BOOKS / Writing and label lore: Current fiction is awash with designer tags. Even writers are being packaged. But such novels may be more than consumer products: brand names have a distinguished history

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The Independent Culture
'ATTENTION K Mart Shoppers . . . thank you for shopping at K Mart]' If the American chainstore K Mart has a trademark, it is this benign mantra, piped over its public address system at regular intervals in all of its 2,600 stores. As a store, it is unremarkable: uniform, cheap and cheerful, it occupies a small but secure place in the hearts of America's blue- collar classes, for whom shopping at K Mart is the equivalent of eating at McDonald's.

Bizarrely, however, by virtue of these very qualities, K Mart has found itself at the centre of a debate on American books pages. In his recently published Talents and Technicians, John W Aldridge, a Michigan professor of English, criticised an entire generation of writers for their unquestioning dropping of brand names. And the name he hated being dropped the most? K Mart: 'In the K Mart fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason and Frederick Barthelme - to take two notable instances - the environment typified by the K Mart is not evaluated as the sleazy and soul-deadening thing it is. It is treated simply as a blank space where the action occurs, as a featureless corridor through which the characters move in their unimpeded progress toward inconsequence.'

Frederick Barthelme, brother of the late Donald Barthelme, is unrepentant about his use of the name: 'Somehow K Mart has come to express this mess which is our lives. There's a sense that you can't write about K Mart without your tongue in your cheek, without saying it's slag, but some people go to K Mart just because it's K Mart. What is it? It's K Mart, the place you can buy anything cheaper.'

For Aldridge, however, K Mart symbolises all that is wrong with contemporary American literature: 'Tom Wolfe was undoubtedly the first to describe the intricate status relationship existing between the brand names of products and the people who own and use them.' Now, he argues, we are awash with novels as commodified as the world they describe, and themselves packaged under brand names - Brat Pack, Dirty Realist, Minimalist. Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho was a book chock-a-block, not just with designer price-tags (Armani, Blaupunkt), but with characters borrowed from other designer-novels - Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City. Authors don't research, nowadays, they go shopping for characters.

Brand-naming in fiction is, however, not as new as Aldridge would have us believe. Ian Fleming was using brand names as status-indices a good 30 years before Wolfe. James Bond, like his creator, was very particular about his taste in cars (Aston Martin), vodka (Stolichnaya), watches (Rolex), cigarettes (Players), and guns (Beretta 0.25) - tastes which held a particular appeal in the austerity of post-war Britain. So laden with consumer goodies were the Bond books, in fact, that Fleming was besieged with requests from rival manufacturers begging him to switch brands. Fleming's use of a contemporary advertising slogan as the title of one of his books is a favour that has now been repaid in full: recent television ads for diamonds have reclaimed the phrase 'A diamond is forever' with accumulated Bond-interest.

Certainly, brand names can constitute more than just background decor. They can be used to display proletariat cred (Virginia Woolf and Army & Navy Stores in Mrs Dalloway, Len Deighton and Nescafe in the Harry Palmer thrillers), to have a dig at the excesses of consumer culture, or simply to showcase personal favourites (Stephen King and Julian Barnes, an odd couple, share a love of pharmaceuticals).

'There are times when I'll use brand names for specific ends - a ready supply of background detail and information,' says Frederick Barthelme. 'But from time to time they are used to nail back the wings of characters, expose their aspirations. I'll use them to attack the culture in which the Pontiac commercial is the highest statement of aspiration.'

As Barthelme's fiction shows, the mere mention of brand names can imply an ironic attitude towards consumer culture. Still, there's a limit to how far you take critiques of consumerism without it becoming a shopworn trick, and there's also a limit to how far you can take them before individual manufacturers start to complain. As a result of a jibe against the English supermarket Checkpoint in Money, Martin Amis's publishers, Cape, found themselves landed with a pounds 3,000 libel bill. In future editions it was changed to The Liquor Locker.

More recently, the crime-writer Michael Dibdin had a run-in with BMW after he chose it as the car for his scurrilous anti-hero in Dirty Tricks, who used its boot to transport a corpse. 'What I wanted was a powerful symbol of material aspiration,' says Dibdin. 'BMW is on the one hand a street-dude, drug-dealer soul-wagon and on the other an aspirant yuppie status symbol, so it seemed to cover a lot of ground.' BMW wrote to Faber, his publishers, complaining that the use of its name in the book and its logo on the cover was 'likely to cause confusion between our respective businesses and damage the business or goodwill of our company'. The head of Faber, Matthew Evans wrote back: 'It might be argued that to have your name associated with both Faber & Faber and Michael Dibdin would bring nothing but benefit to BMW.'

He has a point. Product placement certainly works the other way around. When a copy of Hannah Hauxwell's The Lady of The Vales was spotted on the shelf in Coronation Street, sales shot up. Laurent Perrier were so pleased by a favourable mention of their champagne in The Gates of Exquisite View, a thriller by John Trenhaile, that they offered to supply the drink at the launch party for his next book. And a recent whiskey ad campaign praising the smoothness of Irish compared to the roughness of Scotch used contrasting quotations from the poetry of Yeats and Burns to bear witness to the general truth of the proposition.

BMW's complaint strikes you as particularly ungrateful, given the fruitful cross-promotion between cars and crime writers in the past: Leslie Charteris and the Volvo P1800 in The Saint books, or James Bond and the Aston Martin. 'You can only really complain of the use of a registered trademark when it's been used to promote another competing product,' says Bernard Nyman of solicitors Rubenstein, Callingham, Polden and Gale. 'If you're a writer referring to somebody driving a BMW car, you're not promoting your own merchandise as being akin to a BMW car.'

Which still leaves libel, though, and as Nyman points out 'the fact that it's a work of fiction doesn't necessarily let you off. But as a rule most people don't read novels to find out which car to buy.' Or so we hope. 'It's an area of the law that hasn't been settled, but it could be a problem,' says Alan Williams of Denton, Hall, Burgin and Warren. 'The makers of trademarks such as BMW, Hoover and Biro are always keen to try to prevent them from getting into everyday language.'

The point at which they form a sort of cultural shorthand, though, is precisely the point at which novelists start to take an interest. As Michael Dibdin says: 'Products like Coke sell themselves as a lifestyle, as the Real Thing, as the key to universal human happiness and a near religious experience.' To try to regulate these things in fiction is, he adds, 'like trying to legislate language itself: it's like the thought- police moving in.'

There can be no better example of the way brand names accrue meanings unforeseen by their manufacturers than the use to which Jacob's biscuits are put in the work of Joyce. At the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Stephen Dedalus hangs around the Jacob's biscuit factory in Dublin and falls in love with one of the factory workers. He doesn't get the girl, but by the time of Ulysses Jacob's biscuits have taken on a bonus significance. At the climax of the argument with Bloom about whether God is a Jew, The Citizen throws a Jacob's biscuit tin at him, triggering an explosion, a reference to the 1916 Easter uprising (the instigators of which, Joyce would have known, sheltered in the Jacob's biscuit factory). By the time of Finnegans Wake, the Jacob's biscuit has become a fully encoded reference to the sacrament - thus running, with typically Joycean thoroughness, an entire gamut from sexual to political to religious significance.

Like those Dadaist collages which incorporated fragments of advertising newsprint, Modernist fiction repeatedly seized on the 'ready-made' of the brand name in this way. Biscuits crop up again, with more pointed

satirical purpose, in Heart of Darkness, when Conrad describes Marlowe's 'tin-pot steamboat' as rattling under his feet 'like an empty Huntley & Palmer's biscuit-tin kicked along the gutter': a comment on the flotsam of England's crumbling commercial empire made even more poignant by the fact that the name now strikes the modern reader as a typically faded, curling bit of Victoriana.

As a Huntley & Palmer biscuit tin was to the British empire at the end of the 19th century, so is Harry Angstrom's Toyota franchise to the American empire at the end of this. Updike's Rabbit books are stuffed with great shopping lists of brand names: 'Winn Dixie. Publix. Ekerd Drugs. K Mart. Wal-Mart. Taco Bell. Ark Plaza. Joy Food Store. Starvin' Marvin Food Wine and Beer . . . Schlitzt, Miller, Miller Lite, Bud, Bud Lite, Michelob, Lowenbrau, Corona, Coors, Coors Light and Ballantine Ale.' Harry's death is brought about by the steady drip of junk food, especially by his taste for Planter's Peanut Bars.

With Joycean resourcefulness, Updike puts his brand names to all sorts of work, from suggesting the generation gap (Harry is appalled to find that his granddaughter hasn't heard of Chiclets) to evoking the passage of time (Harry notices 'a stack of old Consumer's Digest in the closet but figures the products they evaluated will all be off the market by now') to indicating broad historical upheavals such as Japan's increasing economic supremacy. Rabbit at Rest climaxes with the loss of the Toyota dealership which Harry had gained during America's boom-time in Rabbit is Rich.

The only writer to make a similarly inventive use of brand names is Martin Amis. If Updike evokes the pathos of the has-been brand, Amis takes it one step further, invoking the ridiculousness of the never-was brand. Money is packed with made-up brand names - for restaurants (Burger Den, Burger Hutch, Burger Shack, Pizza Pit, Furter Hut, Doner Den), cars (Farragoes, Boomerangs, Fiascos) and pornography (Lovedoll, Plaything, Jangler) - while in London Fields Keith Talent makes a living flogging dubious perfumes with names like Outrage, Scandal, Mirage, Duplicity and Sting, and crates of a drink called Porno.

Brand-name neologisms were around before Amis. Samuel Beckett spun a jokey advertisement around Bando's plasters in Murphy, while Anthony Burgess's fictitious pop group in A Clockwork Orange, Heaven 17, had the unique distinction of coming to life when a real band adopted the name. But what is new is Amis's creation of an entire alternative product universe.

'In London Fields, the perfumes were meant to give an air of deception to the whole thing,' says Amis, 'and in Money it was to create a sort of ersatz world where everything had a rather obviously fake name, suggesting this massive fiction in which John Self was trapped but which he couldn't see. When you use brand names you're nailing things down in time, which has its advantages for about a minute, but then you condemn it to the status of a lovingly fitted dress in a period film. So I'll always try to avoid them or make them up.'

While crime fiction (as the example of Ian Fleming and Michael Dibdin suggests) positively seeks out this kind of authenticating detail, British fiction in general is shy of brand names. In Small World, David Lodge makes a nice joke about self-deconstructing language when Persse McGarrigle asks for some Durex and gets some Fairex baby food, narrowly missing getting some Ex Lax. But this is the exception to the rule.

'All brand names are vulgar here,' suggests Amis. 'There's no such thing as a classy English brand name. It's to do with the tremendous exportability of American culture - it plays, swings in a way that ours doesn't. It's partly to do with class: America is a money society and ours a class society, so brand names can be made to say more over there. K Mart means something to every American.'

Which certainly makes Laronda Hutcherson, manager of K Mart in Hattiesberg, Mississippi, happy: 'We're the top chain store in the country and everybody who shops at K Mart knows that.' Except, perhaps, John Aldridge? 'There's no need to dignify people like that with a reaction.'