Thursday, July 05, 2007

Back from the dead... and killing a dead horse*

Mes Amis

Since I'm crawling my way out of the pit of dead animals in which I have been residing for the past few weeks, I figured I might as well weigh in on the current "debate" on the brutality (or not) of current "noir".

But before we even begin, I think it helps if we're all on the same page. The problem is that... well, everyone has such a variant definition of noir that...well, its no wonder guys like Mr KB Smith are all upset. He has, after all, a classical definition of noir that is more rigid than the mere "dark" tag that seems to define the term these days (and don't get me started on the horrendous "tartan noir" tag - - yeah, the one that gets attached to anything remotely Scottish and remotely dour).

KBS's classical definition of noir seems to follow the fact that the early noir novels centred on characters who were pulled into darkness rather than those who were already there. And I take his point. There is an increasing trend now to go straight for the jugular from page one. Grotesqueries are presented without explanation, simply as part and parcel of the world. Characters become less real and more hyper-real. Again, as KBS points out, Jason Starr probably comes closest to the classical definition of noir.

But then, doesn't that defeat his argument? Because by his own definition, then are those books that are pissing him off are simply not proper noir (even if certain people describe them as such) and should be taken on their own merits.

I do agree that certain books are probably going for shock tactics (and I'd actually say they're usually in the mainstream rather than in the "noir" subgenre - - the sheer brutality of the serial killer/forensic investigation genre that currently dominates the mainstream keeps getting more and more cynical and ultimately unengaging for a reader like me), but if he's bringing to task one of two books I think he's talking about, then I think he's missing the point of them, particularly in the case of a gruesome black comedy that is all about the violence and grotesquerie - - like the Coen Brothers with extreme violence. If he's talking about the other, then the point isn't the grotesque characters who perform a curcifixion so much as it is their effect upon the disintegrating psychology of our lead, who has been falling so hard for long before the book started.**

But he's right that noir isn't neccasarily about violence. I recently conducted an interview with the incredibly talented and erudite Steven Torres*** (waiting to find a home right now****) where he gave an incredibly interesting - and actually convincing - definition of noir and its relation to the platonic ideals. The first person to mention noir without overt reference to violence, per-se, but more about injustice, inequality, rage and frustration.

KBS's biggest frustration seems to be that the books lack soul. This is not something inherent to neo-noir so much as its a problem that runs rampant through thrillers, procedurals and forensic thrillers as well. But then soul is in the eye of the beholder, and we all react differently to different stimuli.

Likely this "debate" is one with no end because it stems from the old question what is noir that everyone has categorically failed to answer even after years of debate. If we don't know - or if we don't agree - what noir really is, how can we define neo-noir and how can we then decide that current generation of writers aren't properly meeting the responsibilities of the genre or, as KBS's argument seems to say at least in part, are merely parodying a genre that has perhaps lost its way.

I don't think its just "noir" but the whole genre that's slowly losing its way in terms of "one upmanship". John Rickards once described the situation like this:

In Book A, our hero is drugged by a hooker he picks up in Vegas, robbed and left by the side of a highway with no way of getting home and with the terrible prospect of explaining himself to his wife and family. In Book B, he's drugged and robbed, but not just of his own money, but also that of a friend who turns out to be a mobster who wants him dead. In Book C, the mobster wipes out his family before the end of the story; after he's had to admit he cheated on his wife. In Book D, the hooker gives him AIDS first. In Book E, she also takes his kidneys and maybe a foot.

But as I've said, I don't think violence is the issue in neo-noir, and I'm not sure KBS does either. That one upmanship comes from character quirks more than anything, and that's where I think his problem comes from. Amoral psychos and insane killers are everywhere, so what happened to the ordinary joe?

Its like every character has to be Ironside. Not just a cop or a killer, but a cop or a killer with a "twist". The grotesque gets confused with the complex. That's what KBS objects to.

Now in certain cases, this works - - witness the cast of Guthrie's Hard Man or the genius of Charlie William's Royston Blake. But these aren't forced out characters merely trotted onto the page for shock value. These are characters who exist within the mis-en-scene of the novels for a concrete reason. These character's grotesqueries serve a function beyond mere shock value and are pretty interesting to boot.

Ultimately, as Rickards himself said recently, it all falls down into subjectivity. And that's as may be but I still love these debates because the point of writing is to open up discussion, to make us look at the world and clearly these novels have had an effect on KBS and on their defenders. Now we may never get to answer, but its fun to consider the questions opened by differing interpretations on novels, genres and writers. Because without debate and dissension nothing would ever change and nothing new would ever be written.

Au revoir


*With apologies to Scott Adams, cos I'm sure I stole that joke from a Dilbert strip.

**And if its neither of those books, he could be right for all I know.

*** For "proper noir", check out his upcoming, The Concrete Maze, which is a wonderful slice of Bronx noir set in early 90's NYC with characters who decidedly fit KBS's noir ideal of the everyday schlub.

****the interview, not Steven who is quite happy where he is, I'm sure!

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