Noir: A Novel by Robert Coover

The author of 23 works of fiction, Robert Coover is perhaps most famous, or infamous, for his hilarious satire on Richard Nixon and the Rosenberg Trials, The Public Burning, in which Nixon is, shall we say, abused by the mythical Uncle Sam.

In his 1968 novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Coover proved himself a champion of the then-emerging postmodernist movement with a tale of a man who’s invented a form of baseball in which thrown dice determine every action. What appears to be a study of obsession and genius morphs into an ending so random and inscrutable that when I asked an English professor specializing in contemporary fiction what it all meant, he replied, “Damned if I know!”

Since then, Coover has applied his po-mo tactics to politics (casting the Cat in the Hat as a presidential candidate, and Nixon as Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears), sex and cinema (the story, “You Must Remember This”, describes what happens between Rick and Ilsa when the camera’s off), and, more recently, the fractured fairy tale, with wonderful re-imaginings of the Pied Piper, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, and Pinocchio stories, among others. His parodies of genre fiction include Ghost Town, a western, and now the hard-boiled detective novel in Noir: A Novel.

Among other things, Noir is a hard-boiled detective novel about film noir. The entire novel is told in the second person, putting “you” at the center of the story. It begins:

You are at the morgue. Where the light is weird. Shadowless, like a negative, as though the light itself were shadow turned inside out. The stiffs are out of sight, temporarily archived in drawers like meaty data, chilled to their own bloodless temperature. Their stories have not ended, only their own readings of them. In your line of work, this is not a place where things end so much as a place where they begin.

The cinematic quality of this, with its layers of film metaphor, is no mere po-mo trope applied for its own sake. Film noir is about storytelling and so is this novel. “You” are one Philip Noir, private dick, and the novel wastes no time injecting “you” into the plot: “Following the usual preamble: You were in your office late. The phone call came in. You pulled on your old trench coat with the torn pockets, holstered your heater under your armpit, and headed for the docklands. The scene of the crime.”

What follows is a story that pours every conceivable detective story plot element into a multi-layered time frame. (I began by numbering each brief chapter with a ‘1’ or ‘2’ to keep track of whether I was in the “present” or the “past” timeline, only to have a third middle timeline pop up midway through the book! Ultimately, I discarded the effort, realizing that the book is no more convoluted than any Phillip Marlowe movie I’d ever seen.)

“You” have been approached by a Widow in a black veil and given large sums of money to find out if Mr. Big is responsible for killing her husband and might be planning to kill her as well. The Widow soon winds up dead in the street, but her body disappears. “Your” search for the Widow and her murderer will get you clonked on the head numerous times, patched up by your secretary (Blanche to your Noir), harassed by Blue, a snake-mean but honest cop, who will accuse you of everything from murder to statutory rape, consoled by your sultry girlfriend Flame, get drunk with a snitch named Snark, and spend several days wandering through a smuggler’s tunnel beneath the city trying to figure it all out.

Along the way you’ll hear the Widow’s back story, which includes incest with three generations of men in her family, learn how two Japanese Yakuza once communicated across town by tit-for-tat tattooing a beautiful moll, and how to use a mummified hand to catch a murderous pawnbroker. “You” will be led to safety more than once by a bag lady and find yourself stark naked in a coroner’s drawer wearing only a toe tag and a new tattoo on your fanny.

This is all serious fun. The tattoo, for example, reads: “You are being followed”. Later, when it finally stops itching, “you” think:

Maybe that means they’re finally leaving you alone. Though who’s “they”? Trouble with webs. When you’re in one you can’t see beyond the next knot. It’s like being trapped in two dimensions, cut off from overviews. Not something achievable from down here, but maybe you can get an underview. Look up destiny’s skirts.

The book is also a compendium of noir clichés, each one twisted to Coover’s purpose, which is to repurpose noir into a metaphor for existence itself: “On the third floor of a cheap hotel in the theatre district, a silhouetted woman was undressing behind a drawn blind. Same window as last night? No, different neighborhood. The kind of movie showing nightly all over town. The movie you’re in. Chasing shadows.”

Noir is total artifice, self-consciously so, and with a tongue more often in cheek than sticking out at the reader, which is what postmodern fiction has pretty much always done.

Postmodernism may have long ago lost its power to define our times, if it ever did. What I found interesting in it originally was the freedom with which its practitioners combined the high and the low, and its overall lack of seriousness. It is a joke told on itself. Its use of pastiche and parody, self-reference and pointlessness, is probably still an acquired taste, because too often the joke has been on the reader as well.

Of the chief American po-mo practitioners — Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, Sorrentino, Hawkes, Gaddis, and Dellilo — Coover has always believed that narrative, however fractured, must still entertain. Noir will entertain some, as it did me, and irritate others who either don’t see, or care for, the joke.

A final irony: I count five books total, including Noir, written by A-list authors in the last few years, all devoted, in varying degrees, to the “hard-boiled fiction” genre. The others are: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, and Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand.

I’ve speculated before on the mercenary motive in the writing of these books, with No Country’s Oscar being a strong incentive for these authors to do a bit of genre slumming (see, for example, this PopMatters review of Inherent Vice). The irony I mentioned? Coover’s book, while being more clearly about movies than any of them, with its myriad time-shifts, visual metaphors, and linguistic jokes, seems (willfully on Coover’s part?) unfilmable.

RATING 8 / 10