Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dieselpunk Fiction: Noir by Robert Coover

I’m pleased to say that there’s been a wonderful growth in the number of Dieselpunk novels. For this posting I’ve decided to write about an excellent Dieselpunk novel, Noir by Robert Coover.

In summary, the story concerns a hard-boiled detective who takes on the case to find the killer of a mysterious widow’s husband. The reader should be aware that the language and subject matter are all very explicit. It’s certainly a novel meant for adults.

On the surface, there’s nothing in that summary that would seem to qualify this novel as Dieselpunk. Even though it’s contemporary in origin (published in 2010) and the storyline places it in the same genre as the work of Hammett and Chandler that doesn’t automatically make it Dieselpunk. It takes something more to earn such a classification. It requires something "Punk," which I believe this novel has.

Noir is both entertaining yet also challenging to read. As the inside cover reads, "With impeccable skill, Robert Coover, one of America’s pioneering postmodernists, has turned the classic detective story inside out." That puts it mildly. Not only does he turn the detective novel inside out Coover turns storytelling in general inside out.

Throughout the novel the author gives the impression that the story is set in the Diesel Era, such as in the description of the clothing, but the writer never gives a date nor does he give you enough information to determine when it takes place. In fact, the writer seems intent on keeping his reader thrown off. At times one can’t tell if he’s writing about a current event or a memory. In addition, he breaks with traditional writing in that he blends the comments made by the characters together in the same paragraphs as the narration. Coover forces you to think and concentrate on each page while at the same time try to go with the flow of the story.

Much of the setting and characters in story seem to exist as concepts rather than real people. At times, Coover’s lead character waxes poetic about his love for the "city" that he never names. Is it New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles or somewhere else? Except for the main character, no one has more than one name. There’s Blanche, Blue, Flame, Snark and others. Even the name 'Philip Noir' for the lead character, given the type of novel, seems metaphorical. The characters are paradoxical in that though you start to feel for them they seem to exist primarily to provide a message of a nihilistic meaningless of life.

Coover’s use of non-linear styles and temporal distortion along with the story’s nihilistic elements places the novel Noir firmly in the area of postmodern literature for which he is so famous. In my opinion, this postmodern style adds a punk element to this novel and, along with its other attributes, allows for its classification as Dieselpunk.

While the novel can be a challenge at times to the reader, I do recommend it.

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