Noir by Robert Coover (Shane's book 1, 2011)

Like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth, Robert Coover is one of those American postmodern authors whose work annoys as many as it delights. It is fiction about fiction and as such is dismissed by those who think that fiction should be about the human condition. But fiction can be broader than that - some of it sets out only to entertain, for example. Furthermore, the desire to tell and be told stories is a part of the human condition and is, therefore, as ripe for examination as any part of life. [amtap book:isbn=0715639072]

Of course, whether that interests you or not is another matter entirely. Regulars on this site who have followed my reading - Barth and Pynchon, as mentioned above, but also Perec, Vonnegut, Dick and others - will know that it fascinates me. In this instance Coover is taking on another of my interests, the detective story, so this should be a certain hit.

It's not, though. In fact, Noir is a little unsatisfying. As the title suggests, Coover is playing with the hardboiled genre. The novel is written in the second person; 'you' are Philip M Noir, the detective and, as it turns, it, you're a fairly useless one. That doesn't matter too much - Coover leads you through the hardboiled genre's cliches and props and plays with the idea of story.

"But even if the story's familiar and you know the ending, it's hard to step out of it. Like stepping off a rocketing train. Everybody's on that train. Nobody's an original. To be obsessed is to be a wound-up actor in a conventional melo, with everyone else, the lucky ones, bit players at best. So it's not the story you're trapped in, like everyone else, but, once aware of that, how you play it out. Your style. Class. The moves you make."

That's 'you' talking like a detective in a hardboiled novel but it also offers something for fans of the human condition. Is "melo" short for melodrama or your character's mangling of 'milieu'? I have no idea.

'You', the detective, are trying to find a client. A gorgeous and mysterious woman, naturally, who may have been murdered but has certainly vanished. You hunt through a bizarre, nightmarish city in which vicious gangs lurk in the back alleys, corrupt police officers roam the streets and underneath which is a series of labyrinthine tunnels.

Coover's narrative is fragmented, jumping the story backwards and forwards in time without warning and often delving back into stories from Noir's past, such as the tale of the mobster's girl, kidnapped by a rival and tattooed by him as a show of ownership and then sent back. The mobster adds his own tattoo and returns the girl and the two gangster's converse this way until the woman is entirely covered in tattoos. Then there's the weird scene in which Noir spends the night in an underground room filled with mannequins.

The writing is brilliant throughout and makes me want to read more Coover. However, as I said, above, Noir is not an entirely successful novel. Coover intends the second person narration to draw the reader into the narrative but it had the opposite effect on me - continually reminding me of the artifice. At times it reads like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, which surely can't be Coover's intention.

Nevertheless, this is an intriguing read and recommended to anyone who enjoys the hardboiled genre.