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Noir, Tragedy And Other Dreary Bummers
April 28, 2008

The term "noir " has become so universally misused—like other vague descriptives such as "Freudian," "post-modern," and "cute"—that it's virtually a cipher, obscuring more than it clarifies.

Ask three different people if a certain writer is "noir," you'll get three different answers. (Yes. No. Go away.) Is Charles Willeford "noir?" James Elroy? Lynne Cheney? This is sloppy, it's wrong, but mostly it's annoying—especially when the marketing flacks at major publishing houses slather the term on a book jacket to scare off the pious scoutmasters, breathless virgins and hysteric spinsters whom the publisher fears will fall into palsied seizures in the bookstore aisles if they mistakenly crack the cover.

I speak, sadly, from experience.

My first two novels have been extolled as "noir" and I have been asked to sit on numerous panels devoted to a purported renaissance of "noir." With this track record, it dawned on me that I might benefit from knowing what the hell people are talking about when they use this term, since I've never aspired to be a "noir" writer, let alone a "new noir" writer, and risk being exposed as the utterly clueless dunce I am if I don't buckle down and bone up. Unless, of course, that proves to be as painful as it sounds.

If words, like people, can be known by the company they keep, then "noir" might benefit from a higher class of friends. You never seem to see Noir without his sidekicks Gritty, Brutal, Grim or the ever-faithful Uncompromising. Throw in Brooding, Dark and Relentless, you've got one mean set of dwarves.

And never, never, never be so simple as to believe that calling a book "noir" will boost its sales. One might as well just slap DEPRESSING! on the cover.

In one review, my particular slant on "noir" was characterized by its "blunt vigor." Elsewhere, it was deemed "soulful." This prompted reflection upon such questions as: When is the soul vigorous? How blunt can it get? If it isn't blunt enough, will they take it from me at the airport?

To answer these and other questions, I turned to Dark City by Eddie Muller—the "Czar of Noir." I was particularly struck by his distillation of the noir protagonist's philosophical dilemma: He can't choose the world he lives in, only how he intends to live in it. This leaves out, of course, the question of rent.

In a way, this formulation calls to mind Sartre's immortal, "Each of us gets the war he deserves." Mention of Sartre in turn evokes existentialism, everybody's favorite easy credit. I have wondered if the noir protagonist is in fact nothing but the existentialist hero—alone against "the benign indifference of the universe," stripped of certainty and even a knowable self, burdened by guilt—or, if he plays his cards right, a full-blown psychosis.

Or, put it this way: Maybe the noir protagonist is simply the existentialist hero inserted into—get this—a crime story.

Gee, ya think?

Mr. Muller, the aforementioned Czar of Noir, cagily avoids this particular bag of snakes though he does point out that before the French got their grubby little doigts on the genre these stories were known by the simpler, more prosaic sobriquet "crime dramas." I like this phrase. I think it describes what I write far better than "noir." But that may just be the blunt vigor talking.

As for protagonists, Sophocles is credited with the invention of the tragic hero—at a time when "tragedy" simply meant "serious drama"—and he used the word deinos as a descriptive. It is normally translated to mean "terrible, wondrous, strange," and his heroes were seen as both repellent and admirable.

The Sophoclean hero was also unique at that time for his isolation, especially in relation to the gods, who were largely absent. This absence of divine guidance resonates with the "benign indifference of the universe" mentioned above relative to existentialism (the coinage comes from Camus).

Euripides, a contemporary of Sophocles, went one better. His gods weren't absent, they were regrettably all too present: petty, callous, vengeful.

In the plays of both Sophocles and Euripides, the protagonist faces a crisis in which disaster can only be averted by a compromise that, in the hero's view, would constitute betrayal of something he or she holds to be supremely important. The hero refuses to make this compromise and, as a result, is destroyed.

Put otherwise, the great bulk of Athenian tragedy can be synopsized with: Damned if you do, damned if you don't. In case you were wondering why Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.

Aristotle, writing a century later in his Poetics, argued that the best tragic protagonist was neither a righteous nor villainous man, but "a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, [but] whose misfortune . . . is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment."

If one agrees with this, then, again striving for brevity, we might characterize the tragic hero's plight with the single word "oops."

But what does any of this have to do with noir, I hear you ask.

Let us review: We have before us a form of drama in which a psychologically and morally complex hero, who is both repellent and admirable, neither pre-eminently virtuous nor just, prone to error, stands alone in the face of an indifferent if not actively hostile universe, confronting a choice between two alternatives, neither of which is acceptable and the one ultimately chosen leads to destruction.

If I may: What's not to noir?

A great deal, as it turns out. In noir, one often finds a protagonist whose misfortune is brought upon precisely by vice or depravity—his own. Think Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Think George Neff in Double Indemnity. Think any number of Thompson's or Willeford's or Woolrich's or Goodis's protagonists. The strength of this approach lies in its ability to submerge the reader in a treacherous, unforgiving world she would normally never visit and, I would argue, a world which the authors believed pretty much resembled what the twentieth century had to offer.

The limitation is thematic: Bad things happen to bad people. Crime doesn't pay. These motifs are hardly startling but, as noted above, one can quaintly pare down even great drama's thematic message to a well-honed cliché. As always, it isn't so much the destination as the journey that delivers the pay-off.

Secondly, "noir" never cuts a hero an even break. Any character is capable of an untimely, bleak or heartbreaking end, which is why the genre is not susceptible to a series format. And though it shares this lack of sentimentality with tragedy, noir discards the necessity for "the moral nobility of suffering" one often finds in tragedic drama. In noir, nobility is seen as sentimental and here again the existentialist influence returns.

There's an interesting irony here. The Greeks believed that humans were noble precisely because they understood suffering and death, in distinct contrast with the gods who comprehended neither. The gods were like petulant rich kids, except they not only had money and privilege, they were immortal. Early existentialists like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky were deeply religious in nature in reaction to the quasi-atheistic Age of Reason and implicitly retained the notion of redemption in their thinking. By the time the Twentieth Century reached its mid-point, both nobility and redemption seemed quaint anachronisms, left behind in the trenches of World War I and blasted away forever by the urban carpet bombing of World War II. Basically, the noir protagonist's suffering reveals nothing so much as his powerlessness.

One last parallel between Greek tragedy and noir before I move onto something wholly irrelevant: Somewhat ironically, despite the relative disenfranchisement of women in Athenian society, Greek drama is filled with strong women characters. (Aristotle, in his Poetics, would argue that despite this tradition women should never be portrayed as "manly or clever." Fortunately, he offered this opinion a hundred years after the plays in question were written.) One finds in many of tragedy's female characters progenitors of noir's femme fatales. An example: Sophocles's Electra is a bitter, unforgiving spinster who, as her brother Orestes murders their mother, goads him on with, "If you have strength, stab again!"

In case you were wondering who not to invite for Thanksgiving.

So, where are we? In particular, are we any closer to answering the question: Why do some writers get ghettoized in the genre so sloppily, lazily, indifferently referred to as "noir?" Here's my guess: If the protagonist isn't a law enforcement officer, a reporter, an amateur sleuth or an innocent victim—in The Devil's Redhead, for example, he's a retired pot smuggler just freed from prison—he's too close to "vice and depravity" for comfort. Similarly, a writer dare not defy the tyranny of the happy ending without risking an immediate stamp of "noir" (bad news for tragedians). Sometimes it's just a case of atmospherics: "stark urban realism" equals "noir."

Honestly, how does one write credibly about crime, its milieu and the people one finds there without shading the narrative into the "dark"? But "dark" allows for gradations. "Noir" suggests an irredeemable state of bleak despair. Like rooting for the Cubs.

Agreed, one formulation of noir—that it concerns a protagonist striving for some meaningful action in the face of the overwhelming forces of corruption and conformity—hits pretty close to home. But that's a rather general description and it would easily characterize the books of just about any current British crime writer, from Ian Rankin to Val McDermid to John Harvey, as well as Americans as varied as Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and S.J. Rozan, at which point the parameters of "noir" expand to meaninglessness.

Frankly, my own aesthetic owes less to noir, at least consciously, than the films created in the Vietnam War's twilight—movies like The King of Marvin Gardens, Scarecrow, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and, of course, Chinatown. And like the films that came out of post-war Italy and Germany, these movies were realistic, soul-searching and uncompromising (uh-oh).

What these stories and even the Greek tragedies have in common is their appearance in the course or aftermath of a lost war. And though America had not yet "lost" Vietnam when some of these movies appeared, there was an overwhelming sense that it had lost something. Its greatness, maybe. And this was true of noir as well even after victory in World War II. Battle-scarred veterans recoiled from the notion of themselves as heroes because they knew all too well that pitiless luck and certain varieties of "vice and depravity" were what it took to survive combat.

This need to show man stripped of his pretenses, even in a life-and-death struggle, can be felt throughout the history of literature, frankly, and most certainly in tragedy, existentialism, noir, seventies cinema, the better fifties westerns—and hopefully my books.

Or maybe I'm kidding myself. "Like all dreamers, I mistook disillusion for the truth." That's jolly old Jean-Paul Sartre again. How come nobody ever calls him noir?


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