Re: RARA-AVIS: Neo-nah...

From: Kerry J. Schooley (
Date: 02 Jul 2007

At 02:13 PM 29/06/2007, you wrote:

>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).

But you're comparing the classics of the past with average, though highly touted, noir of today. "Touting" is not synonymous with considered critical evaluation, though if there's any skill that has well developed and improved upon in the past century, it is touting.

>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.

The genre has always been about violence. What you're saying is that the authors of the classics managed to humanize their violent characters more than the average authors of what you're reading today. I suspect many of the less-skilled, past writers of noir shared this failing and we don't recollect them so quickly now.

And why should the authors of today write about the same things, in the same way, as the authors of the past? Chandler and Hammett and the rest wrote the best Chandler and Hammet and Cain, etc. If the genre is alive, it will continue to be explored in different directions and in different ways.

BTW, I don't think Thompson's sheriff in Pop.1280 is much of a sweetie when we first meet him. I do think James Sallis' Griffin is a marvelously complex character.

>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.

In the context of a lot of the literature that preceded noir, and a good deal of it that has followed as well, B-girls, cut-rate private eyes, bent cops, low-level crooks, insurance salesmen and migrant workers would all have been thought of as already fallen, by their very nature, and would have been dismissed as unworthy of being written about. Pulp was popular fiction at the time, and categorically dismissed by most serious students of the literary classics. Pulp has been a democratizing influence, don't you think?

>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.

I know there's a good chunk of this list that would disagree with me, but I'm not sure the noir classics are morality plays either (in the sense of knowing and representing firm moral choices) so much as observations of a collapse of institutionalized morality. Some, like Mike Hammer have a strong, individualistic, if controversial sense of the way out of this morass. Others are more or less floundering before the temptations of the world. In his long list of reasons for not throwing in with O'Shaughnessy, the best Sam Spade comes up with is that he couldn't trust her and it would be bad for business. At no point does he suggest it is because the bible, the pope, or even his local imam told him to behave.

>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.

If authors write about the banality of evil, they are criticized for ignoring its effects. If they graphically depict the obscenity of evil, they are only trying to shock.

Fact is though, violence, betrayal and the rest do not immediately
(if at all) have tragic consequences in western society, and probably never did. Half a century of unprecedented violence (during which noir fiction began) resulted, directly, in a half century of unprecedented prosperity, kept going by the constant threat of violence (the cold war, and the war on terrorism.) Millions employed in the manufacture and consumption of munitions and the machinery of war, and millions more in their spin-offs. Government (democratic and otherwise) and justice systems have institutionalized and amplified violence, not done away with it. It's almost as if you could say we are a violent species, arriving on the scene with a predilection for violence. Why should modern noir not depict this?

>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.

What man can imagine gets done. Crucifixion is hardly new. It was, not that long ago in human history, a form of institutionalized violence, practiced with decorum and piety. Maybe we should be shocked by it.

>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?"

No more self-righteous, and a good deal less hypocritical than the stance of readers who, made uncomfortable by graphic depictions of mindless violence, would like to imagine it does not exist in fact.

>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.

Sex and violence- go together like love and marriage. It isn't our neo-noir authors who discovered that sex and power (violence is the quick and easy route to power, and usually backs up other methods) are prime motivators in human behavior. Sure, there's shelter and food, but if they wouldn't amount to much if we didn't need someone to fuck and someplace to do it. Of course it's pornographic. It is about people, what, how and why we do what we do. Alternatively, we could write about the angels.

>Makes me wonder who's getting off on it.

Most in the world, so far as I can tell. I don't know of any way out of the cycle of sex and violence. Best I can tell is that just about every species (worms may be one exception) competes violently for what they need to carry on, including sex, though admittedly only one gets to read about it. As one of the latter, I find it helps to laugh about it all now and again.

Best, Kerry

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