Friday, June 29, 2007

Why I'm voting for Kevin Smith for President

Ed here: Over on Rara-Avis Kevin Smith put voice to something I've been feeling for quite awhile. That I relate less and less to a lot of it. Kevin makes the point that too much of it ignores the noir traditions of the past. While I agree with that to some extent, I also feel that too much of it is parodistic in nature, feeding on what came before rather than extending and enhancing it, a literary exercise that is essentially black comedy. But like the irony of the eighties and nineties a good deal of black comedy wears thin and rarely wears well. Make no mistake. The crime novel has to go in different directions. It was starting to get moribund over the last few years. But many of the new crime novels put me off to the degree that I know read traditional mysteries rather than many new hardboiled ones. In my case this may be simple age. If I had to name two writers who are doing something different with crime fiction I'd list Terrill Lankford and Jason Starr. Both of them write novels of substance and depth. Nothing flashy for the sake of flash. They're interested in life not in term paper novels that are sarcastic takes on what has gone before. I expect both Kevin and I can expect lynch mobs soon.

From Kevin: (I've edited a long piece down to several paragraphs):

After reading a spate of recent books by some of the more highly
touted practitioners of the "new noir," I've noticed something.

Not in all of them, mind you, but in enough of them to be disturbed
by what seems to be a trend. I hope not. Maybe I just hit a bad
string of books (and no, i don't want to name them). But...

Many of these books have increasingly little to do with the classic
noir films and novels their authors all claim to adore so much (but
may have never actually read).

If the original noirs were usually about normal -- or at least
identifiable characters -- being drawn into the darkness, that's long
gone. So many of the recent noirs I've read are populated by amoral
sociopaths who are already plenty dark.
Nowadays, though, the characters are more often big shot celebrities
or serial killers or globetrotting hit men or cannibal dope fiends or
the like, over-the-top sociopathic cartoons who seem to exist mostly
in books. And these guys are usually criminally clueless. These books
aren't presented as morality plays, but as clusterfucks of stupidity
and venality. These characters come pre-doomed and pre-damned; these
dumbfucks make one obviously bad choice after another -- the sort of
stupid choices that owe more to plot machinations than anything.

What happens to them isn't some slow, inevitable tragic fall from
grace into the darkness of the abyss, but more a turned-to-eleven
amplification of atrocities and bad luck, betrayals and
misunderstandings and coincidences that, again, only exist in
fiction. Certainly, things are more graphic and there's far more
obscene language, violence and sex than in the old noirs, which is to
be expected, I guess. But so much of it just seems so strained and
self-conscious; like a bunch of little boys trying to out-do each
other. These neo-noirs aren't presented as tragedy at all, but as
comedy of the cruelest sort, the "grown-up" equivalent of slipping a
frog down a girl's back.

And what's with all the torture and mutilation going on? Is Cheyney
secretly moonlighting as an acquisition editor?

I may be imagining this, but it seems to me that there's also a
growing contempt among the authors for their own characters, a kind
of mean-spiritedness that's creeping in -- a condescending sort of
self-righteous authorial stance being adapted that says "Yeah,
they're all scumbags, so I make them go through all kinds of shit.
Cool, huh?"

The old noir characters, whatever their flaws, had souls of some
sort. Hell, the books themselves had soul, and you got the sense that
the authors -- and readers -- cared about these characters on at
least some level. The characters who inhabit this cynical new breed
of noir too often are unlikable two-dimensional cardboard cutouts who
exist only to be put through their paces by an author with one hand
down his (or her) pants for the edification of his like-minded buddies.

All the meanness and carnage of these soulless wallows comes off more
like pornography than noir, at least to me.

Makes me wonder who's getting off on it.


pattinase (abbott) said...

It may be that our cynicism is just too great now to produce very likeable characters outside of cozies. I'm working through an argument that first 9/11 and our response to it has produced writers and books that are nihilistic and despairing. This is certainly true in the literary fiction. Crime fiction was always dark but is perhaps even darker now. I'd like to think I just need prozac but I don't find too many optimistic people out there.

Ed Gorman said...

To me there's dark and dark. People such as Edward Bunker and Jim Thompson and David Goodis and Derek Raymond weren't showing off or doing literary riffing on old forms. They were expressing legitimate world views. And most important of all thei visions were based on what they experienced/pervceived in their live. What I get tired of is the riffing you see that's based on novels rather than life. That's what I meant by parodistic. It's a kind of academic fiction, books unto books unto books. One name I should've mentioned was Tom Piccirilli. He's doing something very much his own and very my very dark but also very much borne of life rather than books. Thanks for writing. --Ed.

Gonzalo B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gonzalo B said...

The violence in the work of some of the classic authors like Thompson or Dan Marlowe never seems gratuitous or over the top in the manner of so many contemporary noir writers who think an exploding head and a blood-splattered windshield is the modern-day equivalent of a cartoon character slipping on a banana peel. One culprit behind this trend, in my opinion, is none other than Quentin Tarantino. Just as you say that many of the new novels are books based on other books instead of life, Tarantino's films mymic his predecessors' work behind a faux ironic smirk instead of expressing a genuine outlook on life.

His influence on the rest of popular culture (from the ever more gross films of people like Eli Roth to many of the recent noir novels) is likewise tangible. The characters in these neo-noirs usually conform to the stereotype we have of what a hitman or a tough guy is supposed to be like -ruthless, insensitive, sadistic - even if they're nothing but walking punchlines. It is clear to me that many of these writers have never experienced anything even remotely close to violence in their lives. This is why their fake and sadistic depiction of it in their novels is more like a childish enjoyment of the forbidden rather than any meaningful statement. I believe this reliance on the gross also operates as a distraction from their obvious lack of storytelling skills. This is particularly evident in the new crop of novels where it is mandatory to include an action scene on every single page of their three-page chapters.