Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Review: The Mars Room (2018) by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room is a good book and an important book (ie one that might teach you something) and one that left me in a sad and contemplative state at the end. It's about women in prison, what got them in prison, what their life is like in prison, what they left behind when they entered prison. Where Orange is the New Black mixes in humor with prison life, there is nothing to smile about with these women some of whom will spend out their natural live incarciated. The headline of a review in The New York Times called it "blackly comic" but if there are such elements they didn't click with me.

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The book opens and closes with Romy Leslie Hall, inmate W314159, serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years. Romy did what she was convicted of but the account of her trial and legal counsel nake you frustrated, if not angry with the legal system. You might even be able to put yourself in her place. She could have had a future after after prison if things had been handled differently.

Romy is also a loving mother albeit one who made a lot of bad decisions. Many of her flashbacks are about her son Jackson and this humanizes her.

For all her guilt, Romy is still an intelligent and appealing if not likable character. With a poor home life and wild and lawless adolescence, Romy fell into drug abuse and prostitution and work as a stripper. The Mars Room in the book's title is a San Francisco strip club where she worked. It isn't a bad gig, relatively speaking, except for the regular who becomes obsessed with her and her stalker. There is nothing glamorous about The Mars Room; it is a gritty, dirty, hostile environment.

In prison, as Romy tries to keep her head down and learn the ropes, the author explains administrative segregation (or ad seq and called the SHU in Orange is the New Black), how to communicate between cells, make prison hooch, work programs, racial divides, the contempt and hostility of the guards, and he day-to-day experience of life behind bars, and how certain behaviors become automatic. At one point Romy observes "I wasn't much of a liar before prison.". She has this poignant observation:
You go to ad seg and you don't stop having feelings.  You hear a woman cry and it's real. It's not a courtroom, where they ask all the pertinent and wrong questions, the niggling repeated demands for details, to sort contradictions and establish intent.  The quiet of the cell is where the real question lingers in the mind of a woman. The one true question, impossible to answer. The why did you. The how. Not the practical how, the other one. How could you have done such a thing. How could you.
The Mars Room has an unusual structure that pulled me into the reading experience. It isn''t linear and a narrative might be interrupted with a reflection on some other event. That doesn't make sense, I know but I'm not sure how to describe it. Within a chapter you have section inserted in the narrative with short, black, dividing bars. I like this technique; it made me curious what was going to appear next. The Romy storyline jumps around in time between Romy growing up and turning to prostitution and stripping and her life in prison.

In addition to the main Romy storyline the book gives us the stories of other people who interact with Romy. There is Gordon, a teacher, dissatisfied with his life, who lives in an isolated cabin and reads the writings of Unibomber Ted Kaczynski, her cellies, several death row inmates and, through one, Betty, the story of an ex-cop himself now an inmate.

This is a hard book for me to write about. While I enjoyed it very much, I can't put my finger exactly on why I enjoyed. There is a lot going on with several stories weaving around the narrative. A review cited below wouldprefer the book have a strong single plot. The lack of a plot was not something that bothered me. In fact, it kept me interesed to see what would be revealed next.

Kushner doesn't glorify prison or try to build unwarranted sympathy for the characters. These are people who did bad things but the author does help us see them as people. Kushner is certainly an excellent writer who knows how to tell a story and I intend to read her other works. As I said at the top, it left me feeling sad that such stories and situations happen and will continue to happen.

Here are some other reviews to give you other views on this book. I went five pages deep in a Google search and didn't find a blog review so these are from commercial web pages. There are a lot of them. I particularly like the review in Slate

Things Did Not Go Differently: Rachel Krusner's sorrowful, hard-boiled The Mars Room by Laura Miller in Slate.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner — what it means to be poor and female in America by Lisa Allardice in The Guardian
Fiction in Review: The Mars Room by Abigail Deutsch in the Yale Review
What is Missing From Rachel Kushner's New The Mars Room? Besides Plot. By Christian Lorentzen in Vulture.
Things Did Not go Differently

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Opinion: How I Look at Noir Novels

Noir seems to have settled in as my primary reading interest. Finding older noir isn't difficult but I've had to think more carefully about what makes a book noir when looking for modern noir fiction.  The term seems to be rather loosely applied. I say that if you are going to use a specific term to describe a category of fiction then that word should have a specific meaning otherwise why have noir, hardboiled, procedurals, cozies, etc.

This piece is only about noir fiction and not film noir.

Paul D. Brazill articulated my discomfort identifying noir in an  interview about his online magazine, Punk Noir Magazine (more about this below), Dietrich Kalteis asked Paul:
Dietrich: What is punk noir exactly?
PDB: Both punk and noir are words that have been so overused and misused that they pretty much mean nothing now. They're random adjectives that are regularly added in a scattershot way, so combining them allows a lot of scope for the site. No sense? Nonesense! (Dietrich Kalteis Off the Cuff Interview with Paul D Brazill about Punk Noir Magazine)
Paul's answer succinctly articulates what I've observed as I explore noir fiction. The term noir is used too loosely to be outright trusted when you see it applied to a book. Much of what I see termed noir, I might call noirish, often not even that. This is not to say that I dislike these books and don't read them. It just means that I don't consider them noir and when I want noir I mean noir. There should be a reason why a story is characterized as noir.

You will see the term neo-noir used to describe modern noir. Dave Zeltserman dismisses the term:
As far as noir literature goes, there is no difference between noir and neo-noir other than you get to look cooler by calling your writing 'neo-noir'. (DZ1)
I began thinking about this seriously when I picked up Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy. I love these books and they are some of the best PI fiction I've read, but, despite Nazis, noir they are not. Hardboiled, most definitely. Likewise, so far I haven't found noir when I've dipped into the very popular Nordic Noir category of fiction. Admittedly, my sample size is small having read only books by Jo Nesbo & Camilla Lackberg but descriptions of other Nordic Noirs seem to be consistent with my observations. To be fair to the authors, they might not think of themselves as writing noir and the designation has been imposed by publishers and reviewers.

I've concluded that I am a strict Penzerlite in my definition of noir. Here is what Penzler wrote in his article Noir Fiction is About Losers, Not Private Eyes:
Look, noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it. 
Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn’t find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin. (Noir Fiction Is About Losers, Not Private Eyes, Otto Penzler on Huffington Post. An expanded version of this is in his foreword to Best  American Noir of the Century, see below)
Note the words existential, nihilistic, and doomed. Of course, Penzler also said that noir is not unlike pornography, in the sense that it is virtually impossible to define, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it. (see OPF)  So ,you might see Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe or Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole as noir protagonists whereas I don't. And that's fine.

Echoing Penzler is Russell James in his article, So You Want to Write Noir, on Allan Gutherie's Noir Zine website which, sadly, is not activebut you may be able to get to it through the Internet Archive (see below)
... You are not confusing noir, I trust, with hard boiled or tough guy adventure stories? Noir fiction is doom-laden and pessimistic. It may have humor, it will have action, but at the tale's black heart will be a character trapped in a situation from which there seems to be no escape. Some purists would go so far as to say there must be no escape.  The plight of the desperate man (it usually is a man) fighting against the fates marks out noir fiction and gives it its savour. (RJ)
I disagree with James' statement that noir will have action. Not necessarily. Georges Simenon of Maigret fame also wrote literary noir which doesn't feature action. Also, to add my clarification to a point, the protagonist struggling against the fates isn't an innocent man or woman, it is someone on the way down through their own actions. Noit a nice person.

I'll probably use noirish for books that are not quite noir but have some of the characteristics of noir. I'll do a post later on defining 'noirish' but for now it looks like psychological thriller is a good starting point.

I'm not going to get into the origins of noir — maybe in a another post— other than it is related to hardboined fiction. I've seen noir described as a subgenre to hardboiled. I'm not sure if it should be considered as a subgenre at this point since it stands on its own but I do like what James Ellroy wrote in his introduction to Best American Noir of the Century (see below):
Noir indicts the other subgenres of the hard-boiled school as sissified, and canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction.
I'm still refining what I think of as noir and I suspect that I might add my own qualifications to Penzler's description as I read more but here is the start of my Penzler-based noir fiction checklist cobbled together from several sources. The source identified by the abbreviations in parenthesis are described at the end)
  • Focus is on the villain (OP quoted in New Yorker)
  • Characters are doomed to hopelessness (OPF)
    • No escape for the characters, their fate is inevitable (OP)
    • Doomed of his own making, seals heir own fate (DZ1)
  • Not about tragedy, ie fates conspiring against luckless soul (DZ1)
  • Protagonist may not die but probably should (OP) or is left as good as dead (DZ1)
  • Existential and nihilistic (OP)
    • Noir protagonist's worldview is nihilistic but not world in which he operates (DZ2)
  • Characters driven by greed, lust, jealousy, alienation (OP)
    • Bares the dark impulses that can drive us to do unthinkable (DZ2)
    • Not driven by social issues (DZ2)
  • Not about private detectives who ultimately have some form of moral center not present in the noir protagonist (OP)
  • No heroic figures, only losers who are seriously flawed and morally questionable (OP)
  • No happy ending (OP)
  • Pessimistic (OP)
  • The noir protagonist's perceptions and rationalizations may be off center enough to send him to hell. What Zeltserman calls Psycho Noir. For example most of Jim Thompson's work (DZ1)
    • Often have an unreliable narrator where protagonist is lying as much to himself as to reader (DZ1)
  • Noir cuts across all classes so don't expect it to deal only with working or lower classes (DZ2) 

OP — Noir Fiction is About Losers, Not Private Eyes
OPF — From Penzler's foreward  to Best American Noir of the Century which you can read in full in the Look Inside! feature for the book on Amazon
DZ1 — On Writing Noir
DZ2 —One Crime Writer's Thoughts on Noir
OP Quoted — Noir Fiction: Money, Sex, and Revenge in The New Yorker
The OP Huffington post article given above comes from a longer and more detailed view of noir in Otto Penzler's foreward to Best American Noir of the Century.
RJ — So You Want to Write Noir on Allan Guthrie's website, Noir Zine by way of the Internet Arciives. Link may not work immediately. Keep Trying.

David Zeltserman's article (DZ1) gives his favorite examples of noir fiction and it is a pretty good list especially if you are just starting with noir and want a baseline from which to work:

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, The Getaway, A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson
The Woman Chaser, Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
The Name of the Game is Death by Dan Marlowe
The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer
Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon
Fright by Cornell Woolrich
Shoot the Iiano Player by David Goodis
Anyone;s My Name by Seymore Shubin
Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks
Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill

Dave Zeltserman is also one of the few authors I've found that actually identifies some his books as noir. Here are his noir titles:

Fast Lane
Small Crimes

Dave also distinguishes his noir from his noirish books, ie noir feeling but not quite noir:

A Killer's Essence
The Interloper
Bad Thoughts
Blood Crimes

It is helpful to me in my study of noir to have a author give examples of noir and noirish.

I have a tab on top of this blog that has a list of books that I've seen identified as noir and am identifying  the one's I've read with annotations if I don't think they are really noir.

I'll conclude with a favorite quote about noir from Penzler as quoted in the New Yorker article cited above. When asked what accounts for the lasting popularity of such dark tales, he said
Have you ever lifted up a rock and seen slugs and millipedes and other ugly creatures come out? We like to watch them. 
Chad de Lisle is also working on his definition of noir on his blog NoirWHALE, which a very clever title for a blog about noir. He has excellent reviews and if you are interested in noir then you need to visit him. Here is a link to his page with his definition — "To Be, or Noir to be..." A Noir Definition at NoirWHALE

Punk Noir Magazine is a recent online find and one I highly recommend. I haven't done a complete crawl through the posts but I've really enjoyed the stories and poems I've read. Here is what editor Paul D. Brazill says about the magazine:
Punk Noir Magazine is purported to be an online arts and entertainment magazine that looks at the world at its most askew, casting a bloodshot eye over films, music, television and more. There are interviews, reviews, news, poetry, fiction, micro fiction, and flash fiction.  And some other stuff too, I’m sure. Indeed, a veritable cornucopia of carryings on. If you want to submit something, let me know.
Allan Guthrie ran a website called Noir Zine which no more. However, thanks to the Wayback Machine/Internet Archives you can get to the articles. Sometimes clicking on a link will get you a 404 error but eventually you will get the article if you keep trying. Here is the link to the archive of the Noir Zine articles.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Review: Crazy Kill by Chester Himes (1959)

Crazy Kill is the third in Himes' Harlem Detective series. When these books are mentioned, the focus is on the two detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones but when you read the books you find that, while memorable characters, the books are not fully about them, at least not in the first three books I've read. These are not procedurals and do not spend a lot of time on the investigation.

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Crazy Kill opens at the wake for Big Joe. The Reverend Short of the Church of the Holy Rollers is leaning out the third story window above an A&P watching a man run away pursued by a policeman and the manager of the grocery after stealing a bag of money. He leans too far out and falls but his landing is cushioned by a basket of bread into which he falls. When he reenters the flat where the wake is being held, no one believes he fell and survived. When they look out the window they see the basket of bread but it now holds the body of Val who is lying there with a knife in his heart. In spite of the grilling the wake goers, the police can't establish motive or opportunity. Seven principals emerge: Johnny, a gambler; Johnny's wife Dulcy of whom he is aggressively possessive; Aunt Mamie, Big Joe's widow; Chink Charlie, who is after Dulcie; Baby Doll, who says she was the deceased's fiance but who is also carrying on with Chink; Reverend Short, who is, indeed, short and subject to seizures and visions; and Almena, Johnny's ex-wife who lives with Johnny and Dulcie. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed figure they could figure out who if they knew why but that eludes them for most of the story.

Now the book shifts to the real stars of the story, Harlem and the seven principals. Himes has a way of describing the streets and people that makes me pause, re-read, and marvel at the words I just read. There are small things that give you a feeling for a character like when Johnny enters a restaurant:
Inside it was cool, and so dark he had to take off his sun glasses when entering. The unforgettable scent of whisky, whores and perfume filled his nostrils, making him feel relaxed.
Himes' descriptions of Harlem, the people who live there, the way they live, the summer heat, is lyrical. It's like like reading poems by Langston Hughes. His description of the wake and the funeral of Big Joe made me think of Hugh's poem Harlem Night Club to mind, the way he makes you actually feel your heart beating faster.

The story is complicate with no one telling the complete truth. Most of the principals are themselves trying to figure out who killed Val and there appears to be an overriding secret that may hold the key. We also get to experience Grave Digger and Coffin Ed weave themselves through the lives of the principals trying to get someone to tell them the truth. They are not above stretching the limits of their authority while aware that it could go badly for them in the process.

There is also humor in the story, mostly at the expense of Reverend Short whose frothing, hysterical rants and preaching verge or stray into caricature.

The story has a good resolution. I had decided who did it early on but not the how or why and I liked the way it played out. There was a certain poignancy to the stories of several of the principals in the end so I wouldn't exactly call it a happy ending.

I think the Harlem Decective stories are still well worth reading 50 years later. Give them a try and let me know what you think. Is my comparison to Langston Hughes valid?

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Hardboiled Aberystwyth, a review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce

Louie Knight returns in The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, another fun installment in Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth series of hardboiled detective pastiches. In the opening, Louie and his apprentice Calamity take on a rather unusual case. An organ grinder, Gabriel Bassett, wants them to find the truth behind something that happened in 1849 when a stable boy was hung for the rape, murder, and robbery of the daughter of a local squire who died in a fire. He wants the case solved in two weeks. Louie turns it over to Calamity who is close to getting her detective certificate and needs to submit a case dossier to complete her qualifications. The organ grinder is accompanied by his monkey, Cleopatra, who can communicate in sign language and whose husband, Major Tom, was an astronaut in the Welsh space program. Cleopatra is also pining for her son, Mr. Bojangles, who hasn't been seen in 15 years. She hopes that the detectives might find out something about him.

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We learn early on that Myfanwy, the love of Louie's life is wasting away due to the love potion she was given by arch criminal Brainbocs in Last Tango in Aberystwyth. When she disappears, saving her becomes Louie's sole focus.

In addition to the two main stories, at least three other story lines spin off but manage to together in the end.

 If you are a reader of classic hardboiled detective stories you will appreciate this pastiche which hits all the elements of those stories. You get the detective's witty similes
A row of doors led off with brass handles that rattled loosely in their sockets, like the hip joints of of the mistress who sat in the offices behind.
and wry cynicism
Llunos [chief of police] was not too worried about evidence since he could always invent what he lacked. And with time we had come to understand we were both fighting for the same thing. The only difference was one of approach — mine was more law-abiding.
and amusing observations
... he sat on the crate making tongue movements against the wall of his cheek as if he was trying to dislodge a piece of gristle. I hadn't see this approach before and if it was meant to heighten tension it was good.
and of course the detective gets conked on the head frequently.

Pryce also doesn't disappoint with his skewed view of this alternate Aberystwyth. Ice cream plays an unusual role in Aberystwyth daily life and here we get a discussion on the forensics of analyzing ice cream twists. There is even a book describing the different ways ice cream can be dispensed. It has to be a joke on Sherlock Holmes and his treatise on cigar ash.

And in a scene the warmed this retired librarian's heart, Louie attempts to use a library where the librarians do everything they can to keep people out. It's pretty funny. Louis momentarily confounds a librarian by using the library term periodical. The librarian has him pegged as someone who would want a book on tropical fish. And, thank you very much,  this library caters to readers and assumes that anyone who wants a lender's card is the sort of person who would run his finger under the words.

The has a lot of humour but also is much darker in the way the stories play out than the first two books. This fits into the hardboiled school of detective stories where there doesn't have to be a happy endings. I'm not sure depressed is the right word but there is nothing upbeat how the plot lines play out. A little melancholy is the state I was in as the book ended. The one feel-good bit was knowing that Aberystwyth now has two private detectives.

I have two more Aberystwyth books on my TBR shelf but I thinking I'll set them aside for a while I don't want to binge read them.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Review: The Widow (1942) by Georges Simenon

Don't pick up Simenon's The Widow expecting a page-turneing thriller of a noir story. Quite the opposite, I would go so far as to call it pure literary noir, noir at its most elemental. The opening lines evoke in me the feeling of classic film noir lighting though that is certainly something I'm imposing and not Simenon's intent. I can see the black and white scene in my mind and get a feeling of foreshadowing.
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A man walking. One man, on a stretch of road three miles long cut slantwise every ten yards by the shadow of a tree trunk, striding unhurriedly from one shadow to the next.
Jean Passerat-Monnoyeur has just been released from prison where he served time for murder. Boarding a bus of women returning from market, he and Tati, the widow Couderc,  make eye contact, a silent but certain connection is made, and the inevitable is set in motion. Without a word being exchanged between them, Jean gets off he bus when Tati does and offers to help her carry her packages to the farm.

He is soon employed to assist with the farm work and moves into a room in the attic. Tati is soon established as a strong willed, plain spoken, and thoroughly domineering personality. She isn't unpleasant but she wants the farm run efficiently expects the work done with no slacking off. She isn't attractive being dumpy and with a hairy mole which becomes a frequent focus of Jean's attention. Also living at the farm is Tati's deaf and, perhaps or perhaps not, slow witted father-in-law old Couderc. Even as Tati takes Jean into her bed she matter-of-factly lets him know that she uses sex to keep the old man in line so he won't throw her out.

Tati is in constant conflict with the old man's two daughters, one of whom lives within sight of the farm. The daughters want the old man away from Tati's influence and Tati out of the house. The local daughter, Francoise, has her own daughter, Felicie, a single mother who Tati calls the slut. Tati feels that Felicie is the real danger to her relationship with old Couderc.

Life on the farm settles into a routine with Jean proving a compliant worker. But under his passive and obliging outward appearance, Jean's destiny is calling.

We learn that, when a youth, an impressionable Jean was essentially destroyed by a sadistic teacher and he gave up, deciding that nothing mattered anymore and his life became aimless. His obsession with a women lead to the murder from which he narrowly escaped execution. Soon Felicie is all he can think of and Felicie reciprocates, sort of. This doesn't escape Tati's notice and she fears that Jean will leave her.

Jean experiences an unwelcome flood of memories and with them the recognition that what he did once, he will do again. If he hadn't committed murder, he would have done something else and he is powerless to stop,. He is doomed to live a cycle that will .. start all over again! And then again, and again! He had had enough.

The Widow is an unusual example of noir. A large part of it is taken up with a detailed view of farm life in a small French town. And Jean moves through his new life placidly, seemingly content to spend his days doing nothing else. But like the woman in his past, Felicie awakes the feeling of inevitability in Jean and moves toward his destiny and ultimately relief from himself.

Jean has a nihilistic and fatalistic outlook on life marking him as a classic noir protagonist. I enjoyed the way Simenon built the story which, at times, made you feel that everything could turn out okay for everyone. But that was never likely.

Here are two blog reviews that I enjoy and recommend you visit. 

The review on The NoirWhale blog breaks down the elements that blog author Chad de Lisle feels makes this a noir novel: Noir Crime Fiction | The Widow by Georges Simenon at The NoirWhale

His Futile Preoccupations is another favorite review site I visit, It provides more background  on Simenon and The WidowThe Widow by Georges Simenon at His Futile Preoccupations

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