Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Which Set of Books Do I Get to See?"

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Which Set of Books Do I Get to See?"

Article excerpt

Noir's transformational grammar

Sound the call for "Noir," of course, and a mobile army of interpretive approaches stands at the ready. What probably first comes to mind are the trademarks established by hard-boiled fiction and films of the 1930s and 1940s: the seedy, dimly lit, venetian-blinded office looking out on a neon city; the often misogynist representation of the femme fatale; and, usually, the wisecracking detective hero--variously populist though sometimes mysteriously highbrow, suspicious of the powerful and the wealthy even though his occupation is entangled with both. Of course, contemporary criticism has come a long way from simply delineating these genre conventions: we now see Noir brilliantly connected to matters of urban space, empire, print culture, modernism, sexuality, and political authority, to list but a few topics. In recent years, in particular, an influential body * of criticism has focused on Noirs intersections with broader cultural and political discourses around gender, race, and citizenship. Noir's dark registers of guilt, its seedy urban haunts, and its often nihilistic violence are commonly said, these days, to manifest a potent but often unconscious estrangement from civil society, typically expressed through the white detective's phantasmal border work with threatening racialized or gendered others (Rabinowitz 2002; Enfin 2010; Auerbach 2008; Breu 2006; McCann 1995). While journeying through a world of superficial surfaces and chiaroscuro shadows, the Noir protagonist or detectives unmasking of a broad social malaise often only deepens his or her own. Closure is thus commonly said to be an uneven matter in Noir fiction and film; individual crimes may be solved, but the inequities in the status quo commonly remain in place.

Naturally, contemporary criticism on Noir is wide-ranging and contentious, and my summary above cannot do it justice. But in what follows, it will surely become apparent that conceiving of Noir only in genre terms can easily restrict one's understanding. Such an approach, I think, can easily mistake the atmospherics of Noir, or its most common narrative vehicle (a mystery plot), for what I would suggest, instead, is better conceived as an analytical and narrative mode--as Agustin Zarzosa suggests, a term that signifies both the rhetorical strategies that traverse genres and the discursive models that regulate "our knowledge of reality" (2010, 237). In truth, Noir has long been a crossover mode that has not only moved between fiction or film but social criticism and journalism as well. For example, the crossover genre work of Upton Sinclair, Lewis Corey, and Carey McWilliams is as much an antecedent for my triumvirate as mystery writing as such. Even the California-born Lincoln Steffens, drawing on the muckraking antecedents to Noir, used reportage to elucidate what he termed the political "nervous system" linking elites to law enforcement, labor battles, and political cover-ups (1931, 220). These nonfiction ancestors to Davis, Dunne, and Didion all had a particular penchant for deciphering the social role of elites in shaping modern society and public perception. As it were, Noir is perhaps best understood as a mode of examining the connections between outer, elite networks of power that struggle for dominance and the interiorized (and phantasmal) states of citizen estrangement that come to life within that struggle.

Seeing Noir as a discursive mode also helps explain the connections between these often divided political sympathies and certain effects of style. Typically populist by temperament, for example, Noir writers are often intent on establishing storytelling circuits between common citizens and elites in search of continuing social domination. Quite often this meant tracking "little people" who tried to tap into such a circuit but who end up being caught in its corruption. The Big Sleep's famously decadent Fulwider Building, chock full of small "businesses that had come there to die," typified this interest in shadowy, white-collar "go-betweens" doomed to fail (Chandler 2002, 146). …

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