Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Parallel Lines


There has always been noir in literature (stories where criminal and near-criminal activity drive the behavior and expectations of the characters).  We haven’t always seen it as such. 

There has always been Marxism (you know, the worker being exploited to produce more wealth for the overlords), but because Marx wasn’t born until 1818, and didn’t get around to observing things for the early years of his life, we had other names for it.

There have always been parallel lines, which in geometry meet in infinity and which in fiction meet in the last chapter.

Noir fiction and Marxism are two dramatic lines that often appear together in fiction, their focus on characters who might not be bright in the bookish or academic sense, although they come with wired-in shrewdness, street smarts, and a sense, if not a code, of fair play wherein they wish to conduct the balance of their expected lifespan neither as one who exploits others or is exploited by others.  They neither wish to work in the hive of academic or artistic ideas nor to avoid work in favor of surfing the seas of idleness.  They are men and women who bear the scars of some form of abuse, which might in fact have been more social and, thus, class oriented, than physical or sexual.  They want—ah, they want to be decent or to have the opportunity to be decent.

They are, at all costs, human, these noir characters, as human, say, as Frank and Cora, of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.  By the time Frank and Cora have found some momentary release in the sexual chemistry that has each clawing with desperation at the other, they have been pushed over the line of decency to the point where each new encounter, each re-visitation of that chemistry becomes their entry visa into the landscape of noir.  Without the chemistry between Frank and Cora, there is no story, no way out of interminable yearning.

The Cain novel—in fact, all his novels—suggest yearning for relationships and conditions where some degree of freedom and dignity are possible, where some kind of romantic love trumps the American nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century equivalents of arranged or forced marriages, and the option for personal discovery and growth are not squashed.  They are set in appropriate dramatic circumstances where there are considerable barriers to these goals, and where the subtext is an often excruciating sexual tension.

Noir literature leads us along the tracks of parallel lines from The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) to a work completed ten years earlier, often regarded as an American classic, Desire Under the Elms, a not—as the English would say—inappropriate comparison because of the Frank-Cora-Nick triad in the former to the Eben-Abbie-Ephriam configuration.  If this similarity lends weight and dignity to noir literature—and you believe it does, the canoe of your argument has been rowed to the point where the shoreline is barely visible.  Thus, these added oar strokes:

  1. The Greek myth involving Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Theseus
  2. Sinclair Lewis’s remarkable (and you think best of all) 1929 novel, Dodsworth.

Bringing in themes from the Greek myths adds to the flavor of the Greek Gods and demi-gods, many of whom were powerful enough to exert their personal wishes to the point of causing chaos among the male gods and surely causing humans to be wary of calling attention to themselves that might incur their annoyance if not outright wrath (see, for instance, Sisyphus who, although by some accounts a candyass, was nevertheless at one time a king.)  Note also how Greek myths translate to the present day with little need for explanation, suggesting myths are genomes of cultural qualities inherent in those of use now afoot in the twenty-first century.

There are enough noir titles available from a wide spectrum of authors to suggest some interesting possibilities, not the least of which is that noir fiction has been buried—well, half-buried--under the living room rug as a sub-genre, a distinction of some respect but at the same time offering an impatient sigh as though noir were a misbehaving child.  There are enough similarities, say parallel lines, to allow inclusion of that near-perfect novella of John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, among the ranks of noir fiction.

Noir was a term, if your memory serves, once applied to the gothics such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, and Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, where some dramatic elements appeared to be supernatural, but were then explained away as having natural causes.

Perhaps you are being fanciful or jumping ahead of facts, but you believe an argument can be made for the noir novel being the male gender equivalent of the romance, in particular the comedic romance which, despite its name, was not so much intended to imply comedy as it was an ending that featured one or more marriages.

You’re picking an arbitrary number, but it is fair and accurate for you to think you’ve read at least a thousand noir novels, many of them written by your poker and drinking friends, Day Keene and Bob Turner, drawn not only by the particular cover art of the 1950s and 1960s massmarket covers, but by the texts as well, taking individuals such as you, who at that point was trying to hide the secrets of his darker side from himself, and plunging them into situations from which extrication was not an easy chore.

You’ve in a sense been putting off two novels you see now as noir, and perhaps this recitation of things you’ve known and suspected about noir fiction, yourself, and the world about you will be instrumental in providing the proper nudge, applied to the proper place.

The presence of noir, within you, within your vision, within your work, does not preclude the presence of humor, in fact, the two seem to you yet another pair of parallel lines which you hope will meet on your computer screen and your note pads.


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