I recently read "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton, and that had "cultural cringe" stamped all the way through it like a seaside resort's name in a stick of rock (no, not crack cocaine, a kind of candy). Upper class Americans in the late 19th century were completely in awe of Europe - its aristocracy, its culture, its old money. In the passing of a few decades, this cultural cringe had changed hands. A whole new sexy thing had been invented in America and entire industries were all revved up to tell us about it - principally Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. This led to kids growing up in Britain in the 50s thinking that British people never wrote songs and only made rubbish films, and were never, ever cool. And seeping out from the slimy depths of 1920s/30s hardboiled pulp fiction came a kind of poetry which celebrated this new thing, this new cool. It was all made out of surfaces and brand names, it was technical language applied to the everyday, it was a whole new way of talking, full of assumptions, and if you were young and British it was like overhearing a conversation in Serbo-Croat, but it was also a dog whistle. When you heard it your nose got pressed up against whichever window it was coming out of. As for instance early Beach Boys and Jan and Dean lyrics :Chrome reversed rims with whitewall slicks
And it turns a quarter mile in one oh six
Door handles are off but you know I'll never miss 'em
They open when I want with the solenoid system
orShe's ported and relieved and she's stroked and bored.
She'll do a hundred and forty in the top end floored
She's got a competition clutch with the four on the floor
And she purrs like a kitten till the Lake Pipes roar
And if that ain't enough to make you flip your lid
There's one more thing, I got the pink slip, Daddy
orYou'll probably wipeout when you first try to shoot the curve
Takin' gas in a bush takes a lotta nerve
Those hopscotch poledads and pedestrians, too, will bug ya
Shout Cuyabunga now and skate right on through
I mean, what does this all mean? Is it still English?
American authors do this a lot - Don DeLillo is a prime conjurer of technobrandnameism, great long paragraphs of White Noise for instance are pure abstractions to British readers because we only catch about one reference in twenty. And so with George Pelecanos.Cody, with his black-on-black DC dog-tag hat, plain black T, Nautica jeans, and blck Air Force highs, looked like any rough-edged city kid...
Markos rose and went to the open kitchen, equipped with a Wolf cooktop and wall oven, an ASKO dishwasher and a Sub-Zero side-by-side.
BSR turntable, belt drive. Got the Shure magnetic cartridge on the tone arm. Marantz receiver, two hundred watts, driving these bad boys right here, the Bose Five-Oh-Ones.
America - this kind of America - is always cool. It never goes out of date, it's a style, a verbal legerdemain, all flash but real too, right from the 1920s up to three minutes ago. George Pelecanos does it well. And as for this particular novel, it's a slow burn
er, takes a whole hundred pages to get all the threads started up and get interesting. And in the end it turns out that this no-nonsense tough-talking book has a big ole liberal heart that dances on the very edge of schmaltziness. But that's okay. Talk tough to me some more, George. More guns, more cars, more stereos and kitchen appliances. You know I love it.