RARA-AVIS: Neo-nah...

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 29 Jun 2007

I dunno.

After reading a spate of recent books by some of the more highly touted practitioners of the "new noir," I've noticed something.

Not in all of them, mind you, but in enough of them to be disturbed by what seems to be a trend. I hope not. Maybe I just hit a bad string of books (and no, i don't want to name them). But...

Many of these books have increasingly little to do with the classic noir films and novels their authors all claim to adore so much (but may have never actually read).

If the original noirs were usually about normal -- or at least identifiable characters -- being drawn into the darkness, that's long gone. So many of the recent noirs I've read are populated by amoral sociopaths who are already plenty dark.

In the original noirs, the main characters were usually just more-or- less regular joes: migrant workers, insurance salesmen, professors, news hawks, coffee shop waitresses. B-girls, cut-rate private eyes, mildly bent cops, low-level crooks. The sort of people you'd meet in a bar or on the street. Or getting off a hay wagon. Just regular schmucks, with more-or-less normal levels of intelligence. And their fall is presented as tragedy, with one bad decision, one moment of weakness, one fatal flaw serving as the catalyst that ignites a world of hurt.

Nowadays, though, the characters are more often big shot celebrities or serial killers or globetrotting hit men or cannibal dope fiends or the like, over-the-top sociopathic cartoons who seem to exist mostly in books. And these guys are usually criminally clueless. These books aren't presented as morality plays, but as clusterfucks of stupidity and venality. These characters come pre-doomed and pre-damned; these dumbfucks make one obviously bad choice after another -- the sort of stupid choices that owe more to plot machinations than anything.

What happens to them isn't some slow, inevitable tragic fall from grace into the darkness of the abyss, but more a turned-to-eleven amplification of atrocities and bad luck, betrayals and misunderstandings and coincidences that, again, only exist in fiction. Certainly, things are more graphic and there's far more obscene language, violence and sex than in the old noirs, which is to be expected, I guess. But so much of it just seems so strained and self-conscious; like a bunch of little boys trying to out-do each other. These neo-noirs aren't presented as tragedy at all, but as comedy of the cruelest sort, the "grown-up" equivalent of slipping a frog down a girl's back.

And what's with all the torture and mutilation going on? Is Cheyney secretly moonlighting as an acquisition editor?

Chainsaws! Woodchippers! Cruxifiction! You fed a guy's testicles into a Waring blender? Fine, I'll do that, too, but I'll toss in some Coors Light and then make my guy drink it!

And then gerbil him to death.

I may be imagining this, but it seems to me that there's also a growing contempt among the authors for their own characters, a kind of mean-spiritedness that's creeping in -- a condescending sort of self-righteous authorial stance being adapted that says "Yeah, they're all scumbags, so I make them go through all kinds of shit. Cool, huh?"

The old noir characters, whatever their flaws, had souls of some sort. Hell, the books themselves had soul, and you got the sense that the authors -- and readers -- cared about these characters on at least some level. The characters who inhabit this cynical new breed of noir too often are unlikable two-dimensional cardboard cutouts who exist only to be put through their paces by an author with one hand down his (or her) pants for the edification of his like-minded buddies.

All the meanness and carnage of these soulless wallows comes off more like pornography than noir, at least to me.

Makes me wonder who's getting off on it.

Kevin Burton Smith June 2007 Issue New fiction from Rogers, Abbott, Bracken, Bradley, Ergang and Spiegelman http://www.thrillingdetective.com

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