Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Let the Great World Spin Without Brand Names

I recently finished reading Let The Great World Spin. It’s a big, ambitious novel that is also pretty fantastic. (By way of comparison, Franzen writes big, ambitious novels that are exhausting as often they are fantastic.)

The novel is set in the early 1970s. But it wasn’t until the 100 or 150 page mark that I realized Colum McCann wasn’t mentioning (m)any brand names. The novel is clearly a product of exhaustive research, but McCann manages not to bludgeon or otherwise punish the reader with everything he knows. As Jonathan Lethem noted an interview with Hazlitt, “I also had to throw out a lot of what I learned—novels are quite intolerant of information; you actually can’t stick too much in or you’ve started to do something else.”

Now details aren’t the same as information, but I basically stopped reading The Ice Storm by Rick Moody after a half-dozen pages because of this passage:

He headed for the Williamses’ bathroom. One last look. A survey of the medicine cabinet. He wanted to see if there was a diaphragm in there at all, to see how deep the slight ran. He wanted evidence.
Where would Janey have gone? To the A & P to find something to go with turkey leftovers? To purchase beauty aids in preparation for the Halfords’ party that evening? Maybe she had gone to his house, to rifle his own medicine cabinet?
Hood set the bottle of vodka on the speckled, beige, faux-marbleized countertop and poured some more ambrosia. Then he began to peruse the remedies on the other side of that mirror: Cover Girl Thick Lash mascara, Revlon Ultima pancake, Max Factor lipstick (chocolate), Helena Rubinstein Brush-on Peel-off Mask, Kotex tampons, Bonne Bell Ten-0-Six lotion, Clairol Balsam Color (blond, although she frosted her hair). Summer’s Eve disposable douche, Spring Breeze. Valium, Seconal, tetracycline, the first of these in a renewable prescription.
No diaphragm case.
In a tiny space at one end of the top shelf, Jim Williams apparently kept a few things. The Dry Look, Old Spice deodorant, Noxzema Shave Cream, Water Pik teeth-cleaning system. Vicks VapoRub.
It was an L-shaped bathing suite. Hood drained his glass and ducked into the alcove where the toilet and shower were shrouded in darkness. On top of the toilet, Janey had piled Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo, Clairol conditioner, and Tegrin medicated shampoo.

It’s only 240 words, but that medicine cabinet suffocates the novel before it has a chance. Here are the brands mentioned above as a list:

- Cover Girl Thick Lash mascara
- Revlon Ultima pancake
- Max Factor lipstick (chocolate)
- Helena Rubinstein Brush-on Peel-off Mask
- Kotex tampons
- Bonne Bell Ten-0-Six lotion
- Clairol Balsam Color
- Summer’s Eve disposable douche, Spring Breeze
- The Dry Look
- Old Spice deodorant
- Noxzema Shave Cream
- Water Pik teeth-cleaning system
- Vicks VapoRub
- Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo
- Clairol conditioner
- Tegrin medicated shampoo