I concluded Part I with an assertion that noir is Tragedy, which would seem to contradict an earlier statement that noir is all about attitude. Ellroy’s caffeinated optic of noir is 100% attitude directed at film noir, a visual medium and expression. The ’tude is fatalistic, pessimistic and, arguably, existentialist, a philosophical stance that could be traced back to berets, baguettes, and Gauloises cigarettes in post-war cafés, where discussions about the futility and hopelessness of life got black and then blacker. Put émigré directors such as Fritz Lang, Edgar Ulmer or Billy Wilder behind the camera and the output is of a shade and shadows, brooding chiaroscuro that is the sinister enticing viewers. I ask that you consider an uncommon literary predecessor to noir literature.
When Otto Penzler and James Ellroy edited The Best American Noir of the Century, they sidestepped detective fiction to give readers an eclectic sample of noir literature. The logic goes something like this: Poe had given us the first detective; pulp authors, particularly Hammett and Chandler, had given readers the Continental Op, Spade and Marlowe, in that order, with their contemporaries writing variations on the same theme. Then James Cain and Jim Thompson came along and offered readers crime fiction from the criminal’s point of view. Whether you are looking at the world through the eyes of PI as a modern knight (Marlowe), a cynical investigator (Spade), a criminal (Lou Ford) or the screws being put to Joe Palooka (pick any film noir), noir literature may have had its subgenres, but it is and foremost Tragedy.
Part 1 began with a discussion of Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You, in which I suggested that readers have forgotten the fundamentals of the noir genre. I had indicated, however briefly, that Abbott does something differently with the female protagonist, but I didn’t specify what since that would spoil the story for readers.
Step back in the time machine with Bill and Ted to four centuries before Christ. Aristotle outlined the requirements for Tragedy:
- An elevated person is brought low through some poorly thought out action (hamartia)
- Said person realizes it at the worst possible moment (anagnorisis)
- The play uses elevated diction
- The audience is witness to:
- The protagonist’s series of emotions
- Their own journey of emotions (catharsis)
Substitute drama with literature and the voyeurism changes in magnitude. Reading is still visual; still a form of viewing, where the narrative is imagined. Film is also visual and the narrative is displayed on the screen, keeping in touch with theatre’s tradition of a communal experience. Drama, film, or books may seem disparate mediums, but suffering is the common theme, the ‘serious’ and ‘entertainments,’ to recall Greene’s distinction.
Authors have tweaked the definition of tragedy through the centuries. Chaucer’s Monk Tale in The Canterbury Tales discussed tragedy in terms of the vagaries of Fortune in life, or as we say in modern English: Sh*t happens. Capital S there, and speaking of modern English: Shakespeare did away with elevated diction. Chaucer, a writer with a very un-modern world-view, ultimately upholds Christian morality: focus not on earthly things and pleasures because it is illusory. Spenser, though a Renaissance writer, would arrive at the same medieval conclusion: life is corrupt, people are corrupt, and best avoid the ephemera of this carnal life. Not quite the espresso of existentialist writers such as Camus and Sartre, but bleak is still black and Nothingness includes no morality, as “the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Shakespeare, working in a literary tradition that exploited material wherever it was found, is the granddaddy of tragedians in English drama and literature. Les Reid provided a better summary of Hamlet as both noir and tragedy:
Consider Hamlet, certainly a film noir anti-hero: alienated, cynical, and abrasive in his wit, hostile to the society in which he lives, shrewdly intelligent in his pursuit of his enemy and ruthless when others block his path. His black attire, specified in Shakespeare’s text, suits his dark broodings and the pessimistic outcome of the play. Hamlet deals with all forms of killing: accidental manslaughter, deliberate murder, impulsive killing and suicide. Hamlet ponders on the morality of the killings, but events often outstrip his philosophizing, and the audience are swept along in his wake. Emotions run high, and the interludes of rational thought are brief and ineffectual. At the end we feel sobered by a grim pursuit of justice in which many innocent people have been killed. Hamlet dies, and “the rest is silence.”
The Achilles heel of my argument for noir literature as Tragedy is with the status change of the protagonist, the High brought Low that Aristotle mentioned. Hamlet is a prince; Lear, a king, and Coriolanus, Macbeth, Mark Anthony, Othello, Titus Andronicus are all military leaders. The shamus Spade and Marlowe are commoners in such a pantheon, but is not America, the great equalizer, the democracy, where hard work and abiding by the rules promise a chance at happiness and success?
Tragedy American-style, noir says “fat chance,” and the light in the dark tunnel of a film noir is not just Freudian innuendo, but the freight train named Bad Luck that has a schedule to keep. Noir is about how low can Low get. Male protagonists in noir literature, regardless on which side of the law they are on, or how they got there, do their best to fight a rigged match; they don’t embrace the suck like Willy Loman did.
Part 1 began with a discussion of Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You, in which I suggested that readers have forgotten the fundamentals of the noir genre. Jean Spangler works her charms, though not with the criminal intention of a femme fatale. She was a victim (in real life and in the fictional account). Misogyny and women in noir literature is another topic altogether. The femme fatale is often the destroyer of men. I view Megan Abbott’s Story as both literary noir and tragedy. The language is elevated and stylized, but it is consonant with the expectation of the genre. Is The Song Is You tragique à l’americaine because Jean Spangler (or Everywoman’s) had limited options in postwar America? Is the story tragic for her wrong choices (Aristotle’s hamartia) and her inevitable fall from Low to lower? Is there a case for her as anti-heroine, a Shakespearean Cleopatra, who knew the score but wanted to do it her way, on her terms?