In his 1968 novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Coover proved himself a champion of the then-emerging postmodernist movement with a tale of a man who’s invented a form of baseball in which thrown dice determine every action. What appears to be a study of obsession and genius morphs into an ending so random and inscrutable that when I asked an English professor specializing in contemporary fiction what it all meant, he replied, “Damned if I know!”
Since then, Coover has applied his po-mo tactics to politics (casting the Cat in the Hat as a presidential candidate, and Nixon as Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears), sex and cinema (the story, “You Must Remember This”, describes what happens between Rick and Ilsa when the camera’s off), and, more recently, the fractured fairy tale, with wonderful re-imaginings of the Pied Piper, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, and Pinocchio stories, among others. His parodies of genre fiction include Ghost Town, a western, and now the hard-boiled detective novel in Noir: A Novel.
Among other things, Noir is a hard-boiled detective novel about film noir. The entire novel is told in the second person, putting “you” at the center of the story.
The cinematic quality of this, with its layers of film metaphor, is no mere po-mo trope applied for its own sake. Film noir is about storytelling and so is this novel. “You” are one Philip Noir, private dick, and the novel wastes no time injecting “you” into the plot: “Following the usual preamble: You were in your office late. The phone call came in. You pulled on your old trench coat with the torn pockets, holstered your heater under your armpit, and headed for the docklands. The scene of the crime.”
What follows is a story that pours every conceivable detective story plot element into a multi-layered time frame. (
Along the way you’ll hear the Widow’s back story, which includes incest with three generations of men in her family, learn how two Japanese Yakuza once communicated across town by tit-for-tat tattooing a beautiful moll, and how to use a mummified hand to catch a murderous pawnbroker. “You” will be led to safety more than once by a bag lady and find yourself stark naked in a coroner’s drawer wearing only a toe tag and a new tattoo on your fanny. This is all serious fun.
The book is also a compendium of noir clichés, each one twisted to Coover’s purpose, which is to repurpose noir into a metaphor for existence itself: “On the third floor of a cheap hotel in the theatre district, a silhouetted woman was undressing behind a drawn blind. Same window as last night? No, different neighborhood. The kind of movie showing nightly all over town. The movie you’re in. Chasing shadows.” Noir is total artifice, self-consciously so, and with a tongue more often in cheek than sticking out at the reader, which is what postmodern fiction has pretty much always done."