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The Alluring Obscurity of Noir: A Lesson Before Writing

By Ted Morrissey


It was my great fortune to grow up in a house that valued reading. And not just, I don’t know, casual reading—but reading as an act every bit as necessary as breathing and eating (and other less seemly verbs). The centerpiece of the table where we took every meal was a set of dictionary and thesaurus. Encountering a new word was one of life’s pleasures, and it usually warranted an announcement and family discussion. Our placemats were the day’s newspapers (my parents subscribed to three), and books of all sorts lay here and there, on end-tables, coffee-tables, nightstands, desks, toilet tanks, and, yes, even in bookcases—though we were not buried in them, as one might imagine, because the majority came from the public library: then and now among my favorite places on earth.

This love affair with language and immersion in text set me on the path to becoming a writer. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t think of myself as one. So, for more than half a century I’ve been having meaningful first encounters with writers and their words. I remember the writers and much of their words (or at least the gist of them), but except for a select few the first encounters themselves have faded from memory. For these special few, however, I recall quite vividly where and when I first read them. They stand apart, I think, because they immediately spoke to my core being, to my self-as-writer. I knew I was learning something valuable that I must tuck away someplace safe to reference again and again.

I recall, for instance, the premiere of Bartleby’s preferring not to, and the first fluttering of the minister’s black veil. I recall “The Bear,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” “Goodbye, Columbus,” “The Metamorphosis,” “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” “Araby,” “A Worn Path,” “Night-Sea Journey,” and “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” And I remember “The Babysitter.” It was a splendid October day, fall semester 1980 at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale—for an introductory course in creative writing with Philip Graham. The story was astonishing, mesmerizing, haunting.

As I said, I learned something valuable (maybe invaluable is more accurate) from each of the above. From Robert Coover I learned that indeterminacy in fiction was not only permissible—it could, in fact, be beautiful and profound, and cause a story to linger in the reader’s consciousness for hours (days, years . . . perhaps permanently). The lesson has informed my writing and my teaching of writing ever since.

The critic Larry McCaffery described Coover’s process of indeterminacy as “allowing the elements [of a fictional narrative] to freely engage and contradict one another” (27). He went on: “Coover feels that relying on any one set of conventions (like those of realism) will lead inevitably to a dead end—much as relying on any single perspective will produce only a false perspective” (28). Moreover, McCaffery noted that Coover tended to create his fiction from “familiar myths, fictions, cliché patterns, and stereotypes” (27).

McCaffery made these observations nearly thirty years before the publication of Robert Coover’s parodic detective novel, Noir (2010), wherein the author reshapes the tropes of the hardboiled mystery, even naming his protagonist Philip M. Noir in an apparent fedora-crowned nod to the king of such characters, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, et al.). The plot is driven—as it almost must be according to the conventions of the genre—by a veiled and vampy widow who “looked like trouble.” Instead of doing “the smart thing” and “send[ing] her packing,” Noir invites her to tell her story, which he knows even before she begins: “the inevitable chronicle of sex, money, betrayal” (13).

The widow arrives at Noir’s shabby office in “late afternoon . . . entering as though bringing on the night” (11); and, sure enough, the novel is plunged into what seems an eternal night: dark streets, shadowy alleys, fog-banked waterfronts, and lightless interior spaces. At one point, an informant asks Noir to meet him at sundown, and the detective quips, “Sundown? That thing still came up?” (146). The relentless dark seems related to the novel’s indeterminacy, a metaphor for obscured reality, unknowable truth. The twists and turns of the plot land Noir in “the smugglers’ tunnel . . . a kind of entombment.” But, he says, “[Y]ou feel at home here, trapped in some nameless dark corner of the world. . . . The impenetrable darkness reminds you of the widow.” Noir muses: “Was she just an innocent kid from the sticks . . . [or] a ruthless streetwise killer[?]” (113-14).

Throughout the novel we are presented with equally plausible alternatives, about practically everything. Importantly, the truth matters little, even though the search for it compels Noir ever onward through the muck of dirty cops, deranged thugs, dangerous dames, and double-dealing snitches. Noir’s desire for the widow is disconnected from her true history: “Did it matter whether she was the abused virgin from the back country or a vicious scheming assassin?” (115). Not really. And not only is the widow’s true nature a mystery to Noir, so is his own: “You might say it’s who you are, but you don’t know who the fuck you are” (124). In fact, by employing the second-person you as the book’s point of view, Coover even blurs the distinction between his protagonist and his reader.

As the novel draws toward its wild conclusion, Coover returns more and more to his metafictional roots to comment, almost directly, on the technique of indeterminacy he has perfected. Noir’s sagacious and hyper-capable secretary, Blanche (the binary white with all the answers who stands in opposition to Noir’s confused and conflicted black), instructs her boss/pupil: “I have found, Mr. Noir, that if you make a story with gaps in it, people just step in to fill them up, they can’t help themselves.” Continuing the postmodern, metafictional thread, she adds, “Your case is coming undone. You’ve sleuthed up a well-made scenario, several in fact, but your characters are leaving it” (188).

Reflecting on Blanche’s comments, Noir decides that solving the case is “not really the point.” Rather, the main point of the narrative is “Style” (I retain the capital S to emphasize style’s importance). After all, he says, “it is not the light but the obscurity that is most alluring. The mystery of it” (191). Here is articulated what I began to understand on that sunny fall day in Carbondale, Illinois, taking my first (of many) college creative writing courses. I would like to think the lesson has served me well. When it comes to writing fiction, hints and whispers land more punches than heavy-handed explanations and laying everything out for the reader in, well, black and white.

As engaging as the novel’s ambiguity is, there is much more to recommend Noir. Coover’s contemporary William H. Gass counted him among the best poets of his generation: “[A]ll the really fine poets now [1984] are writing fiction. I would stack up paragraphs of Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, or Gaddis against the better poets writing now. Just from the power of the poetic impulse itself, the ‘poets’ wouldn’t stand a chance” (91). And there are poetic passages aplenty in Noir. One of my favorites:

You turned back to the window to check: Yes, that’s all it was. You were on edge. Seeing things. What you saw now through the curtain of rain dripping off your hat brim was your own reflection, staring back at you with rain-curtained eyes, cigarette glowing at the lips, the multitudinous faces of time ticking away in the shadowy background. What are you doing out here, you dumb fuck, you asked it, it asked you, the lit cigarette bobbing as if scribbling out your question. (125)

And there is Coover’s humor:

You’ve had your heels and ears clipped by flying bullets, have been knocked off the sides of buildings you were scrambling down by flowerpots and birdcages, and have taken a load of buckshot in your butt—twice, same guy, same dame, going over the same back wall; learning doesn’t come easy to you. . . . (104)

Besides Gass, another admirer of Coover was John Gardner, and he may have had Coover’s work in mind when he wrote the following about literary art: “[A]rt has no universal rules because each true artist melts down and reforges all past aesthetic law. . . . Aesthetic law is the enemy. To the great artist, anything whatever is possible. Invention, the spontaneous generation of new rules, is central to art” (15). In Noir, Coover has melted down and reforged the well-worn tropes of the detective novel into something greater than its elemental parts. Just as Noir gumshoes his way through mean streets, alleyways, and smugglers’ tunnels in search of himself, Coover, via his art, encourages us to interrogate our own inscrutable, rain-soaked selves.


Works Cited

Coover, Robert. Noir. 2010. Overlook Duckworth, 2011.

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. 1984. Vintage, 1991.

Gass, William H. “An Interview with William Gass.” By Arthur M. Saltzman. 1984. Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass. U of Pittsburgh P, 1982.


Note: This essay is part of Big Other Folio: Robert Coover.


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