Saturday, June 1, 2013

Loving and Hating Noir

Note: This post was featured on the I Saw Lightning Fall podcast. To listen, check out the widget below, visit the show's Soundcloud page, or subscribe via iTunes.

I love noir. I hate noir. Let me explain.

Last week, I found myself stuck in a small regional airport, the inevitable result of an urgent business trip that connected through Hartsfield-Jackson International, which I prefer to avoid like the proverbial plague. While waiting, I scrolled through the Kindle app on my phone, looking for any noteworthy purchases that might've escaped my earlier attention. I found one in Dan O'Shea's short-story collection Old School.

How I managed to download Old School and not consume it immediately is beyond me. O'Shea has writing chops to make even the most seasoned author wince with envy. Whether framing a quest for vengeance with a biblical narrative ("Absalom"), detailing a bitter husband's murderous schemes ("Pink Cadillac"), or reimagining Shakespeare as a manipulative lecher (the supremely titled "The Bard's Confession on the Matter of the Despoilment of the Fishmonger's Daughter"), O'Shea packs maximum punch into minimal space. Think of these stories like a good single malt, each sip rich and potent and heady.

But like hard drink, O'Shea's stories can also turn your stomach a little. They virtually all end badly, which is just what you have to expect from noir. But what bothered me was that so many of the shorts wallowed in existential bleakness, imagining the world as (to quote thriller author Stephen Hunter) "a stainless steel rat trap with a 4,000 pound spring." Suicide becomes a grim heroic act after a cancer diagnosis in "Shackleton's Hooch." For a career hitman, the "Circle of Life" ends with him watching roaches crawl from the walls as he perishes on hotel carpet. And "Sheepshank" sees an elderly policeman's bad heart fell him moments before he can exact vigilante justice on a child murderer. It's this perspective that makes me want to dislike the genre, the idea that we subsist in a universe devoid of any ethical calculus, an indifferent cosmos that cares nothing for righteousness or recompensing wrongs.

I hate that.

There's another side to noir, though, one where that rat trip snaps shut on malefactors rather than the innocent. Interestingly, O'Shea includes a couple of stories from this viewpoint in Old School, namely "Hilary's Scars" and the amazing "Thin Mints." However, the 2010 Danish thriller Terribly Happy (a recent treadmill watch of mine) provides a more consistent example. Policeman Robert Hansen has been temporarily reassigned to the tiny town of Skarrild after an undisclosed professional impropriety. To keep from spoiling things, let's just say it involves the misuse of his firearm. Robert's superior urges him to stick to the book, avoid alcohol, and keep his pistol holstered. If he does all that, he'll get out of this rain-soaked, muddy purgatory in no time. But after meeting the comely wife of a local drunk who gets violent when in his cups, Robert finds his professional control starting to slip. That's bad enough in and of itself, but the residents of Skarrild have their own ways of dealing with the town's problems ...

As I mentioned before, noir doesn't traffic in happy conclusions. It doesn't take long for Robert to start bending rules and throwing back a glass or two. Each seemingly minor infraction leads to another marginally worse until he's behaving little better than the criminals he thinks he's fighting. Note the difference, though: Every malignant bloom sprouts from the stalk of Robert's diseased character. Things go wrong because he has gone wrong. In this sort of noir, the universe is anything but indifferent, chronicling every infraction and insuring the guilty don't go unpunished.

I love that.

(Picture: CC 2011 by jilleatsapples; Hat Tip: Brandywine Books)


ollwen said...

Interesting that how a view of the universe seeps into a narrative. Seems like 'bitter irony' is a common prescription for adding grit to noir.

I like the distinction between cruel fatalism and actions' consequences.

Loren Eaton said...

Noir is one of those genres where it just bifurcates so plainly. Horror does that, too, although I think it has tended more toward the nihilistic end of the spectrum.