Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Point of view in noir fiction
I'd like to throw a question out concerning point of view in current crime fiction in the noir genre. Looking back at the classic noir, point of view was, it seems to me, tightly controlled: commonly first person narratives but even if in the third person, the point of view was confined to a limited consciousness--mostly the main character, with occasional forays into other settings outside that person's presence, either in the authorial voice or the consciousness of another character. In this way, the classic noir both conceals the "solution" to the mystery or the perpetrator of the crime but also tightens the atmosphere in the service of tension in the narrative. Lately, in for instance the novel Dead Horsemeat that I just reviewed, the consciousness is collective: the point of view shifts from one character to another. Without counting, I'd say there are about 10 different heads that the narrative gets into, relating what the character sees and thinks. The more splintered point of view is perhaps a reflection of our contemporary consiousness itself--we see society (and even ourselves) as splintered, kaleidoscopic. The "solution" of the plot is revealed gradually as these points of view converge in the climax (or sometimes don't). There are of course plenty of first-person narratives in the mystery genre, more broadly speaking--I recently read a couple of Liz Evans novels, very much in the first person, told from Grace Smith's limited point of view. But as with Evans's books, the first person today seems to convey a cuteness or cleverness that shifts the work out of noir into a more "cozy" genre, even when the novel is in an urban setting. Is a first-person noir detective story possible today? Of course it is, there are always exceptions to any general tendency that can be spotted. But I think that the kaleidoscopic narrative (difficult though it can sometimes be to sustain, and irritating as it may be once you start noticing that the narrator is in everyone's head, but concealing something from the reader nonetheless) is a more accurate representation (as well as more like cinema narrative) of reality today.