Friday, 9 May 2008

The Stark Stark Truth

There are annoying rules to being hip. Which is why I usually don't devote much of my time to hipness.

For example, people with pretensions to culture don't read books unless they're literature. From what I can figure out, literature is books about people who are either a) exactly like book critics or b) having a really crap time in an impoverished setting. I'm not basing this on a lot of exposure to literature, because every time I try reading literature I get fed up. So I could be missing something. If so, good, because as nearly as I can tell, the real driving force in literature and culture in general is that it should be the mental equivalent of cod liver oil or cross country running - something which is defined as being good for you precisely because it's no damn fun, and therefore must be improving.

I've said it countless times, and maybe even in this blog; if you want to get an improving perspective on the suffering of the world, all you have to do is pay attention to the world around you. You don't need to buy a novel; in fact, if the world's problems are that interesting to you, you should be spending the money on charities and putting the reading time into running a soup kitchen. If, on the other hand, you're reading a book to get away from all that crap for a couple of hours, why on earth would you want to read a story about middle class angst or third world misery? You've got enough angst as it is. Which is why Harry Potter outsells Booker prize novels, and proper order. I hate both, but at least Harry Potter is openly aimed at taking your mind off things. Booker Prize winning books let you think you're doing something to make the world a better place while in reality you're just taking up space and trying not to move your lips while you do it.

Having established that I'd rather be stuck in a firefight than a reading group, I am now going to pour further scorn on educated people and their weird engagement with popular culture. Most books (and all TV and all movies) are crap. Which is fine. Most crap falls into a genre; detective stories, science fiction, horror, historical romance and so on. There are two special genres which are gender specific crap; thrillers (crap for men) and chick-lit (crap for women). Even as a escapism, thrillers and chick-lit are kind of hard to root for. Thrillers are pointless violence and chick-lit is pointless emotion. Whenever I read thrillers, I do it guiltily and in the clear knowledge that they're going in the recycle bucket as soon as I finish with them.

In genre proper, you opt into a ghetto. In the minds of the intelligentsia, a certain kind of person reads any given genre and they don't read anything else. And within each genre, the intelligentsia bless certain authors as being somehow above their genre, and thus OK, as long as they're read in a suitably detached, ironic and superior way.

This infuriating crap is nowhere more apparent than in crime fiction, where the intelligentsia are forever buffing up their guilty pleasures by anointing some writer as the exemplar of all that is cool in the slum they inhabit.

I've been colliding with this crap on and off since I was old enough to realise that Biggles wasn't a very realistic depiction of anything. So a few years ago I found myself reading Jim Thompson, because the pulpmeister of the 50s was consecrated a while back as a pioneer of noir. The intelligentsia like noir, which it turns out is anything where the good guys don't win. Here we are back at the miserablist tendencies of our cultural superiors. I suspect it comes down to the fact that these opinion setters have rather pleasant lives and value anything which contrasts with that. Anyhow, Jim Thompson is depressing. Really depressing. He's so incredibly good at being depressing that I expect I'm never going to forget the end of The Getaway. For those of you who've only seen either of the movies, the book continues on past our antiheroes getting clear of the posse and devotes its last third to describing the utter hell they consign themselves to instead. Jail would have been a MUCH better plan. And that's one of Jim Thompson's more upbeat books. No wonder he died cruelly young. It probably came as a relief. This was not a man who appeared to think the best of people.

Anyhow, that steered me away from noir for a while. Then last week I thought I'd give it another try and I bought four Richard Stark books. Now, full disclosure is required here. Richard Stark is also known as Donald Westlake, and I really enjoy Westlake's Dortmunder books, which are wry explorations of how a life of crime can go wrong. Dortmunder is a much put upon criminal mastermind, who in book after book has assembled his crew, put the master plan into action (increasingly against victims so unsympathetic that robbing them is less a crime and more a form of public service), and then watched it fall apart for simple yet completely unforeseeable reasons. Each book ends with Dortmunder and his cohorts no better off than they were at the beginning. Like much crime fiction they can be read in any order - Dortmunder never learns, ages or develops, and because he never makes more out of crime than he would out of working in Walmart, he never retires either. Written down like this, it sounds awful. Actually it's great fun. While none of the characterisation in these books is going to keep Tolstoy awake at nights, the cast are deftly sketched in as comic types. They're given the little quirks and foibles that echo the way you'd describe the people you work with to your in-laws; there's no depth to it, but oddly they've got just as much personality as the average acquaintance you don't really know. So it matters to you that they're at hazard, but it doesn't break your heart that they never get out of trouble. In short, they're just lifelike enough to root for and not so life-like as to make it horrible when they sleepwalk into disaster. In a very minor way, this is artistry.

Richard Stark is like Westlake's evil twin. His principal character, Parker, is a man so austere that an actual first name would give him too much personality. He moves from one heist to another, killing his confederates when they let him down, which they pretty much always do. He's the anti-Dortmunder. Dortmunder always uses the same bunch of affable schlubs and goes out of his way not to hurt people. Parker never runs with the same crew twice (not least because it's a rare crew that gets out of a book alive) and holds back from killing people only because the cops pay too much attention when civilians get killed. Mind you, like Dortmunder, Parker has a way of leaving the book no better off than he went in, so he's got that same hamster on a treadmill character.

I bought four books because the critics have been pouring praise on them from a height and because they were slightly discounted. I carefully sorted them out in copyright order, which turned out to be a complete waste of time, because there's no continuity or progression from one book to another.

There's a lot that's good about the books. Stark starts his narrative as late as he can; no time is wasted on set up, and even less on epilogue and resolution. The writing's clean and crisp and no more clever than it needs to be. I read all four in a matter of days. The plotting's clever, and there's an offhandedness to the way things go wrong which rings true. Because the books are all plot, you start to appreciate how much cleverness is needed to keep coming up with plausible incidents enough to fill a couple of hundred pages. Breakout is particularly good - Parker gets caught robbing a warehouse, gets thrown into jail, breaks out, finds himself walked into breaking INTO a jewelry wholesaler as part of the price for the assistance he needed to break out of jail, and then rather beautifully finds himself having to break out out of the wholesaler's when the robbery goes wrong and the getaway is compromised. All of these things unfold with a deceptive inevitability which is completely unforced. It's a fun read, as is Ask the Parrot, when Parker's once more running away from a robbery gone wrong only to walk into something much odder.

The thing is, having read them once I can't see myself reading them again, or buying any more. The cleverness isn't enough. Parker's so austere and shut in that you don't really feel any connection to him. You don't want to know what's going to happen to him next. The supporting cast in any given book either die or wind up in jail or disappear on their own errands. So there's nothing going on there that invites you to come back. It's the reading equivalent of eating crisps. Tasty, but kind of empty.

What's bananas is that the critics praise these books to the skies and they're regularly reissued in the UK in editions plainly aimed at people who don't think of themselves as genre readers, but literature readers. Meanwhile the more genial and enjoyable and involving Dortmunder books are pretty much ignored - the only ones I've got are American printings. They're better books, but the cold and uninvolving Parker is the one which the critics prefer. And I think this comes down to the notion that misery is somehow more improving than fun. Parker's world is horrible and bleak and deadly - and in the minds of critics that somehow makes it more authentic and worthy. But Parker's world is no more realistic than Dortmunder's. In a lot of ways it's less realistic; the likeable schlubs of Dortmunder's gang are ineffectual and loyal to each other out of a sort of confused sentimentality. They're guys who break the law. They're not made out of evil, and they're not particularly good at the evil they do. Their unremarkable greyness rings much more true to me than the bleach-bypass black and white of Parker's world, where everyone is on the verge of selling out everyone else at any moment. The realism and darkness of the Parker books is fatally undercut by the fact that all the characters - and particularly the protagonist - are so empty that it's hard to understand why they bother getting out of bed in the morning let alone plotting their lives of crime.

So that's me off the noir for a while. It's all right as far as it goes, but I'm as baffled as ever about why people think it's an incisive commentary on the real world.

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