Noir: A Novel
(Overlook Duckworth, 2010)
“You know plenty about getting sucked into stories that have already been told”: so says Philip M. Noir, private eye in Robert Coover’s latest lightly metafictive take on the hardboiled detective novel. It’s use of a deliberately self-conscious, yet strangely endearing, second-person narration, too, draws you in so close you might take all the finely calibrated jokes personally. Though Noir would seem a walking parody of pulp: aloof, taciturn, and wary of love, accoutered in fedora and trench coat; and though the fractured narrative reveals Coover intermittently winking at the reader, Noir is more an homage to the genre than anything else.
Noir—a sometimes “pharmaceutical”-fueled private dick employed to solve the mystery of a femme fatale’s husband’s death—zigzags streets as labyrinthine as the novel’s well-tooled, flashback-ridden plot, streets that at one debauched moment come vividly to life: “The streets and sidewalks buckled and rolled like a storm at sea, pitched me around, reared up and smacked me in the face.” Coover signals the reader to the novel’s artifice by peopling it with mottled sleazebags with cartoonish names: a secretary named Blanche, presumably offsetting Noir’s noir; the Creep, a slimy mortician; Fingers, the safe-cracker turned jazz pianist, who plays a “tune meant to provoke reflections upon life’s brevity, and its thin sad beauty”; Flame, a prostitute with no small number of moths flying toward her; Mad Meg (alas, not a tribute to the character in William Gass’s The Tunnel); Rats, Snark, and an elusive man named Fat Agnes (a play off of ignis fatuus, that mysterious phosphorescent light also known as a will-o’-the-wisp).
But Noir—with all its traversing of urban strata, from dank alleys to chic lounges, jazz bars to nondescript offices, dismal bars to fancy yachts—may also be considered a tribute to the city’s underbelly, or, rather:
The city as bellyache. The urban nightmare as an expression of the vile bleak life of the inner organs. The sinister rumblings of the gut. Why we build cities the way we do. Why we love them the way they are even when they’re dirty. Because they’re dirty. Pissed upon, spat upon. Meaningless and deadly…It’s all about digestion. Or indigestion. What in the city we call corruption. Eaters eating the eaten…It’s a nasty fight to the finish and everybody loses. Cities laid out on grids? The grid’s just an overlay. Like graph paper. The city itself, inside, is all roiling loops and curves. Bubbling with a violent emptiness.
Though the meaning of the “M” in Noir’s middle name is never revealed, you might think of dialing “M” for Marlowe, as Noir, too, sees in “technicolor reveries” with such clarity and inventive metaphorizing as to make Raymond Chandler proud. For instance, Noir looks at “rusting barges with angular bent-neck cranes like senile old geezers having a mindless bath,” his own powers of observation baffling him. Noir wouldn’t consider himself philosophical, yet his perceptions betray great intellectual depth. For him, life, “in spite of the fleshy illusions of the moment,” is “at best a shadow play.” In a marvelous set-piece about Michiko, an ill-fated prostitute, Noir mourns her faded tattoos, how the inked art on her body lost
…its contours, its clarity, the colors muddying, wrinkles disturbing the continuities, obscuring the detail. Suffering the fate of all history, which is only corruptible memory. Time passes, nothing stays the same; a sad thing. A haiku somewhere on her body says as much.
Rendered in a tone full of deadpan humor and crepuscular musings, Noir has a lot to admire: a walking punching bag who, though seemingly down for the count, manages to beat the countdown time and again; brilliantly drawn sequences like the grisly “Case of the Severed Hand” (perhaps Coover’s offhand tribute to the phantom hand in Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, or simply a nod to the legendary Arthur Howard fraud case); a masterful juggling of jokes, violence, and mystery; weird Lynchian punctures of the veil between dreams and waking life, where, echoing Noir, I can’t always “be sure what was real and what wasn’t, though in a sense it was all real, because even if I was only imagining it, it was still real, at least in my own mind, the only one I’ve got”; and, as expected of Coover—one of a dying breed of virtuosic stylists—a knowing revivifying of genre tropes.
And this has always been one of Coover’s strengths: to invest an exhausted form, a tale that’s “already been told,” with renewed vitality. Though Noir may leave you feeling you “still don’t know who did what,” you may, like the novel’s gumshoed detective, realize that “that’s not really the point. Integrity is. Style.”