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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

What Were the Songs of Yesteryear?

by Don Webb

A recent best-selling author, the late Stieg Larsson, is a compulsive brand-namer: his characters never just hop into any old automobile, it has to be a Volvo or Saab. A reader once complained: “I’m only halfway through the first novel and he’s mentioned the Apple iBook nine times already!”

Balzac was more judicious about brand names; in fact, he practically invented “product placement.” An impoverished hero might sigh and wish he could just once enjoy a glass of wine at a café — I forget the name — whose proprietor had paid Balzac to slip a surreptitious advert into his next novel.

Balzac needed the money. Scholars, ever a killjoy lot, have shown that whenever Balzac’s characters try to do sums, they get the arithmetic wrong. Balzac was great at writing books, just not at keeping them — especially when it came to balancing his own checkbook.

Product placement is practically a hallowed institution these days. Fantasy trilogies have become the norm because they promote themselves. And we can hardly settle down to watch a TV drama without seeing the latest — or at least last year’s — laptop computers prominently displayed. In the series Numb3rs, among others, the characters were forever cranking away on Macs and PC’s — at the same time, can you believe? Did those computers just happen to be lying about on the set? And what brand of soft drink do any TV characters apparently consume? Not a can that someone happened to cadge from a studio vending machine, of that I think we can be sure.

We sometimes receive stories in which, for example, a character swigs a certain brand of beer. We blow the whistle on that. Is the brand important enough to the plot that it needs to be named? If not, let’s not name it. If the author is getting paid for it, like Balzac, fair enough, but where’s our piece of the action? Where does Bewildering Stories go to get its slice of the pie?

In the end, though, who knows or really cares where Balzac’s café is located? Who — besides marketers — cares what makes of computer are displayed in films and on television? Who but a compulsive consumer of advertising could keep track of Stieg Larsson’s brand-name avalanche? In the end, does he really do more than give proper names to commonplace objects?

Songs are in a similar position, but as we shall see, there is a difference. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, Antoine Roquentin is consoled on three occasions by the jazz song “Some of these days you’re gonna miss me, baby.” What the song meant to Sartre is a minor mystery for literary historians. What it means to Roquentin is a minor mystery for the readers. The allusion to the song is a refrain that readers will interpret as best they can, because the allusion obviously has more significance than merely naming a cultural artifact.

How is such significance to be communicated? Writers have to ask themselves at least subconsciously the question posed in “Who’s Your Audience?” Who are they writing for? In particular, what audience will understand the allusions when, like Balzac’s café, those names no longer mean anything?

For what audience, then, is Michael E. Lloyd’s Donna’s Men intended? Or perhaps a better question: what audience can appreciate it?

The entire novel to date is a trip down nostalgia lane. In Book I, Donna Burgess’ thoughts are highlighted by references to classics of Western literature. In fact, Donna’s adventures in Paris would have been the dream — or nightmare, take your pick — of a graduate student majoring in literature in the 1960’s or 1970’s.

Book II reaches its halfway point in chapter 6. So far it has spanned the years from 1955 to 1960 and appears to be scheduled to end in the fateful year of 1963. The scenes and genres shift radically away from those of Book I. Two children, Jane and Peter, are beginning to explore their world, and they do so primarily through media other than literature.

Book II recalls strongly Harlan Ellison’s short story “Jeffty is Five.” Ellison’s story is a paean to the Golden Age of radio, and much of it resembles a week’s playlist of programs from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. Jeffty’s radio favorites, like the television shows Peter enjoys in Donna’s Men, will ring a lot of bells with a certain audience in Britain and North America.

Book II is also replete with references to popular music. The song titles serve as epigraphs and sometimes even as implied dialogue. To that extent, their place in the story is justified. If we go beneath the surface, though, we can see Book II as an index to an iTunes encyclopedia of Golden Oldies. If we could link each song title to an audio file, we would certainly be tempted, even at the risk of duplicating on line the CD collections advertised by late-night infomercials.

But we must leave those links for the readers to find on their own. And that brings us back to the original question: who is the audience? To whom do all those titles of songs and television shows mean anything? In a word: to the veterans of WW2 and their children. But the men and women of the Greatest Generation are passing away, and their children are growing old. The names of the songs and TV programs evoke memories in an audience now in its 60’s and 70’s or older.

Are the songs cited in Donna’s Men fated — sooner rather than later — to go the way of Roquentin’s favorite tune? Is the novel culturally encrypted and therefore inaccessible to readers who were young later in the 20th century? To many of them it will be, but not to all. In any event, cultural change should come as no surprise to young Peter himself: in chapter 6, he is becoming aware of a “generation gap” between himself and his parents. Why should it be any different when he is their age?

The oldest love song known to history has been found inscribed in hieroglyphics in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It’s even accompanied by the musical score, which unfortunately can’t be interpreted. Who wrote the song, and who was it meant for? There’s no way to tell. But it’s not an advertisement. Rather, we may find it comforting, in a way, to know that someone, long ago, wrote a love song and considered it important enough to engrave in stone.

Everything we perceive comes to us from the past. Everything we do goes into the future. It is the duty of scribes to record events of their own times. It is the duty of the novelist — indeed, of all writers — to tell the future why events are worth recording and what they mean.

Copyright © 2010 by Bewildering Stories

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