Noir: a novel
First Line: You are at the morgue.
Have you ever finished a book and put it down thinking that you weren’t sure what exactly happened but that you kind of liked it? Such was my experience with Robert Coover’s Noir. Noir is nominally a mystery though it is surrealistic and amorphous one; much like a particularly vivid dream. This dream perspective is perhaps aided by second person narration that puts the reader in the drivers seat but neglects to provide them with steering wheel, gas pedal, or break.
The narration elevates Noir to a novel that you don’t just read but one that you experience. The perverse and the beautiful collide alongside the serious and the ridiculous. It is a curious effect that often times makes the novel stirring, funny, and horrific; often all in the same seen. In one particularly lengthy scene Coover describes the use of a prostitute as a message board between two rival gang leaders as the two trade insults via tattoos adding new ones or modifying old ones. There is a certain perverse humor in a women who “ended up a tattooed from crown to toes with layers of exotic overwritten graffiti, a veritable yakuza textbook, slang dictionary, and art gallery, a condition that served her well in her subsequent career, once the museum, which claimed ownership of her, was paid off: she was worth a C-note just for an hour of library time.” Of course there is a certain amount undeniable horror to literal objectification, from person to art, a horror that is fully realized in her final fate (which I won’t spoil ‘natch).
Nothing in Noir has a real name. Everyone is more or less defined by the role they play in the story. Flame is a love interest. Rats is an informant. Blue is a policeman. This isn’t always the case and it isn’t always obvious though the cleverly named Fat Agnes (a play on ignis fatuus) is my particular favorite of the bunch. Even our title character, Phillip M Noir, is a kind of obvious choice; almost exactly what we would expect. Except not quite. That last a bit difficult to explain and I think I’ll leave it by saying that every is and isn’t exactly what they seem.
Time and place are nigh on malleable entities. The mystery elements of Noir have a distinct progression but it is a progression that obfuscated by constant shifts in time that frequently left me slightly confused as to when exactly we were. The city of Noir is, to borrow a bit from Stephen King, the apotheosis of every noir/hard-boiled city you’ve ever seen. As Coover illustrates in a particularly humorous passage (it involved masturbating in subway passages) a city that is both the coquettish yet unattainable lover, friend, and frequent opponent. A confusing mess personified yet strangely indifferent to our hero’s trials and tribulations. The city has a maze of alleys (prowled by a homeless one that Noir appeases by carrying offerings of trinkets, baubles and junk) the comprise a landscape all their own and is connected by a seemingly endless labyrinth of smuggler’s tunnels that go wherever you need them to go. All of this gives the setting a curiously mythic feel.
Noir is a singular novel familiar in its use of familiar tropes from hardboiled fiction and noir film countless readers and viewers have come to know and enjoy yet curiously alien in its simultaneously literal and symbolic characters, its solid yet shifting settings, its precise if disjointed use of time, and its mystery that is both resolved yet left open with half-asked questions whispering in the background. It was not an easy read, particularly since I’ve been really busy, but a surprisingly rewarding read that deserved more time and consideration than I have been able to give it. I will be keeping an eye on future titles from Robert Coover and while he is a bit outside of what I typically read I certainly enjoyed the challenge Noir offered.