Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review of Noir

In Robert Coover's new novel Noir, the protagonist is a private dick named Philip M. Noir, hired by Widow, whose secretary is named Blanche, sultry lounge singer lover is named Flame, buddy on the force is named Snark, straight-laced cop antagonist Blue, living in a city run by Mr. Big. The names of the characters tell you most of what you need to know about Noir; it is a parody of detective fiction. But Robert Coover isn't an author hacking out a playful nose-tweaking of one of America's most successful genres of fiction; he's considered one of America's great post-modern (I hate that term more and more) fiction writers. Even though I think Coover is ultimately playing pick-up basketball in this work, his literary vision is sharp enough and his narrative imagination is broad enough, to produce an engaging and entertaining novel, that readers of noir and hard-boiled detective fiction will undoubtedly appreciate.

The first thing Coover does is write the novel in second person, so “you” are Philip M. Noir. To his credit, Coover doesn't do anything too clever with the technique, but it's use gets at the wish fulfillment at the heart of noir's popularity. If only temporarily, we all want to be that devil-may-care detective taking punishment and dealing it out in the name of dames and justice. Furthermore, Noir's ability to take and survive physical punishment hints at another shade of noir's wish fulfillment; immortality. There is a part of us that wants to live forever and that is expressed by characters who survive otherwise fatal situations.

Experts in noir will recognize scenes and scenarios that have been played out hundreds of times in novels, stories, movies, and TV shows. In some ways, Noir is a catalog of cliches and formulas, and in presenting so many of the tropes of noir, Coover shows just how formulaic the genre actually is. Even the greatest works are, to some extent, collages of forms. But Coover doesn't seem to pass judgment; even while presenting those formulas Noir doesn't seem to have an opinion about whether or not these formulas are positive or negative. In the process of his parody, Coover has almost created a user's guide to noir, with all of its major components collected into a compact story. Furthermore, real noir connoisseurs, a group that would not include me, will probably spot dozens of references, contributing to the catalog nature of the work.

But Noir is more than just a pastiche of noir. The narrative exists in a city where time and space are dark and fluid. Alleys lead to more alleys that lead to more alleys that lead to different parts of the city each time; alleys whose guardian is Mad Meg; an insane half-specter who lunges out of the dark spaces to stab unsuspecting victims. Docks, diners, malt shops, speakeasys, morgues; the space coils around itself. At one point, Noir (Philip, the character, not the novel or the genre) wanders through a smugglers' tunnel that brings him from Flame's nightclub, through a strange room filled with mannequins, and a one cell prison, to the docks and finally back into the world. The dark shifting geography reminded me of the sci-fi neo-noir movie Dark City and kept Noir from being just a checklist of cliches and formulas.

For all of the complexity of the book, at it's core Noir might be one long set up to one short punchline. There are points in the novel when it could be critiqued for delivering its lines with too much of a straight face; how serious could a work be when the villain is named “Mr. Big;” but once you get to the end, you learn the book is all wink. This is a risky way to structure a book and a lot of readers will be infuriated when they get to the end. But I still find myself chuckling about it weeks later, and, to me, that is proof of a successful joke.

More casual fans of mystery and detective fiction might be put off by the unconventional presentation of the conventions, and if they're not already invested in the genre, they're unlikely to work through Coover's challenges. Noir will probably most appeal to readers like me who generally read heavy literature and find a lot of entertainment and enjoyment in the noir and hard-boiled detective genres. Coover hits a middle ground, where the novel can be enjoyed whether you really think about it, or not. And noir aficionados will also find a lot to enjoy as, Coover plays with the form as only a writer with Coover's imagination can.

No comments:

Post a Comment