Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Best American Noir of the Century

The Best American Noir of the Century
Ed. by Otto Penzler and James Ellroy

Windmill Books, 2011

James Ellroy in the old interview had said about noir this: «Film Noir died 1959-1960. We love it. It's never going to come back. That's that, dig it. You can't go back. You cannot disingenuously go to tiki lounges and drink those big drinks, think that it's cool and it's not gonna kill you. You can't smoke unfiltered cigarettes in cocktail lounges all day, every day. It's over. The seduction of the past is just that. It's the past. We know more now and you can't go back. Film noir circumscribed an era and was fueled by the morays and repression of the era. You can't go back. You can imitate it and if you imitate it, it had better be something other than a stylistic and thematic imitation of film noir. L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia ape noir, they're historical novels. They trade on film noir but they're not film noir. Noir is over.» In the introduction to this collection Ellroy writes: “The subgenre officially died in 1960. New writer generations have resurrected it and redefined it as a sub-subgenre, tailored to meet their dramatic needs ... Noir will never die - it's too dementedly funny not to flourish in the heads of hip writers who wish they could time-trip to 1948…”

Ellroy is controversial as always, but by and large he’s right: noir is dead, but it will always live. What today is called noir, it is scarcely noir, or rather it is not noir at all, but noir is so rooted in contemporary culture that is sometimes difficult to say if this is not noir, then what's this then? Although from the collected 35 stories in the book, only 12 were written before 1960, all other have features of noir as a subgenre. This is, perhaps, not quite honestly, that this book is called «Best American Noir», but the title «Best American Noir, Neo-Noir, Post-Noir» would be too long and awkward, so just forgive it.

Even the earliest examples of noir literature, such as «Spurs» by Todd Robbins or «Pastorale» by James M. Cain, are not dated, but rather look here perhaps better than another stories. They are dated because of their language and their subjects. The later stories are often more elegantly constructed plotted, but bear the shade of a secondary nature: the story is old, but the details are new.

This is an incredible collection, even though there are a few missteps. Stories by Gil Brewer and Mickey Spillane are written as if only for the final twist, the Lorenzo Carcaterra’s story is overly schematic, and «Iris» by Stephen Greenleaf, in my opinion, and is not noir at all.

On the back cover the publisher writes that the book includes «many page-turners». For me, noir is just the opposite of a page-turner. When you read noir, to flip a page is not desirable. The body is paralyzed, because then lay the darkness, the abyss, the gas chamber and infinity.

All human vices, all the dark corners of the human soul, all fallings into hell, and all the terrible repetition of the darkest moments of life - it's all there in this book. 615 pages of falling into the abyss, from which there’s no exit.

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