Noir at Goodreads
Noir at IBList
An unusual entry for Friday's Forgotten Books, Coover's short novel Noir is not only recent, but (outside of France) never garnered a large audience, left many Coover fans disappointed and mystery readers unfamiliar with Coover's approach, confused. Hopefully in time the work will garner a greater slice of the general audience, along with better appreciation. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.
Robert Coover's postmodern detective novel Noir is not a parody nor a satire of the noir detective mystery, though it does contain elements of both. Instead it is an examination of the sub-genre and its relationship with the reader, proposing that the genre is a wholly artificial fabrication designed to elude even the cleverest of deductive readers.
The novel is composed entirely in the second person, and follows the "you," private investigator Philip M. Noir, during an investigation of a widow's former husband and some shady dealings in which he might have been involved. Second person is placed amid a semi-surreal narrative in all its exaggerated noirish glory, and by creating an incompetent protagonist destined to fail and refering to him as "you," Coover seems to be making the point that the reader makes a poor detective. His comment on the genre is that whatever the outcome and whatever the mystery, its plot connections are fabricated and unreal, so how is a reader to piece together something that simply is not there? "What's the connection?" the narrator asks. "No idea. Connections probably an illusion... Illusory connection." (113) The links throughout the novel that bring us from one plot point to another and toward its eventual convenient conclusion do not exist: we are brought to that conclusion via artificial craft and not deductive logic: "Some knots, like the twist your thumped brain's in now, cannot be untangled." (186) The reader is destined to fail as detective because the mystery is intertwined in such a way that no reader can piece its parts into a cohesive whole.
Moreover, the novel is filled with distractions, character delineations and back stories that are interesting, even fascinating (such as the tattooed prostitute), yet have no place in the story as a whole. The novel is filled with these sidebars, and are among the more entertaining points of the work. In any mystery distractions serve to confuse the reader, leading them on false trails and overstuffing the brain with needless detail. Coover makes light of this in his wild ramblings on underworld dealings and Noir's own absurd past experiences.
And Noir's experiences are more than just distractions.
The novel's title embodies the whole: Noir is both genre and character, and the two are expertly encapsulated in the whole. Coover brings together all the elements of classic noir from both book and film: its damsels and thugs and hard-living detective and urban sprawl, and also its language, the secondary settings from dockyards to alleys, and its filmic details with foreboding shadows and lights filtered through slats of cheap office window blinds. More than genre, Noir is character. Protagonist Philip M. Noir is such a presence that his character is elevated above the plot. We are not reading about this particular case, but rather about a man, a caricature who has faced many cases, many hardships, though in essence each one is like the other. Our detective, however, is altered from standard detective hero to substandard incompetent, and aside from its commentary on the mystery reader and the unsolvable tangled plot, the transformation makes for a great comedy.
Coover's final point, in that jumbled resolution pointing at a thousand possibilities, indicates that the solution is not inevitable, that despite plotting and character solutions are interchangeable, any possibility can be made reality. This reminds me of my disappointment as a kid when the movie Clue was released, advertising three different endings. Even at that young age I pointed out to my mother, a mystery lover, that any mystery with three possible endings can't be a good mystery since one resolution can so easily be exchanged with another. At a young age I did not realize that the three endings, aside from being a good marketing concept as different theatres advertised different endings, follows the tradition of mock mysteries heightened in the 1970s by Neil Simon's Murder by Death and The Cheap Detective, is among the main points of such a parody. Coover's work is different in that not only does it poke fun, but it even approaches its subject academically, deconstructing the flaws, twisting them inside-out, and inserting them into this great mish-mash.
Commentary and examination aside, Coover creates a novel that is fun, energetic and genuinely hilarious. His language is precise, capturing the rough-edged detective voice while managing silliness and humour. The use of familiar settings, stock character types with names like Fingers and Rats, an arch enemy police chief named Detective Blue, shady drinking holes, an office with its couch that makes up our supposed hero's bedroom, and so on, are made utterly fresh in the stew that Coover has concocted. The plot converges on a somewhat hallucinatory finale that has confused many readers, and yet is mostly clear if read closely. Readers expecting a traditional denouement should, after only a few paragraphs, understand that Coover is headed in a completely non-traditional direction, and by non-traditional in the sense of a detective novel, this essentially means that the mystery is not quite solved, not quite explained, which is understandable since the mystery itself is never quite made clear.