Thursday, December 27, 2007

Actually Using My Brain

I received an interesting e-mail yesterday from someone looking for help in settling a bet. She wanted to know if Raymond Carver could be considered a noir writer. My answer is below:

Wow. Thanks for thinking of me. As for classifying Carver as noir, it would take a very loose interpretation of the genre to do so. However, I believe noir at times goes beyond its traditional crime fiction roots. Books like "Mildred Pierce" and "Day of the Locust" would fall into this loose definition. (One has to remember that despite the murder in the film version, James M. Cain's "Pierce" doesn't contain a crime at all.) Another novel that qualifies is "They Shoot Horses Don't They?", while it does have a murder trial at the center of the book, the focus is more on the desperate lives of its main characters.

I'm more inclined to classify any dark and tragic story (at least with a modern - or dystopic - setting) as noir or at least containing shades of noir. And I think that's where Carver's stories are, in the shadows of genre.

You will have to forgive me, but my knowledge of Carver is limited to about 15 or so of his stories and Robert Altman's film. I really don't remember the titles of the stories, but hopefully you'll know which stories I'm talking about.

My favorite definition of noir was given to me by a mentor who said that noir fiction is working class tragedy, which could describe Carver's stories. They are very solemn indeed. My favorite of his is the one with the yard sale and record player and the woman who dances - sorry I can't remember the title - but that story is very tragic.

Another story that could be considered noir is "The Train" (I think that's the title), which was a continuation of John Cheever's "Five Forty-Eight", which I consider to be a crime story. The extension of that story that examines a woman who nearly kills her ex-lover is a portrayal of a wouldbe killer; however not the immoral monster that often populate crime fiction, just an ordinary woman brought to the edge.

Many people mistake the hardboiled prose of Raymond Chandler as a necessity for noir fiction, which it is not. Dashiell Hammett's language was very sparse, employing the technique of simple language to express complex subtext - which Carver famously came to perfect and he is best known for. A recent example of using minimalism in noir fiction is the work of Irish crime writer Ken Bruen who is simply a master of sparse language and an appropriate successor to Carver. I've used the techinque myself with satisfying results. Bleak situations that expose emotions so raw and naked cry out for prose that doesn't hide beneath ornate language and description - sometimes it requires writing that lays it bare. So, again, the hardboiled language of Chandler and Mikey Spillaine is not a requirement.

Carver may not find a solid footing among Ross MacDonald or Lawrence Block on the crime fiction shelf, but I don't believe he is far away. Classifications of literature is a funny thing that many people see as absolutes; they think stories must fit in one category only, which is a foolsih notion- however one that is endorsed by booksellers in this country (European bookstores tend to shelf crime fiction with literary fiction. I'm not sure about other genres like sci-fi and romance.)

So, to answer your question, I would tend to say that Carver's writing leans toward noir with the only thing stopping the majority of people from embracing the idea is the presence of crime. Carver could easily incorporate criminals and criminality without loosing an ounce of his power.


Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

4 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice piece. I would also describe Richard Yates in much the same way. Also to be considered would be William Kennedy, Pete Dexter and a host of others. Noir transcends an actual crime IMHO.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Steve: Weird. I was talking to someone about this just last week. Carver was just about as close as a writer could come to noir without actually writing it. Like you said, all that was missing was the crime (and some of his stories did involve crimes).

2008 is the 20th anniversary of Carver's death, by the way. I think you'll see a lot of people revisiting his work.

Patti: Pete Dexter, Kennedy and Yates are close, too. Dexter especially, with Paris Trout and The Paperboy.

Steve Allan said...

Funny, I was going to mention Pete Dexter. TRAIN is as noir as noir gets, in my opinion. I would also add Bukowski.

Carver is on a lot of people's minds, especially with the latest New Yorker with his unedited story. I have the issue on my nightstand, but I haven't gotten around to reading it.

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