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Erik Dussere. America Is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. 299pp.

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 organized around the Chandler and classic Hollywood schools of noir. Thus he derives his understanding of the opposition between authenticity and consumer culture from Chandler’s postwar novels, which spend pages railing, in pulp-Adorno style, against the pernicious effects of mass culture. In contrast to the fake and degraded postwar world he inhabits, Philip Marlow becomes a beacon of authenticity: “Acting as Chandler’s tool for stripping away the false face of the world’s hypocrisy, Marlowe asserts the belief that there is an underlying essence that must be revealed” (20). Dussere goes on to define this essence as “authentic” and organized, in Chandler, around “male comradeship, the idealized flipside of Chandlerian misogyny.” This is an incisive reading of Chandler in terms of both mass culture and gender. Dussere nicely dissects the coordinates of the Chandlerian version of noir, contrasting it with Hammett’s “self-conscious attempts to render the world in a radically objective way,” which has its own gendered effects (17).

Dussere reads this same dialectic between consumer culture and authenticity in relationship to a number of postwar films and novels. He advances close and persuasive readings of Out of the Past, The Killers, Kiss Me Deadly, and both the novel and the film versions of The Big Clock. In each of these texts he teases out the dialectic between authenticity and consumer culture as they also play out the [End Page 159] opposition between the two Americas. For the films chosen, such a reading is compelling; Dussere gets at a structure of feeling that is central to postwar life and is echoed in the range of literature on the organization man. Yet, even here, one wonders what he would do with texts like Only the Lonely (both the Nicolas Ray film and the Dorothy Hughes novel) or Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, in which figures of authenticity are revealed to be fully sociopathic. By privileging the figure of the detective in his version of the noir narrative, Dussere dodges some of the harder questions asked by noir at its darkest and most resolutely negative. His paradigm also has more trouble in fully accounting for a text like the novel The Big Clock, which may be preoccupied in part with ideas of a masculinist conception of authenticity but also incorporates a Marxist political critique (one also found in Kenneth Fearing’s poetry) not reducible to Dussere’s resolutely national framework.

These same insights and issues recur as Dussere reads the opposition between the two Americas and the opposition between commodity culture and authenticity through a wide range of texts throughout the rest of the book, from Thomas Pynchon’s California Trilogy to the conspiracy films of the 1970s (including a rich, extended reading of the destruction of an oppositional position in Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View), the black conspiracy narratives of Chester Himes and Sam Greenlee, the cyberpunk of William Gibson, and a concluding, tour-de-force reading of the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy. If this sounds like a lot to place at the feet of noir, it is. Still, I admire the ambition of Dussere’s narrative and his drive to configure noir as a central lens through which to read a range of twentieth-century cultural production. Such an approach refuses to ghettoize popular cultural narratives, reading them instead as fully intertwined with their ostensibly high cultural brethren.

This reading of these different texts takes place not only through the oppositions that structure America Is Elsewhere but also through a persuasive discussion of space and scale that runs throughout the book. The book’s engagement with space is another inheritance of the Chandlerian school of noir with, as Fredric Jameson has detailed, its distinctive spatial mapping of class relationships. Drawing on the work of Jameson and Marxist-influenced social geographers such as Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, and Edward Soja, Dussere reads space in the texts he considers, from the representation of the gas station and supermarket (sites of fantasized authenticity and commodification respectively) in postwar film noirs to the representation of suburban space as conspiratorial in Pynchon, a similar reading of the nation as conspiratorial in Greenlee and the Himes of Blind Man with a Pistol and Plan B, and finally an understanding of multinational capital itself as the conspiracy in Pakula and Gibson. [End Page 160]

While this last discussion of multinational capital would seem to beg for a more transnational understanding of noir, such an understanding is always read through the book’s privileging of the nation and the national self. Indeed, at one point in his analysis of Pynchon, Dussere argues, “the world system has inhabited the nation” (132). Surely any account of noir that wants to make sense of the form’s engagement with multinational capitalism would phrase this relationship in the opposite manner (the nation inhabits the world-system), but such is the persistence of Dussere’s resolute nationalism. This nationalism is evident elsewhere as well, not only in his reading of internationally oriented writers such as Pynchon and Gibson as still somehow largely preoccupied with the dialectic of the two Americas, but in his refusal to see forms of opposition inhabiting his extended noir tradition other than the individual drive for the national authentic. Similarly, the range of Marxist theorists the book cites all become rearticulated through the opposition between the national narrative of commodity culture and authenticity.

These issues come to a head in his concluding reading of The Hudsucker Proxy. Dussere makes a compelling case for the film as a mixed genre enterprise that puts noir into dialogue with the screwball comedy and the Frank Capra film of national renewal. What he locates in the Coens’ film is a refusal of the opposition between authenticity and consumer capitalism. Thus politics becomes available to those who don’t hang onto the fetish of authenticity. These politics become about a new way of articulating the national struggle: “For the Coens, at least in this film, what all this means is that to tell an American story in the age of consumer culture is to describe, and if possible to enjoy, the crazy up-and-down ride on the circles that describe the persistent tension between capitalism and democracy” (244). Certainly the tension between capitalism and democracy is a central one, perhaps the most central, resonating throughout US history, but it is not only an American opposition. It is one that shapes life in a range of capitalist countries. Moreover, the democratic opposition to capitalism inflects any number of national and global struggles. This is not to say that one can’t tell a national narrative that attends to such struggles, but there is a difference between telling a nationally situated narrative and presenting such a narrative as exceptionalist. America Is Elsewhere too often does the latter. Finally the attenuated sense of politics articulated in this passage also presents a vision of noir as just another playful version of postmodernism, deconstructing oppositions and advocating the pleasures of metafictional insight. Noir, to my mind, whether national or international, is something much darker. [End Page 161]

Christopher Breu
Illinois State University