[This novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Robert Coover

Overlook Duckworth, 2010

Filed under: Literary, Mystery

If you’re a fan of postmodernism, I’m assuming you already have this book. I’m assuming it was delivered to your door—in an envelope marked only with a muted trumpet—by a nameless letter carrier you will never meet.

This review is for everybody else, everybody who didn’t get the muted trumpet joke (was it even a joke?). This is not an essay about postmodernism, its only purpose is to help you decide whether you should read this book.

In short, you should. Noir is very, very good. The mystery part of it is pretty hard to follow, but Coover’s enthralling writing, great humor, and boundless creativity make for a really fun read. And at barely 200 pages, you’ll be lucky to stretch it out for three days.

Coover writes Noir in the second person, which I normally hate. Coover pulls it off, though, and by the second half, I’d forgotten about it. I still find it somewhat extraneous, but at least it’s not obtrusive.

The novel’s hero—the person “you are”—is Philip M. Noir. He’s also kind of a moron. He’s a private eye, and not a very good one by the feel of it. Noir’s main method of detecting is getting drunk and tailing strangers based on hunches. He never really puts anything together himself, he relies on helpers—mostly the various women in his life—to do the thinking for him.

The mystery itself is a bit convoluted and tortuous. There’s a hot widow, a police chief who wants to lock Noir up, guys named Hammer and Snark and Rats and Staples, a host of women for Noir to lust after, regular beatings, and regular blackings out. Jumble all that up and you’ve got noir or Noir or Noir stew.

The case is not the point, though. Noir feels a bit like Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, or what Vice could’ve been, i.e., an approachable entry point into a brilliant author’s mind. The difference is that Coover keeps things compact and ticking along. Noir is a fireworks display of great writing, where Vice is more of a laser light show perhaps an hour too long.

If you read Noir only for the prose, you won’t be disappointed. Here’s a passage in which Noir decides to follow a panhandler for no reason:

You sidle along walls to be sure no one’s behind you, doing a sequence of spiraling 360s when crossing streets, which probably gives the impression of being staggering drunk, which you are. Blitzed. Smoked. Damn that bottomless Snark. The panhandler continues on his rounds oblivious to your boozy dance behind him, clutching his frosted doughnut. Looking for a bin to put it in maybe; trade it in for some brown lettuce or an old sock.

Here’s a passage after Noir knocks out an attacker:

He’s out cold. Your hurting head hurts more to think of how his head will hurt, but just desserts for the dickhead after what he did to you last night.

Also: I lied. I’m going to talk about the postmodern weirdness, just a bit. It starts off nicely sequestered in its own sections. Here’s part of one:

The city as bellyache. The urban nightmare as an expression of the vile bleak life of the inner organs. … Cities laid out in grids? The grid is just an overlay. Like graph paper. The city itself, inside, is all roiling loops and curves. Bubbling with a violent emptiness.

Soon enough, the weirdness leaks out into the narrative, and what starts as a straightforward detective novel takes a mind-bending turn past reality, into surreality and irreality. And Coover punctuates the narrative with postmodern thought nuggets—for example, the mob moll who becomes a human message board between two gangsters: they tattoo her with boasts and insults and pass her back and forth.

As for the plot, I don’t think I could tell you all the details of the actual case at the heart (or on the surface) of this novel. To be honest, I got a bit tired of its windings and overcomplications. But I never got tired of Coover.

I had a writing teacher once who said you should give your reader a treat on every page. It’s the kind of advice that feels silly, but sounds appealing, perhaps guiltily (not unlike cupcakes). Noir‘s greatest strength is that it offers a treat, without fail, on every single page—from each new entry in the baroque cast of characters to the dynamite short shorts wrapped in loops of the narrative, and of course (most of all) the ever-present humor.

So don’t expect a gripping mystery, but do expect a damn good book.

Similar books: For literary detective novels, check out: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon; Bangkok 8, by John Burdett; and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. For another great second-person voice, try Lorrie Moore’s hilarious debut story collection, Self-Help.