by Robert Coover
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 proclamation,

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
(1977) and The Universal Baseball
Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.
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.
Essay 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
(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

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
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

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

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

Ted Gioia's latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
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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

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

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

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

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

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