Re: RARA-AVIS: Noir=dark and sinister atmosphere

From: Michael Robison (
Date: 18 Dec 2003

Mario Taboada wrote:
...noir has to be about characters, about what goes on in their minds; the protagonists of noir novels almost always face the void, either because they are on edge or because they are thrown into the void (I don't think I need to explain the void, since we are all adults here). By contrast, in much of hardboiled literature the protagonist may face the world, may face the cruelest and most corrupt enemies, individual or collective, but he does not face the void. The void can take many forms, of course, and those
(unpredetermined) forms will not always be the same on the page as on screen.
  In this scheme, Franz Kafka, Nathanael West and Charles Willeford would be quintessential noir; Hammett, Chandler and Leonard not at all

****************** Paul Duncan's opinions on noir in his NOIR FICTION are very close to yours. Your "facing the void" parallels his "swimming in the abyss." Although he waffles somewhat about the relationship between hardboiled and noir, he places the hardboiled hero teetering on the edge of the abyss, with the noir protagonist falling into or drowning in it. Paul Duncan differentiates between the two genre protagonists in the degree of control they exert in their lives. Ultimately, the hardboiled hero prevails. The noir guy bites the big one.

Unlike Jim, I see pessimism as an intimate piece of the noir puzzle, instantiated in fear, sweat, or desperation. And I think it's as hard for a noir ending to be upbeat as it is for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle. Maybe not impossible, but darn near.

More than just atmosphere, I see in noir a pessimistic philosophical stance on the condition of man. It's not anything new in literature. It's been around since GILGAMESH. Shakespeare's Hamlet didn't have a chance, and neither did Stephen Crane's Maggie. Mario mentions Kafka, and I would add Dostoevsky, Camus, and Hesse. I know damn little about literature, and I know even less about philsophy, but I see obvious parallels between noir and existentialism.

Although Willeford refers to the "immobilized hero" instead of a noir protagonist in his master's thesis, several of the books he discusses have been noted as noir here on the list. It's a worthwhile read if one is interested.

Merry Christmas, Mario.


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