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There are as many narratives of noir’s development as there are definitions of noir. Notoriously difficult to define in positive qualities, noir has variously been described as a genre; a mood; a subspecies of crime and detective narratives (filmic or novelistic); or, as I have argued elsewhere, a negative deformation or volatilization of other genres. Even as its stylistic roots in European movements like expressionism and existentialism have been acknowledged, noir is often described as a distinctly American phenomenon. Thus, the negativity and darkness ascribed to noir are seen as part of a negative exceptionalism, a homegrown critique of the culture and politics of the US that is simultaneously its distinctive product. While there has been a range of recent work on noir as a distinctly global phenomenon (Jennifer Fay and Justus Nieland’s Film Noir: Hard-Boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalization, for example), the negative exceptionalist paradigm central to a great deal of writing on noir is still very much alive and well.
One can glean as much from reading Erik Dussere’s America Is Elsewhere. Both the power and the limitations of Dussere’s book can be linked to its redeployment of this negative exceptionalist paradigm. His argument hinges on the opposition between postwar consumer culture and notions of authenticity he sees at the heart of noir: “what I have been calling the ‘dialectic’ of authenticity and consumer culture staged by the texts in the noir tradition is a crucial, perhaps a constitutive, component of American self-understanding in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” (247). As this emphasis on “American self-understanding” suggests, Dussere’s argument is cast in the dialectics of American identity central to an older tradition of American studies that runs from, say, Perry Anderson through Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin to Sacvan Bercovitch. Indeed, a careful and rich reading of Trilling’s concept of authenticity underpins Dussere’s negative exceptionalist account of the opposition between the “two Americas,” in which the two versions of the nation “occupy the same geographical space, with the visible and consumerist republic twinned by the alternative, dispossessed America beneath” (132). While Dussere cites more recent American studies scholars, such as Donald Pease and Deborah Madsen, who present more searching critiques of the rhetoric of exceptionalism that challenge the fantasy of a singular American self, his model of the “two Americas” harkens back to Bercovitch’s model of American disensus, in which the jeremiad is the dominant form of expression. [End Page 158]
Part of Dussere’s investment in the concept of American authenticity is bound up with the version of noir his book chooses to narrate. One way to think about the noir narrative is in terms of different schools centered on paradigmatic writers or practices of filmmaking. Thus, we can talk about the James M. Cain school of noir; the Dashiell Hammett school; the Chester Himes school; the Patricia Highsmith school; the classic Hollywood school; the French New Wave school; the Nikkatsu school; the schools associated with international noir writers like Natsuo Kirnio, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and Stieg Larsson; and others. Each of these schools carries within it a set of assumptions about noir that shapes the story told by the critic. Thus, if the critic’s account is narrated in relationship to the Hollywood, Hammett, or Taibo schools, she will tend to read a continuity between narratives that focus on the figure of the hard-boiled detective and petty criminals, while a critic working within the Cain, Highsmith, or Kirino schools might make a much stronger distinction between hard-boiled fiction (privileging the figure of the hard-boiled detective) and noir proper (which tends to narrate the lives of petty criminals and two-time losers who wind up on the wrong side of the law). The national or international dimensions of the narrative would also be shaped by the school the critic affiliates with as well as who he includes within the school’s ambit.
As befits the national narrative he tells, Dussere’s book is...