American Roman Noir (225)

Both A Kiss Before Dying (KBD) and The Grifters are examples of what William Marling has called the American roman noir. Noir in this instance echoes another genre, film noir, and refers to a whole repertoire of narrative elements including settings, characters, plot devices, and diction. More generally it signifies a degraded moral condition and a pessimistic, even deterministic, view of the world. The noir universe is one where dark impulses drive action and appearances are often deceptive. Though romans noir often play out in the demimonde— cheap bars, casinos, shabby boardinghouses, etc.– moral darkness also pervades sun-struck suburban streets and opulent penthouses.

Those of you reading KBD will already recognize that novel’s storyworld in the sentence above. On the surface, its campus setting seems in total opposition to stock noir environments such as the shadowy alley or the smoky clip joint. At a time when higher education was only recently becoming available  to people outside the upper middle and upper classes, the University was understood as a site of privilege. Nobody needed to go to college, as we’ve been convinced we do today. But the GI Bill allowed millions of former servicemen to matriculate as part of a project of upward mobility. Many of those men had spent years in the most violent situations imaginable. Brutalized by war, they returned home and were expected to seamlessly reintegrate into society. Bud Corliss is a one version of this figure but rather than a hero he is a sociopath. (In this respect he resembles Dix Steele from Dorothy Hughes’s roman noir In a Lonely Place.)

The Grifters, on the other hand, plays out in a more familiar terrain of racetracks and taverns populated by hustlers and smalltime crooks. Once again the setting is in the postwar era, though we’ve moved west to that noir city par excellence, Los Angeles. As Marling suggests, noir LA represents the obverse of the iconography of the California Dream, an ideological vision of pleasure and plenitude encompassing orange groves, movie stars, and surf. Underlying the glossy, modern, consumer’s paradise of SoCal is world governed by violence and deceit. Yet these two spheres are interpenetrating opposites: each depends on the other.

Next week you’ll be taking KW2 and then we’ll be delving into the postwar roman noir as a cultural form seeking to engage with the contradictions of the relentless American quest for success.