“In Greek tragedy, they fall from great heights. In noir, they fall from the curb.”
-- Dennis Lehane
It is often observed that literature, especially one with an eye for the contemporary, is the best mirror for a society. And while we may search for the meaning behind our experiences and our expressions of/for them, there is no denying that the literary exercises, even the ones that embraced tragedy as their dominant flavor, choose to project the faintest glimmer of optimism on the reader. Even in the dark climax of Romeo and Juliet, we find ourselves exalting their shared tragedy into the sphere of ideal love; in Hamlet, we find patriarchal loyalty, the primal urge for self-understanding and a vicious battle between morality and mortality; in Macbeth, an illuminating lesson in the desperation that drives Man to greed. In short, most classic literature tends to cast a silver lining even on its darkest creations. The only glaring exception to this rule is the genre of noir-fiction, fittingly, a child of the twentieth century.
As one of the more recent additions to the vast family of literary fiction, noir-fiction distinguishes itself from traditional tragedies by choosing to present the world as a physical record, rather than a metaphorical construct. The author does not have to try as hard as a fantasy or SF writer to create a believable world, because the text is a slightly hyperbolic reflection of the world the reader lives in everyday. It is the grit-and-grime approach of narration that holds our attention. But do not mistake this as a comment that noir fiction is in any way, lesser than other genres. It is by itself a rich, fertile bed for complex narratives, with the reader immersing themselves into the world that they know more by association than imagination. Seattle Noir, an anthology of noir-fiction edited by Curt Colbert, is one such example of a good noir collection.
Seattle, the city, does not instantly conjure up a picture of a dazzling metropolis, nor a romantic destination, nor a business-town of walking suits. While the technology industry has made its mark on the identity of the city, it is a very recent entrant into the cultural cauldron. As Colbert describes it -
Early Seattle was a hardscrabble seaport filled with merchant sailors, longshoremen, lumberjacks, rowdy saloons, and a rough-and-tumble police force not immune to corruption and graft.
The fourteen stories included in the anthology, focus on the more darker aspects of the human condition, without pretending to provide any answers or even a tattered map to explore. These are stories that intrigue us with their drama, the utter hopelessness of the protagonists situation, and the story that emerges from the sweat and blood and tears. It is to the credit of the authors that the stories are not limited to straight-up pulp fiction, but include some very smartly crafted narratives. Some tales tend to end up on a higher note than others, but surely, they are neither a signal of happier times, nor endings. Seattleite readers will no doubt recognize some familiar public landmarks, or even familiar, intimate spaces that we visit occasionally, and part of the thrill in the stories, for me, was the immediacy felt within such discoveries. That said, the stories are not an easy read. No road that leads us into our own darkness ever feels comfortable, and here is one with fourteen hard-hitting stops along the way! However, the quality of writing is not consistently stellar. Some stories feel forced on, as if to satisfy the noir component of the narrative. I had particularly high-hopes from one involving one of my most favorite fictional characters, but was disappointed by the execution. Fortunately, such stories are the minority in the group.
Recommended for an afternoon reading on a rainy day.