Michael Curtiz, in the medium guided more explicitly by “one voice,” the auteur is doomed upon even a casual embrace of the page-turner.

Queen Anne, Ordinary Life and Assorted Schlepping

Lisa Allardice dares to ask a question that some people have answered, but have refrained from voicing, fearful of being labeled some rabble-rouser to be dealt a harsh blow, never again to be invited to those swank cocktail parties: Is Anne Tyler washed up? Since I value my respiratory tract (and I’ve been known to cave when wine and cheese are placed beneath my nose, but only in weak moments), I’ll only say that I’ve liked Tyler’s books in the past, but reading Ladder of Years on a whim was a very bad idea. I suspect my struggle had to do with what Tyler considered to be the ultimate revolutionary choice for a woman: running away from your husband. And this in 1996 with a rising divorce rate. I think we can all agree that this precludes Tyler from the “contemporary literature” canon.

Also in The Guardian is an amusing and forthright essay from Danny Leigh, first-time novelist of The Greatest Gift. Not only does Leigh try to wrestle with the conundrum of whether his protagonist mirrors his life, but he also confesses that, as a human being, he figures his life experience is pretty banal. But that apparently didn’t stop him from discovering things about himself that he could throw an imaginative spin on.

This article on fan fiction doesn’t nail down any conclusions, but does offer a not-bad overview of K/S and other exemplars of fan fervor. (via Graham)

Heru Ptah apparently made a killing selling his book on the subway. To the tune of $100,000 and an MTV Books deal with an advance in the mid-five figures.

Great headline with disappointing followthrough: Diet books with prose to savor? Fat chance. If only. And this fillip in the Philly. I dare a major newspaper to assess the poetic value of The Atkins Diet.

Surrendering to Environment

Gore Vidal once pointed out that novelist Frederic Prokosch was roundly criticized for delving too much into environment, and not nearly enough into human character. Hardpan’s lyrical presence within The Seven Who Fled is nothing less than scintillating, but for anyone concerned with the niceties of behavior (including me), it was a bit frustrating to see Prokosch juxtapose highly stereotypical characters against conditions of starvation, hungry lust, and the kind of banal palaver that Stephen King has since injected too frequently within his Dark Tower series.

But what better way to understand condition than through environment? Environment, lest we forget, was one of Balzac’s predominant concerns. In it, Balzac suggested, we could see the complete depiction of personality. Today, with Western environment tainted by post-reality teevee tripe, and as the very worst of post-pomo has forced us to suffer through trite pop culture references, crude drawings and laundry lists placed smack dab in the center of a major story arc, Prokosch, years later, an almost forgotten writer quite out of print, comes across as a more daring prioritizer. Is it environment that determines character, or vice versa?

What’s interesting about Prokosch’s memoir, Voices, is that it’s just as subtextual as his novels. Prokosch reveals almost nothing about himself. He’s the son of a linguist professor, he’s declared a master philologist at a young age (but questions this sui generis status), he likes tennis and squash, he shuttles across the world, sometimes stopping for months or years at a place he grows fond of, and he collects butterflies. But, above all, Prokosch cannot stop expressing wonder at the tropical environments. Interestingly, Prokosch defers most of the book to the literary voices he listens to. And in this world, Prokosch is a quiet questioner rather than a participant. The voices around him speak in pure academese, almost never faltering in their conversational cadences or thinking (save Somerset Maugham stuttering simple words and a particularly bitter Sinclair Lewis, seen with friend Hal Smith encouraging him in the worst of ways). Peggy Guggenheim shows up twice and we begin to ponder how the art world has made her the eccentric and strangely fascinating person she is. Prokosch reminds us not once, but three times, within his memoir that what he’s setting down is accurate and to the letter. But is this truth in process getting closer to a lie that only Prokosch is aware of? Has he been corrupted by the literary community?

Literary circles are depicted in dialogues that also repeat themes. There are the usual dichotomies: one uttered early on by a chopsticks-deficient Thomas Wolfe about the big man trapped within the little man, and vice versa; the other seen by a plastered, quite naked Dylan Thomas about the man trapped within the woman, and the woman trapped within the man. There are endless hierarchies and book ranking, competitive dismissals of other writers, desperate pining for awards. It’s an environment that Prokosch later renounces. He seems to prefer the natural state of a recluse, watching the dappled clouds or the sun rising above a hillock. (Indeed, the last section of the book is titled “The World of Nature.”) I came away from the book wondering if Prokosch’s near-total abdication to environment was a blessing or a curse. In his work, Prokosch possessed effrontery in finding an almost austere style. But in his memoir, we’re still left with the troubling question of whether surrendering completely to a romantic vista inures us in some way towards the human condition.


There’s a moment in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, when the narrator refers to radio as “the four-square beat of heartbreak.” The metaphor’s apt to the character describing it, seeing as how, early in life, she’s experienced a monstrous marriage at a young age. Innocence and pathos, in situ, lost to a scoundrel. The implication is that the emotional shrapnel is buried far beneath the flesh, the damage so insurmountable that even the simple joys are easily recognizable for their artifices. Happiness can no longer be gained or guaranteed. The world’s workings lie exposed, spewing out like oil leaking from a car. It gets our hands grimy. Best to avoid it.

There’s more being codified here than how love reduces us to giggly, internal histrionics, and how radio ballads (the genuine ones from Patsy Cline or John Prine or Janis Joplin, not the treacly messages buried beneath horribly sequenced, aural pillaging from Elton John, Phil Collins or Sting) can, in this delicate state, reduce us to tears, or touch some heartbreak permeating beyond our careful fortifications, the protective walls we build over the years. The music , perhaps, reverts us to a childlike flurry. In some way, it involves an inexplicable surrender that helps us cope. Even if the methodology is less than enviable.

For some people, the “four-square beat” may be all they have. Or it might serve as a way to progress forward. Not nearly as nefarious as television, which only serves to stave off loneliness. But is radio harmful? Or cathartic? I think of how the human spirit, even within the most indomitable individuals, is capable of reducing itself to a woeful, spongy morass. A good thing, because it allows us to feel, helping us grope against the slime, climb out of the cesspool, knocking upon our own portcullis, gaining entry, carefully cataloging our emotions once again, placing the fallen visceral leaves back onto the delicate branches of our all-too-human hearts. A bad thing, because as we’re recollecting, we’re so open to being used, exploited, or damaged by deliberately harmful persons. Or, optimistically speaking, sometimes running unexpectedly into a kind soul, a presence not necessarily there as a crutch, but as a helping hand. I’ve been in this place many times in my life, although I generally keep such reconstructions to myself, for fear of falling prey to the demon with an outstretched hand. It could be paranoid self-preservation, having been burned so many times, and remarkably forgiving towards parties that have wronged me. But I wonder if it’s all as much of a deadly game as Atwood seems to imply. All the same, the process involves trying to understand just why all the veins are twisting, congealing, and then pumping in an entirely new configuration, hopefully representing some improvement over the last one.

Do we play music to help us rebuild? Why do we willingly surrender ourselves to the “soft rock” whims of a DJ spinning his medication from a playlist created and approved by an inchoate corporate entity? Why is there such a positive association between driving solo on a highway and listening to some random tune, whether compiled by DJ or mix tape? The sensation, the notes, the drumbeat, the bass line, the jangly guitars — it all burrows its way into our ears, trancing our inner determination or feeding a flight. But is this a constructive game? Or something intended for a six year old’s recess period?

I realize the voice that posited this metaphor is bitter. But, despite my chronic skepticism, I could never ever become this bitter. If coping’s a game to be avoided, if a lowbrow avenue that momentarily assists us is declasse, if one cannot stoop beneath from time to time (if it helps) and must remain in permanent isolation from the joys of life, then what’s the point of existence?

Does Maragaret Atwood Hate Food?

atwood.jpegIn the Margaret Atwood universe, not even an innocent cookie is safe.

From The Blind Assassin:

“Myra had left me one of her special brownies, whipped up for the Alumni Tea — a slab of putty, covered, in chocolate sludes — and a plastic screw-top jug of her very own battery-acid coffee.” (37)

“She says [hamburgers] are pre-frozen patties made of meat dust. Meat dust, she says, is what’s scraped off the floor after they’ve cut up frozen cows with an electric saw.” (44)

“On the menu, displayed in the window — I’ve never gone inside — are foods I find exotic: patty melts, potato skins, nachos. The fat-drenched staples of the less respectable young, or so I’m told by Myra.” (51)

“jars of jam with cotton-print fabric tops, heart-shaped pillows stuffed with desiccated herbs that smell like hay” (52)

“I sat on the park bench, gnawing away at my cookie. It was huge, the size of a cow pat, the way they make them now — tasteless, crumbly, greasy — and I couldn’t seem to make my way through it….I was feeling a little dizzy too, which could have been the coffee.” (54)

“There was nothing much I wanted to eat: the draggled remains of a bunch of celery, a blue-tinged heel of bread, a lemon going soft. And end of cheese, wraped in greasy paper and hard and translucent as toenails.” (56)

“Consomme, rissoles, timbales, the fish, the roast, the cheese, the fruit, hothouse grapes dressed over the etched-glass epergne. Railway-hotel food, I think of it now; ocean-liner food.” (60)

“Breakfast in a haze of forgiveness: coffee with forgiveness, porridge with forgiveness, forgiveness on the buttered toast.” (77)

“I purchased a small iced tea and an Old-fashioned Glazed, which squeaked beneath my teeth like Styrofoam. After I’d consumed half of it, which was all I could get down, I picked my way across the slippery floor to the women’s washroom.” (83)

“I’d eaten too many cookies, too many slivers of ham; I’d eaten a whole slice of fruitcase.” (96)

“We’d have buttered white bread spread with grape jelly translucent as cellophane, and raw carrots, and cut-up apples. We’d have corned beef turned out of the tin, the shape of it like an Aztec temple. We’d have hard-boiled eggs.” (138)

I’d keep going, but I think the point is clear. Either the narrator’s very being is hindered by eating, or Atwood is a closet anti-culinary type. To which I reply, if music be the food of love, play on.

Addendum (May 21, 2013):

Margaret Atwood’s remarkably nihilistic food description has continued unabated in the past decade, helped in large part by the fact that she’s spent much of her fiction writing time building an apocalyptic universe in the Oryx and Crake trilogy. Here are more recent samples:

From Oryx and Crake:

He said it was only pure dumb chance he wasn’t dead — that this fucking country hadn’t killed him with its lousy food.

Worms and grubs were what he recommended for a snack food. You could toast them if you wanted.

…the food in the cafeteria was mostly beige and looked like rakunk shit.

No point thinking about it, not in this heat, with his brain turning to melted cheese. Not melted cheese: better to avoid food images.

From The Penelopiad:

Have I mentioned that there’s nothing to eat except asphodel?

He was sorry he’d asked them for something to eat.

From Moral Disorder:

I was not an orphan, I told myself; I was not nearly enough of an orphan. I needed to be more of one, so I could eat food that was bad for me… — “The Other Place”

As a child she’d separated her food into piles: meat here, mashed potatoes there, peas fenced into a special area reserved for peas, according to a strict plan of her own. One pile could not be eaten before the one already started had been consumed: that was the rule. — “Monopoly”

From The Year of the Flood:

“Why would we hunt?” said Zeb. “To eat,” said Amanda. “There’s no other good reason.”