A Tangled Mess
Noir is not just a special, isolated nightmare for connoisseurs. It is the entire possibility that the American dream—like the American empire and imperium, even the American way of life—turns out badly.
Imagine that 85 of the most celebrated characters in the most famous examples of film noir lived on past the closing credits. That they went on to live normal (or not-so-normal) lives until their various demises from old age, cancer, or something altogether more sinister. Then imagine that they were all connected. That the gossamer links between their celluloid and flesh-and-bone versions extended out in a web that tied them all together. And, finally, imagine that there’s a mystery to solve, a tangled mess of wrongful deaths, poisonous thoughts, and misbegotten love.
This is the premise of David Thomson’s Suspects, which has recently been reissued by No Exit Press. Thomson, most famous for his mammoth tome, The Biographical Dictionary of Film, uses that same form in this experimental novel that relishes its rather ham-fisted grasp of intertextuality. Each character, from Jake Gittes of Chinatown to George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life, receives a two or three page biographical sketch. These vignettes grow upward and outward like climbing wisteria, eventually overlapping with characters taking off and alighting like bees upon the metastasizing blossoms. Interspersed with these imaginative biographies are the oddly feverish footnotes of a narrator who is also a character in one of the films. These notes take on a darker significance as the book progresses and provide welcome interludes of menace that drive the novel forward.
However, Thomson can’t pull off his clever conceit. The narrator gambit seems just a little too contrived and the coincidences (Noah Cross and Norma Desmond were lovers, for instance) mount up with unbelievable frequency. Suspects seems to me like a book written by a particularly creative professor of film history and criticism, which is exactly what David Thomson is.
In addition to creating The Biographical Dictionary of Film, he’s written well-received biographies of David O. Selznick and Orson Welles, a few books on California and Nevada history, and countless pieces of film criticism. He knows his stuff and he lets his imagination run wild in the conception and completion of Suspects. In his introduction to the new printing of the book, he basically says as much: “That I realized that this plan was insane, and (for me) essential, says a great deal about the book and about my lifelong wish to write about films and their atmosphere instead of just reviewing them.” If The Biographical Dictionary of Film allows David Thomson to flex his scholarly muscles then Suspects provides the English-born author a vehicle for his passionate admiration of the stories America tells about itself.
For a novel so enraptured with connections, Suspects ends up being about the dissolution of a dream and the diminishment concomitant with aging. It can be read as a story about America, and I think Thomson would encourage that reading. My problem with the book is that it is more rewarding to think about and analyze than it is to read. Thomson’s prose ranges from staccato to florid, at times indulging in extended metaphors and at other moments sounding more like a beat reporter’s mailed-in story. This unevenness prevents a fluid reading of the novel and hampers one’s attempts to fully invest in the story. Instead, the reader is left admiring the imagination of the author rather than the content of his tale.
In an interview with the literary website (identity theory), Thomson discusses the differences in reader/viewer access between books and films. He says, “At the beginning of the age of film particularly and for some time there after and even now occasionally, you can have a film that just hits everybody in a way that the greatest novel never ever will be able to do.” In expanding the lives of its characters, Suspects tries to prolong that glorious moment of shared experience that film enables.
Instead, this promising but flawed book ends up pointing out the limitations of Thomson’s biographical form. Despite the author’s best efforts, all the connections between characters seem more like conspiracy theories, and by the end the reader is exhausted by the struggle of just trying to keep everything straight. Reading Suspects made me want to go back and watch the movies it celebrates. It also made me want to read a book that allowed me to immerse myself in it, rather than simply watch its flickering pyrotechnics on a too-small screen.