The Street Is Hers: Quality Over Gender In Noir
Sexism and the arts (hell, sexism and anything really) is an unfortunate reality. Particularly for us critic-y types, who've had it drummed into our heads that we need to marvel in wonder at any piece of film, literature, sculpture, canvas, photography, etc., created by anyone nonwhite and not in possession of a penis. We're taught that we need to mention, in fact, glorify that the piece of art was made by someone who's Mexican or black or a woman, and that this is the sole thing we need to judge the art on.
But I really don't want to harp on sex or race, because to put it bluntly, the entire subject has become a bit of a pet peeve of mine (which means I'm going to harp on it, kids). The thing about art is that it is supposed to be the great leveler, and gender and race roles aren't supposed to be a factor in its creation; a great book is simply a great book, a great film is a great film. At least this is how it's supposed to work in theory. But let's face it, these identifiers aren't going away anytime soon, even in my beloved crime fiction, where female author's dominance tends to be the rule as opposed to the exception.
Novelists such as Val McDermid, Laura Lippman, Christa Faust, Alfair Burke, Hilary Davidson, Sophie Littlefield, Laura Benedict, Sandra Ruttan, Louise Penny, Sara Gran, Vicki Hendricks, and Chelsea Cain (just to name a few) cast huge shadows over the long term landscape of influential writers in crime fiction, along with predecessors such as Vin Packer, Patricia Highsmith (who I consider one of the best novelists--period--of the 20th century), Dorothy Hughes, and good old aunt Agatha, who completely changed the face of mystery fiction. All of these authors are absolutely vital to the genre and have shaped virtually every sub-genre from the police procedural to hardboiled to noir.
Yeah, noir's the elephant in the room. Noir, as usual, is the literary media soup of the day, and it largely has to do with the fact that two of the best novels of the year, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Dare Me by Megan Abbott, were written by women.
About a month ago, The Guardian posted a blog titled “Queens of Noir.” Like most Guardian pieces, it was, for a lack of better terms, cute… fluffy… and lacking in any real substance other than to say, “Hey, look, it’s a bunch of women writing about dirty, nasty things…” (This little piece is more or less a reaction to the Guardian post.) The two works which received the most virtual ink (outside of Weirdo, by the exceptional Cathi Unsworth) were the aforementioned Gone Girl and Dare Me. But outside of giving one sentence descriptions of the novels, the post shied away from their true significance, which is instead of depending on the well worn tropes of noir, they both add to the genre. I'd even go one step further and say both novels have brought entirely new elements to noir and have added to its overall language.
(Alrighty, I want everyone to be forewarned, if you haven't read either one of the novels I just mentioned you should stop reading now, because I'm going to leak a couple of SPOILERS. Nothing major, but still...)
With Gillian Flynn, her strongest skill as a novelist is her ability to craft unreliable narrators. With her first two novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, Flynn expertly clouded the believability of her protagonists' memories, making the reader question the narratives. This is particularly true of Flynn's exceptional Dark Places, where the narrator is the sole survivor of a mass murder supposedly committed by her older brother, sensationally dubbed "The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas" by the media. Recollections are brought into question because of her impressionable age when the crimes were committed, and by the fact that her sole motivation to relive the brutal murders of her family is for money.
With Gone Girl, Flynn ups the ante when it comes to the unreliable narrator. The center of Gone Girl, Nick and Amy Dunne, are nothing more than masks. Both of them lead lives that, to the common observer, seem idealized. Both are physically attractive, outwardly successful, and they seem to have a perfect marriage. Nick is a laid back, charming country boy who's loyal as the day is long. And Amy, Amy's the cool girl:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don't they? She's a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she's hosting the world's biggest culinary gang bang while some how maintaining a size 2...
But as to be expected in a Flynn novel, neither Nick or Amy are how they actually appear. Nick isn't laid back, he's lazy; he's riddled with anxieties and daddy issues. But most of all, he's a "kept" man, utterly dependent on his wife's inherited and rapidly dwindling wealth. Throughout the entire novel as the search for the missing Amy progresses and more light is shed on Nick's moral character, the real Nick emerges: A man who only dotes on his wife to get what he wants; someone consumed by anxieties over having an affair with a much younger woman, but not because of what he's doing is wrong, but because he fears having his comfortable lifestyle taken away from him.
The real game changer in Gone Girl, though, is Amy. With Amy, Flynn has created an utterly convincing sociopath. Sure, more than a few writers have attempted to create realistic sociopaths to one degree of success or another (most, however, fail miserably), but with Amy, I feel that Flynn has captured the true essence and meticulous nature of the personality. Amy is a nothing. She is whoever you need her to be; a part she plays in order to advance herself among personal and professional circles. She spends her entire life doing this until she meets Nick. That's when she finally decides to settle on playing the part of the "cool girl." At least, that is, until she discovers Nick is screwing a 24-year-old college student.
Dare Me is an entirely different beast than Gone Girl, yet treads on the same ground. But instead of focusing on an individual sociopath, it focuses on the ultimate sociopath, the American teenager, and their ultra-competitive sub species, the teenage athlete--specifically in the world of competitive cheerleading.
Abbott, first and foremost, is a lifelong student of crime noir (in fact, the title of this little column is an homage to her excellent and hard to find dissertation, The Street Was Mine, which is a study of the rogue white male in crime fiction), and all of her previous novels have been historical novels largely focusing on 1950's, early 1960's America, with the exceptions of The End of Everything (1980's) and the brilliant fictional examination of the Winnie Ruth Judd "Trunk Murders", Bury Me Deep.
Dare Me is Abbott's first contemporary novel, and even though I knew Abbott would be able to handle the time period, I still walked into the novel with a bit of trepidation. How would Abbott handle modern technology such as cell phones, text messaging, social media? And would she be able to capture the essence of the teenage mind? (Let's face it, folks. We may all think we remember what it's like to be a teenager, but trust me, we don't.) Of course, all of these minor concerns melted away after reading this passage:
The second day, she takes a piece of Emily's flab in her fingers. Pixie-eyed, apple breasted Emily lifts her arms languorously above her head in an epic yawn. Oh, we knew this routine which so provokes Mrs. Dietrele and makes Mr. Callahan turn red and cross his legs.
Coach's hand appears out of nowhere and reaches for the spot laid bare by Emily's tank top lifted high. She plucks the baby fat there and twists it, hard. So hard Emily gives a little pop. The gasp, like a squeeze toy.
'Fix it,' Coach says, eyes lifting from the skin between her fingers to Emily's stricken eyes.
This passage instills more self conscious dread than most novelists can convey with a entire book and sets the tone for everything to come.
With Dare Me, Abbott was able to distil teenage girls down to their core; they yearn to be seen as femme fatales (even if they don't know what the term means); they can easily manipulate a situation or individual with a glance or movement; they desire to be seen as adults, but crumble when confronted by a seemingly stronger personality or a quick jab to their swollen egos. (The same, of course, can be said of teenage boys, too.)
Coach French, the new cheerleading coach and antagonist of Dare Me, is the perfect fulcrum for the novel. She is seen by the girls of her squad as flawless; she's stern, charismatic, a winner, at least in the simplified world of the team. But much like Amy Dunnes of Gone Girl, French's confidence is a facade. Despite the appearance of a so-called perfect life--a handsome, successful husband and a young daughter, both of who she has little connection with-- she is very much a woman out of time. She's entirely uncomfortable in her own skin; the adult world is an alien thing, and she only feels at ease among these young, impressionable girls, because that, emotionally, is exactly what she is.
Where Dare Me most succeeds, though, is in its setting. Suburbia has always been ripe for noir. With America becoming more and more a country of "bedroom" neighborhoods, where neighbors really never have to come into contact with one another, secrets are literally around every corner. In Dare Me, these secret things are hiding right out in the open. It's young women constantly jockeying for position with one another with such bald-faced ruthlessness that it's absolutely shocking to witness, even if it's only seen from the corner of your eye, and chosen to be ignored by the parents and teachers of these girls.
I know I'm going to be slightly criticized for focusing so heavily on these two novels. Because as I mentioned in the introduction, there are dozens and dozens of female crime writers who are breaking boundaries, such as Christa Faust with her Angel Dare novels, Money Shot and Choke Hold, which are brilliantly recast throwbacks to the hardboiled pulp novels of Brett Halliday and Richard Prather. Then there's Sara Gran's novels Dope, Come Closer, and her most recent, the idiosyncratic PI novel, Claire Dewitt and The City of the Dead, which are soon-to-be classics of the genre. But let's face it, the innovations Dare Me and Gone Girl bring to the table are the reasons why so much ink is being spilled about the supposedly "male dominated" world of noir, and the admiration is more than deserved.
"Male dominated" is, of course, going to have me looping back around to my little sexism spiel at the beginning of this thing (I told you I was going to be strumming those harp strings). Is it fair to constantly bring up a writer's sex or race? Or should we simply identify them as writers? Personally, I'm going to take the noir route on the whole subject: Screw it, as long as some people who deserve to die buy it in the end, I'll read it.
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