I occasionally read a novel in which there are many references to popular culture in the storyline. This is particularly true in James Hynes's hauntingly disturbing and must-read novel, Next. Among other popular cultural references, Next reads:
Dina Tartt's beautifully-written novel, The Goldfinch is replete with popular references. Early in the novel, the narrator's mother says to Theo:
"...so he orders an iced tea.
"With legs?" says the golden blond, absently pressing a key on the register.
"Pardon?" Starbucks is like its own country, you have to know the silly argot.
"To go?" says the fortysomething woman, in a rising Texas singsong. "'With legs' means 'to go.'"
"Upper Park is one of the few places where you can still see what the city looked like in the 1890s. Gramercy Park too, and the Village, some of it. When I first came to New York I thought this neighborhood was Edith Wharton and Franny and Zooey and Breakfast at Tiffany's all rolled into one."
For me, the value of pop-culture references is their ability to make the novel come alive, providing the social and cultural backdrop for enriching the read. I can relate to ordering in a Starbucks or browsing online at Amazon. These references link me tightly to the novel's characters and situations, and draw me deeper into the reading experience.
Popular culture references can be a shorthand way of conveying vivid images. In their own unique way, they can enrich the read, if they're not over-used. Incorporating the names of people, products, films and television shows within the story can bring immediacy to the narrative.
We all know what comes to mind when we read recognizable names. They're already embedded in our consciousness.
If a character says, "Bada Bing," we think of The Sopranos; "Yada Yada," we're back watching a Seinfeld episode. "You're fired!" we see Donald Trump. If a protagonist is being patted down by a TSA agent at an airport, we relate immediately. The images and situations provide more than atmosphere; they place us in the contemporary novel.
An older reference to an earlier time can provide a sense of nostalgia. If you say a particularly evil woman reminds you of the Wicked Witch of the West, doesn't that conjure an instant image? Imagery is crucial. It's what opens the eyes of the reader's imagination.
Bada Bing fits perfectly When the Moment is Right.
Mark Rubinstein is the author of Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad