America is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture.
By Erik Dussere
New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 320 pp; $99 cloth; $29.95 paper
Winner of the Mystery Writers of America's 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best critical work, America is Elsewhere offers an intriguing reinterpretation of film noir. Dussere sidesteps the traditional debates about whether film noir is best thought of as a genre or style by framing noir as a tradition, by which he means an "ideological structure" that he claims begins with film noir and hardboiled fiction and "continues and evolves" up to the present in a series of transformations that Dussere traces over the course of his book. Noir functions thus as a starting point for Dussere's larger project, which is the study of the "relationship between consumer culture and conceptions of national authenticity" (3).
Fundamental to his approach is Dussere's reversal of the traditional perception that noir, and much of the rest of postwar culture, is responding to the crises arising from the social instabilities brought on by the Second World War. For Dussere, noir is "a response not to crisis but to affluence and national consolidation" (4); it is "a reaction against the perception that the commercial principle has introduced artifice into every level of social interaction" (9) in the postwar era. Dussere sees noir as a "privileged site of investigation" because "noir texts are in their essence about authenticity" (4). Grounded in a "gritty-realist aesthetic," and structured around the no-nonsense American male (anti)hero dragging the corruption and hypocrisy of mainstream America into the light, noir texts offer a "darker and more vital" alternative to the inescapable emptiness of an America where consumption and citizenship are increasingly conflated.
Authenticity for Dussere is not "a thing or a state of being" so much as an attempt to reject or negate the "inauthentic"; as such, it is "a desire motivated by a sense that something has been lost" (8). Dussere is quick to acknowledge that the "authenticity" noir offers is itself merely a simulation, yet he maintains that what he calls the "authenticity effects" of these texts are the key to understanding both noir and the tradition that he sees extending to sixties counter-cultural conspiracy texts and the postmodern present. The "authentic" America longed for in each period is a desire for the idealized "undefinable elsewhere" of the book's title that gets ever more remote and unattainable in each period.
Having meticulously laid out the theoretical and historical foundations for his use of these terms and the logic of the noir tradition, Dussere closes his introduction with a demonstration of how his project plays out using the supermarket, "the visual representation of America's emergence as a world power defined by abundance" (28). Starting with Double Indemnity (1944), moving through Altman's anti-noir remake of The Long Goodbye (1973), and closing with The Big Lebowski (1998), Dussere shows how each film deploys noir elements (in some instances to undercut them) to demonstrate the characters' shifting, yet consistently (and increasingly) uneasy positioning within the mainstream of American consumer culture as represented by the supermarket. Dussere's close readings here are solid, as they are throughout the book, but while his attempt to trace a lineage shows potential, what is gained through actually making the connections is less clear.
The opening two chapters focus on how noir handles the challenge to masculinity posed by consumption. The first centers on another commercial space, the gas station, reading it as a transitional point between (and so enabling) the suburban sprawl and the city as well as a crucial space for authentic male bonds (more often than not disrupted by the inauthentic femme fatale). Limited in scope to the noir period itself, this chapter offers a solid and coherent reading, as does the second, which uses two novels, Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock and Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, to contrast the detective who resists selling out - Chandler's Marlowe proving so "ethical" that, according to Dussere, he turns down most offers of money and favors and "never makes enough money to support himself' (101)- and the emerging "organizational man" personified in the corporate executive.
In the second section of the book, Dussere makes a largely successful attempt to position the conspiracy narratives (and African American Counter-Conspiracy narratives) of the sixties and seventies within the noir tradition he has proposed. Although the visual and thematic conventions of noir have faded, Dussere identifies the ways in which The Parallax View, Thomas Pynchon's California Trilogy (The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice, and Vineland, and Sam Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969), along with Chester Himes' Blind Man with Pistol and Plan B, all mobilize the notion of authenticity in the manner he has identified to counter the conspiracy that is "the American way of life." Dussere's "Two Americas Model," which he develops in the chapter on Pynchon, offers his strongest articulation of the "displaced, dispossessed 'spirit' of America, both alternative and other" that is elsewhere.
The third, and in my view least convincing, section of the book, extends the tradition to the postmodern present and cyberpunk future. Here, as he does throughout, Dussere offers deft readings of the texts and integrates theory, notably Frederic Jameson on postmodernism. Cyberpunk, already known to some as tech noir, seems a ready-made connection and global, multinational capitalism the logical "inauthenticity" to oppose in progression. But I found myself unconvinced by his reading of Donna Haraway's notion of the cyborg and would have liked to see him justify his claims about the cyborg more fully rather than merely state them. And while I appreciate the nuances of Dussere's reading of the Coen Brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy as a complex postmodern text, I find myself agreeing most strongly with his opening admission that of all the texts he examines in the book, "Proxy is perhaps the one whose connections to the noir tradition are the least apparent" (216).
Ultimately, this is a well-written and accessible book, with many strong readings of texts. 1 particularly enjoyed some of his turns of a phrase and references to popular culture, my favorite being his description of the corporate executive, Peter Cable, stalking Bree Daniel in Klute as "like Sauron's eye in a business suit" (118). As I note above, Dussere's re-thinking of noir as a response not to the Second World War but to the reconstruction and specifically as a rejection of consumption as the defining aspect of being America seems innovative and full of promise. Perhaps it is indeed time to move on from demonizing thq femmes fatale as embodiments of masculine fear of women and regard them as "dangerous not because of their sexuality but because they represent the irresistible corrosiveness of unrestrained capital" (46). That said, by the conclusion I found myself ever more convinced that Dussere's project, although informed by noir, is also elsewhere and would in fact be better understood as constructing a tradition that includes but is not defined by noir.