A common question I’ve been asking throughout the course of this blog-essay project is “what defines the literary genre of noir?” After all, the term was coined to describe a brief but potent era of American cinema twenty years later by French auteurs to describe the dark contrast and emphasis on black. There are no established rules, per se, but rather a tone and look. A vibe. And yet, the term was retroactively applied to the hard-boiled detective novels that inspired the films of the cinematic period, despite the confusion as to what the term actually means. It is a genre category on Amazon. And since mankind has now morphed into one 7-billion-person human centipede with Bezos taking the shit, that makes the genre official official.
Also, probably Powell’s has a noir section.
Regardless, in the effort to help define what the genre means, I’d like to examine the suggested philosophy of the literary genre. Sure, this will vary from author to author, book to book, but we can probably find a gestalt that binds the genre together in a nice, inky ribbon.
LET’S BEGIN WITH WORLDVIEW.
The world according to noir heroes is gritty, decadent, sleazy and corrupt. One almost wishes to project an almost eastern philosophical bent to their prose, echoing the Buddhist maxim “life is suffering.” But whereas Buddhism and Hinduism seek holistic release from cyclical torture, the noir protagonist (or pro-no, which I hope isn’t an offensive way to describe the noir heroes in shorthand) always dives back in, seemingly to almost relish the experience. And you could make the argument that Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha numero uno) refused Nirvana so that he could cycle back into life to help bring every other living thing to enlightenment… but pro-nos usually aren’t in the business of actually saving anybody. They’re either in it for the truth or the gelt. Or the revenge.
Phillip Marlowe doesn’t give a shit about money or rekindling the one genuine friendship he made in The Long Goodbye– he throws all of it away after the truth of his friend’s betrayal becomes apparent. On the grim ending, Chandler said, “any man who tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish,” despite always portraying Marlowe as an honest man. Likewise, the Continental Op chose to burn every bad motherfucker to the ground in a swelling chorus of murder and double-crosses in Red Harvest, after being struck, in his words, “blood simple.” The common consensus seems to be that the world is not only corrupt, but it is also corrupting.
These are not necessarily worlds without moral values. Our No-Pros live and die by a code. Phillip Marlowe is the shining white knight walking down crooked alleyways, even though he’ll withhold evidence from the police, work his own agenda, and succumbs to bouts of violence. The Continental-Op is the “good guy” because he’s tasked with bringing down the “bad guys”– it just so happens that his license to kill gives him carte blanche to decide who the bad guys are. There is a sense of good and evil in noir, and our heroes slum through the grayscale reality of crime to establish their own sense of justice.
James Ellroy’s latest, This Storm, sets a perfect model of this confused dialectic. On one hand, you have the alcoholic chief “Whiskey Bill” Parker (THE GOOD GUY) organizing a group of drunk, drug-addled, racist, murderous, corrupt cops attempting to bring down a drunk, violent, murderous, drug-addled, racist, corrupt and fascist cop Dudley Smith (THE BAD GUY). The amount of characters is numerous enough to require a personae dramatis in the book’s index but those two totem characters serve as GOD and DEVIL attempting to win the souls of those in their orbit and execute their different agendas. OH BUT IF IT WERE SO SIMPLE. See, the Good Guy’s shenanigans gets a primary character, a clockwork orange being wound by both sides, killed out of well-meaning obfuscation of her prior misdeeds, while the Bad Guy’s gift to her satisfies her life-long yen for revenge. Meanwhile, murders and terrorist bombings occur at the negligence of Team God and street-level, murderous and racially-charged violence happens at the behest of Team Devil. As fucked up as Dudley Smith is with his ideas of pugilism and eugenics (and the first LA Quartet demonstrates this at a majestic and delibrate pace), we see a complicated and even vulnerable face of evil. Even though the reader (I hope) agrees with the (erm, comlicated) Good Guys that this motherfucker needs to go down, you find a politically-fried fascist-patriot, a closeted bisexual libertine guilty of an unforgivable hate crime, a racist and eugenecist who falls in love with Mexican men and women, and adores a homosexual Japanese man more than anything and saved him from the nationalistic wave of Japanese-Internment during WWII America. The exegesis I squeeze from this is that even in this corrupt world, in the most corrupted men, there are undeniable shades of humanity, just as within our exonnerated “heroes,” there are equally as many villanious shades. I’m not talking moralistic relativism here, because that’s a cop-out and there is a clear distinction between Good and Evil, but that in the world presented here, both sides zig-zag across the line to meet their ends.
Like Kandera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, noir heroes (por-nos, as we call ’em) are stuck within that quandary of their actions both holding little to no value in a world that doesn’t accept them and the weight of responsibility put on their shoulders as they are the only ones likely to carry out any kind of virtuous action, no matter how futile.
Which brings me to Albert Camus, AKA “Sadder Joe Strummer.”
Albert Camus fielded the existentialist brand of Absurdism. Absurdism, for a quick refresher, “refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe.”
The Absurdist Hero, in my mind, is a character that strives to find meaning in the world and tangos with the psychological dissonance when they find none– and yet they carry on with integrity. Phillip Marlowe discovers that the real killer is the loony younger sister in Big Sleep. Once he confirms it with the older sister, he does nothing with the information and goes back to work. The Continental Op washes the blood off his hands in Red Harvest and goes back to work. After the dust settles in LA Confidential, and it becomes apparent that they cannot release the truth behind the LAPD’s most corrupt cop or the revelation of a pedophilic necrophiliac, the surviving heroes are promoted and left to face future uncertainties and bureaucratic injustices.
Just as Sisyphus is doomed to keep rolling his rock up the hill, our No-Pros are doomed to repeatedly affirm what they already knew– that the world is chaotic and cruel– and the knowledge of that Truth is inevitably in vain.
Noir Protagonists are the quintessential Absurdist heroes of fiction. And we must imagine Phillip Marlowe content, if not particularly happy.
If you are interested in reading some of my own noir fiction, please check out Muddy Sunset, available here. The book follows PI Roy Delon as he untangles a web of corporate deceit in St. Louis, 1955.