Noir
by Robert Coover
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Robert Coover is a literary subversive, ready
to topple the old system, its methodologies, its
assumptions, and its technologies.   Even his
own vocation as a writer
of novels can end up in
Coover’s crosshairs, as in
his controversial proc-
lamation, back in 1992,
of “the End of Books.”   
But before those bulky
ink-and-paper monstrosi-
ties disappear completely,
Coover wants to add a
few more to the shelves.   
He already has more than twenty to his
name, including celebrated novels such as
The
Public Burning
(1977) and The Universal Baseball
Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.
(1968).   
Almost anyone can show up in a Robert
Coover story—including Richard Nixon,
Charlie Chaplin, Pinocchio and Julius
Rosenberg, to cite a few examples.  This
interest in figures from the past
notwithstanding, Coover has stood out in the
literary world for a future-oriented embrace
of emerging technologies, teaching students
the art of electronic media long before the
advent of the World Wide Web.   Critics
often focus on Coover as a key mover in the
shift from modernism to postmodernism, but
he has been equally pioneering in his
celebration of the evolution from text to
hypertext.  But Coover is not your typical
techno-geek, his fascination here driven by
his stated interest in “ the subversion of the
traditional bourgeois novel and in fictions that
challenge linearity.”  By the time he is done,
what will be left standing?   As Coover once
told an interviewer:  we don't know if I've
written the books attributed to me.”  But I
suspect that, even if author and book are
clouded in a hyperspace fog of
insubstantiality, the textual residue will still be
around for some time to come.
ROGUES GALLERY:
ROBERT COOVER
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The detective story may have started out as a literary
genre, but over time its conventions have been
increasingly shaped by motion pictures.   Our sense
of the right ingredients for a mystery owe more to
Hollywood—
The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep
(1946),
Chinatown (1974), LA
Confidential
(1997) and other
classic films—than to any
novel or short story.   These
movies set the tone in dialogue
and details, atmospherics and
attitudes, and various other in-
gredients that, in turn, have in-
fluenced writers.  As a result
the detective genre in fiction
has become increasingly cine-
matic in nature.  What Edgar
Allan Poe invented as (in his
words) “the tale of ratiocination” has become
instead a visual experience, marked by turned-up
trench coats, foggy nights, gritty urban settings and
all the other cultural bric-a-brac that we have come
to expect based on our experiences with  motion
pictures.  

Robert Coover's Noir resonates with the familiar
elements of these films.   Every page—indeed almost
every paragraph—draws on one or more cinematic
cliché.   Sometimes the cliché is turned into a joke.   In
other instances, it is simply piled on top of other
hackneyed elements.  The end result is a narrative that
continually looks outside itself, staking its claim not on
the basis of realism or fantasy, plot or symbolic meaning,
presenting neither thinly-disguised autobiography nor
borrowed historical accounts, offering no allegory or
fabulistic resonance or moral lessons—but establishing
itself as a compendium of cultural references drawn
from the silver screen.  The individual bits and pieces
may be juxtaposed into new patterns, but the overall
impression of the reader will be a sense of familiarity.   
You will be tempted to spout off your own cliché in
response:  I've seen that movie before.  

As is suitable for a book that borrows so heavily from
noir films, Coover has given it the title
Noir.  And his
detective is named Noir, as well—Philip Noir to be
precise.  Yet the most pervasive noir element in this
book comes from the play of light and shadow that turn
this book into a literary exercise in black-and-white
cinematography.   Coover sets the tone from the opening
paragraph, which starts at the morgue—where "the light
is weird.  Shadowless, but like a negative, as though the
light itself were shadow turned inside out."—and then
moves to the crime scene:  "Nightmarishly dark as it
usually is down there, even in the middle of most days,
lit only by dull swinging streetlamps, the reflective wet
streets more luminous than the lamps themselves,
though casting no light of their own."   This attention to
lighting will continue throughout the novel, almost as if
Coover learned his craft from
John Alton, Nicholas
Musuraca, and Burnett Guffey rather than from literary
role models.   

The choice is fitting. Coover's career has found him at
his best when drawing on aspects of modern American
culture, from baseball to politics, as the springboard for
his storytelling.   He has also turned to motion pictures
for inspiration in the past—his short story collection
A
Night at the Movies, or You Must Remember This
, built its
narratives from movie genres and stereotypes, but with
plot twists that undermined the conventions.   In his take
on the western genre, the champions of law and order
end up on the losing side, while his reworking of
Casablanca finds Rick and Ilsa engaged in some hand-to-
hand grappling in which a letter of transit plays no part.  

Noir also undermines its own premises, wreaking havoc
with the various genre expectations that serve as its
foundation.  Our detective is so hapless and incompetent
that he fails to observe even the most basic rules of the
trade—e.g., remembering the name of the client, paying
attention to possible motives for a crime, packing a
weapon before heading off to the bad part of town, etc.   
Time and again, Noir's wily secretary Blanche needs to
step in and steer her boss in the right direction.  But give
him some credit.  Noir dresses the part, with all the right
detective attire—that is, when he is wearing clothing (not
always a given in this book)—and he has mastered the
tough talk of the hard-edged private eye. "The smoke in
here is thick enough to slice and sell as sandwich meat,"
is a typical observation of our man on the job.  Yet when
it comes to investigative acumen, Noir doesn’t even
qualify to be a bumbling sidekick, a Dr. Watson or
Arthur Hastings.

This crime requires a shrewd detective—if only to find
out if any crime actually took place.  But the reader also
needs to be as smart as Sherlock Holmes to follow the
sometimes less than straightforward plot and chronology
here.    Dead characters have a stubborn tendency to
come back to life in later chapters in this novel, and
though Coover plays coy with his insertion of
flashbacks, the actual sequence of events in
Noir is more
confusing than a
Robbe-Grillet double feature down at
the local art house theater.   Alas, our hero proves to be
as flawed a narrator as he is a detective, and even the
reader is left hoping that Blanche will step in and explain
what’s going on.  Coover has often spoken out against
the "linearity" of the conventional novel, and certainly
he has delivered a novel here that will never be accused
of such an indiscretion.  

The book is better on atmospherics than cause-and-
effect, and some of the best passages involve subplots
that do little to push the main story forward.   An
account of two mobsters who communicate via tattoos
applied to a female go-between captures Coover’s
extravagant imagination at its best.    Another memorable
interlude deals with a dangerous bag lady named Mad
Meg, who picks up old tennis balls, swizzle sticks, candy
wrappers and other detritus from the city streets, and
occasionally attacks passers-by with a sharp kitchen
knife.  No, there isn't much subtlety here—our author is
happiest constructing a parody of a stereotype of a
convention—but the prose is crisp in a hard-boiled kind
of way, and the pace unrelenting.   Every few pages, our
detective Noir is either chasing down a suspect or
getting chased down himself, throwing a punch or on the
receiving end of one.   

In the final pages, Coover attempts to tie together the
threads of his plot.  I give him credit for trying.   But
with this many loose ends hanging hither and thither, no
knot will suffice to pull them together in an attractive
bow.   If this were a film, I might send the screenplay
back for reworking.  But at least the cinematography is
Oscar caliber.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
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Further Clues:

Robert Coover: "The End of Books"

An Interview with Robert Coover

"Pulp Fictions and Hypertexts with Robert Coover"
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd
Hawksmoor

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
Leviathan
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

Return to Home Page

Contact Info:
tedgioia@hotmail.com
www.tedgioia.com

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