"You are at the morgue. Where the light is weird. Shadowless, but like a negative, as though the light itself were shadow turned inside out." So opens Robert Coover's latest publication, Noir: A Novel, and appropriately so: for forty-five years Coover has been inverting literary convention in works as wide-ranging as seminal experimental short story collection Pricksongs & Descants (1969), controversial Nixon psychodrama The Public Burning (1977), cubistic S&M farce Spanking the Maid (1982), irreverent Pinocchio sequel Pinocchio in Venice (1991), and kaleidoscopic small-town epic John's Wife (1996). Originally labeled along with John Barth, William Gass and John Hawkes as a "metafictionist" for his tendency to take the very act of writing as a subject, Coover's imagination cannot be contained: not only does he continue to expand the boundaries of fiction within the covers of his published books, but as a professor at Brown University he has also become one of the strongest advocates and teachers of the next frontier of fiction, the alinear, interactive medium known as hypertext.
The overriding theme of Coover's work is the continual deconstruction of myth, whether that of fairy and folk tales (Sleeping Beauty in Briar Rose , Hansel and Gretel in "The Gingerbread House," a menagerie of anthropomorphic morals in "Aesop's Forest"), religious stories and systems (the building of the ark as experienced by Noah's unwitting sibling in "The Brother," the growth of an apocalyptic cult in The Origin of the Brunists ), sports legends (the American pastime in The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. ), societal rituals (the suburban parlor in Gerald's Party), political events (A Political Fable, first published as "The Cat in the Hat for President" ), and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, the movies. Throughout his career Coover has merged cinematic form with mythological content, dedicating an entire short story collection to the dark side of Hollywood's imaginative legacy in 1987's A Night at the Movies or, You Must Remember This (structured as an old-fashioned program of serials, cartoons, slapstick comedies, romances, etc., complete with intermission), dismantling the Western in Ghost Town (1998), and finishing a decades-in-the-making magnun opus, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Director's Cut (2002), about a pornographic star in a pornographic world whose Fellini-esque existence is shaped by the female co-stars who capture his life as a hallucinatory series of film genres and modes.
The recently published Noir: A Novel (Overlook Press) is Coover's first in eight years, but in its total cinematic immersion takes up right where Lucky Pierre left off. The protagonist is "you," Philip M. Noir, a clumsy, forgetful, and lecherous private investigator who inhabits a permanently nocturnal labyrinthine cityscape right out of a chiaroscuroed crime thriller. Initially hired by a mysterious and beautiful veiled widow to find her husband's killer, Noir must now find her own murderer in an underworld populated by cantankerous cops (Blue), sultry nightclub singers (Flame), and seedy criminal informants (Rats). The real investigation for Coover, however, is into his usual concerns—memory, consciousness, identity, sex, the constant flux of a deceivingly malleable "reality," the intertwining of cinema and literature—with the dark, bawdy humor (a moll's fading full-body tattoo, used to relay messages between rival yakuza, is described as "suffering the fate of all history, which is only corruptible memory") and impeccable stream of consciousness prose that are his trademarks. I corresponded with Coover via email to discuss Noir, Noir, noir, and other artistic projects and ideas on which the relentless innovator has been working.
The L: The first thing that stands out in Noir is its unusual use of the second-person point of view. You've used second-person before, but never throughout a novel. Why here? Is there something about noir that lends itself to this literary mode of narration?
Robert Coover: The original choice was inspired by the simple desire to have an as-yet-undeveloped dockside detective story idea serve as a possible third book in a sequence which had already used first and third person narration, respectively, but then, when the book detached itself from that notion and drew closer to works more like Ghost Town, it felt right to stay with it. The second person resonates with such familiar film noir techniques as the subjective camera, voice-over monologues, cities that speak to you, the mirrored double ("You talkin' to me?"), and it helps make the reader complicit in Noir's quest.
The L:Cinematic representations of events, and cinematic techniques like montage, have appeared in your work since "The Sentient Lens" and many of the short fictions of Pricksongs and Descants. Why do you repeatedly evoke or depict the cinematic experience in your writing?
RC: Thanks for taking note of the thread. Cinema was, like the novel of the century before, the distinctive narrative mode and myth-making apparatus of the past century, and so invited engagement, exploration, confrontation. But also, early on, I was intrigued by the peculiar grammar of film and crafted a number of little tales, exploiting its syntactical and semantic peculiarities. I imagined a kind of living camera—the "sentient lens" that you mention—and toyed with its novelties, most extensively perhaps in A Night at the Movies and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre. Though the movies are losing their cultural dominance in this new digital age, they continue to invade our imaginations, and my play with them has not ended.
The L: You've also written about and in the style of various movie genres throughout your career. What about noir inspired you to write an entire novel devoted to this genre?
RC: My lifelong engagement with the myths that environ us, for one thing. I mentioned the book's link to Ghost Town, which, like Noir, is focused on a lonely but iconic outsider, coping in his case with America's high-noon western myth, as Noir's lonely hero is embroiled in its after-dark urban one. But I was also drawn to the fairytale-like noir style with its shadowy expressionist nighttime streets and clipped bleak dialogue. I wanted to haunt those haunted spaces for awhile, see what was funny about them. Film noir emerged in the 1940s as a dark contrast to the upbeat patriotic war films of the time and all those happy family movies filmed in brightly lit backlots with their artificial technicolor tints. Noir resembled somewhat the old gangster movies of the 1930s, but was philosophically and politically tougher, more disturbing. A blurring of moral distinctions for one thing, a more skeptical, less "American" view of the way the world works. That noir got named by the French is no real surprise, for it was the ideal platform for French existentialism, the intellectual fashion of the day, there and here, with its stark choice between being and nothingness, its emphasis on freedom and authenticity, the interrogating mind, the courage to stare, unblinking, into the abyss. And thus it had its own mythic appeal, one more enduring, it would seem, than those sunnier plots and images it displaced.
The L: In haunting those noirish spaces you've taken immense pleasure in the style of language: "So it's not the story you're trapped in, like everyone else, but, once aware of that, how you play it out. Your style. Class. The moves you make." When writing in the vein of a particular genre or style such as noir, how do you weigh your interest in the play of language against your interest in creating a compelling narrative?
RC: I don't. Style is part of any compelling narrative, even if it amounts to a conscious stylelessness. Unintentionally clunky writing is not compelling. Story drives style and style moves the story along, even through the others' veins. They're inseparable.
The L: One of the themes you've continually pursued is man's burlesque search for the ineffable. Did noir offer you a particularly rich metaphor in this regard, what with the genre's iconic themes of detection, investigation, mystery, disappearance, memory, and fate?
RC: Yes, you have said it. The "melodrama of cognition" as Blanche calls it in the novel. A theme common to most fiction, but central to the Private Eye. Gotta know, gotta know... even if the knowing's not worth having.
The L: If the knowing's not worth having, it also seems that it might not even be possible, especially for the amnesia-prone Philip M. Noir. Since film noir often features characters traumatized by their memories or in some way amnesiac in their understanding of the world, have you also taken on the genre to thematically amplify the difficulty if not the impossibility of the cognitive melodrama?
RC: This is a comic novel wherein all romantic notions are viewed skeptically, including the hero's "pursuit of the ineffable" and his "need to know." No need to take on a particular form to express one's personal themes, they'll infuse any story metaphor one's engaged in. So it would be more accurate to say that I simply offered up a tale idea and the thematics took on me.
The L: Were there any particular films you thought of or used as models when writing Noir? Has pulp fiction literature influenced you at all?
RC: Well, as noir buffs will discover, there are brief passing nods to a number of films, writers, characters, actors, props, throughout the book, not least in the hero's moniker and some of his lines, but there are no single models. The text feeds comprehensively on the genre itself, especially in its more motif-driven folkloric mode, something I absorbed as pattern early on in its heyday. As for pulp fiction, my reading, beyond workshops and classrooms, is pretty much restricted to the innovatively new and the acknowledged classics, more than enough for a lifetime, the classics of course including those of this genre. Nevertheless, pulp is like folktale, pop song lyrics, gossip, the back pages, commercials, dirty jokes. They're all there in the air, whether you consciously attend them or not.
The L: You once said in an interview, "What's difficult in print culture and the other forms of older texts was the necessity of one thing following upon another singularly. One page turns to another page, one picture gives way to another picture, and even the so-called moving pictures, motion pictures, are, in effect, a whole bunch of sequential things happening in a line without any variation in the way that that line is drawn. And the illusion of motion is derived from the very linearity, static linearity of the medium." Do you see your appropriation and/or subversion of cinematic language and technique as a challenge to that strict linearity?
RC: What my projectionist in "The Phantom of the Movie Palace" calls "the terrible enchantment of continuity." Cinema, until the playback mechanisms of videotape and the menu options of DVDs, was the most linear form of all—you couldn't even flip back a page to see what you'd just read. And yet discontinuity was to be learned there, above all in the operations of montage. Rick of "You Must Remember This," in his "link-and-claw theory of time," speculates that time may be much like film, not a ceaseless flow, but a rapid series of electrical leaps across tiny gaps between discontinuous bits, like "a pulsing sequence of film frames," and a film's editor is free of course, as we living in time are not, to cut and splice these frames in whatever order she or he chooses. The past itself, unlike the irreversible and irresistible present, is more spatial than linear, landscaped in memory like a theme park, any ride available in any order. In writing terms, both are forms of narrative realism, and both have an element of the fantastic. The long uninterrupted film take, for example, avoids the illusions of montage, but there's still the matter of the frame itself: what's in it, what's not.
The L:In terms of the past being more spatial than linear, Noir possesses a deceivingly complex structure in which past and present alternate so that the past tense is evoked in just as immediate a manner as the present tense. When writing, how do you translate the spatial past into the linear narrative form of the novel so it retains a multilayered or almost superimposed effect?RC: Thanks for the thoughtful read here, but not sure "translation" is part of it. Our daily lives and our memories—including of the minutes just passed—simply coexist, and for all the spatial nature of memory, the accessing of it is also experienced usually as linear. But your question is at least partly about abruptly shifting verb tenses, and I was admittedly having some labyrinthine fun here with perceived time.
The L: 18 years ago you wrote an essay about the possibilities of hypertext fiction, "The End of Books." What do you see now as the future of fiction writing and how have technological developments played a role in shaping it?
RC: Though for the foreseeable future the novel, like other books, will continue to exist, whether read off paper or a screen or a passing cloud, narrative art in the age of programmable media will certainly look different. We are witnessing a revolution in human communication, we all know that by now, and, insofar as all new technologies tend to absorb the old, print, we can see, is easily taken into the hypertextual and hypermedia digital world, but the reverse can't happen. Consequently, the traditional print novel is becoming a mere subset of the larger category of digital literary art. It will take a generation or two to discover what shape that art will take; we are still in the setting-forth stage with constantly evolving technologies and protocols. But we can already see, with the convergence of media, genres, and disciplines, fundamental changes in the forms of storytelling. Some time ago, I was asked by the editors of the eventually forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Novel to supply the final chapter, which—"A History of the Future of Narrative"—is focused on this question. Your readers can find an edited portion of it online.
The L: You've spent your career breaking up conventional structures and narratives, and with your last book of short stories, A Child Again, you even used a new medium to do so by offering a story told on a set of playing cards. Do you see yourself publishing—if that's the word—the sort of hypertext fiction of which you've been such a proponent?
It's possible, I've played around with a few little finger exercises over the years—in fact that story you mention began as one—but it is a hugely demanding medium technically, especially for one not born into it, and there may not be time to master it. And I still have a number of unfinished print projects to get through, or at least at the moment they look like print projects. But my hypertextual play predates by a few decades the advent of digital hypertext. Back in the 1960s I was developing fictions on edgenotch cards—letter-envelope sized cards with holes around the edges with a wedge-shaped punch and steel needles as tools. I developed punch codes for each side, one side binary, others two- or three-punch, some specific for writing projects, others (with a punchcode thesaurus) for general note-taking. The idea was that you could toss the cards into a pile, shuffle them, stack them, run the needles through the coded punched holes of the desired term, shake the deck under the needles, and what fell out were the next pieces of your story.
The L:: A short story titled "White Bread Jesus" appeared in Harper's a little over a year ago as the first published excerpt of a sequel to your first novel, The Origin of the Brunists. Why have you decided to return to that novel's setting, characters, and situations? Does the return of eschatological Christian fanaticism and fundamentalism onto the American scene have anything to do with it?
RC: In a word, yes. Even before completing Origin I had in mind a sequel, began outlining it, taking notes. I carried it around with me over the intervening decades, working on it from time to time in a desultory fashion, but inevitably finding myself drawn away to more innovative work, more immediately pressing themes. But then, as the millennium turned, with the election of young Bush and the rise of the fundamentalists, I decided I had no choice, it was time to get back to it in earnest. I have been engaged with it pretty strenuously ever since, obsessively so since the completion of Noir. It's something of a monster and, as it happens, Bush has come and gone in the course of finishing it, but those forces who brought him to power at such dreadful national and international cost have not retreated to their caves, so it still has relevance.