Friday, November 15, 2013

Erik Dussere's "America Is Elsewhere"

Erik Dussere is Associate Professor of Literature at American University. He is the author of Balancing the Books: Faulkner, Morrison, and the Economies of Slavery.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, America Is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture, and reported the following:
The first piece of good news about page 99 of America Is Elsewhere is that it is not blank—as, for example, page 106 is. Close call, there. If this had been the Page 106 Test I might have been feeling depressed, since the test would seem to suggest that the book is meaningless or incomprehensible. As it is, I can put that worry aside, at least until the reviews come out.

In fact, page 99 is not a bad one to turn to. The big argument of the book is that the films and novels that make up the noir tradition—classic noirs as well as later developments like conspiracy stories or cyberpunk—are always responding in some way to the rise of consumer culture in America, which really gets going in the postwar forties. By page 99, I’m talking about how classic noirs featuring hard-boiled detectives always make connections between local crimes, like murders and robberies, and the larger social systems within which those crimes take place. Here’s what I say on that page:
The hard-boiled detective novel generally begins with a crime; as the detective pursues the investigation he finds that that seemingly isolated crime expands outward, involving larger and larger spheres of social power, until ultimately the distinction between crime and the functioning of society disappears. The detective is left in an ambivalent position, and the story draws our attention to his limited sphere of enforcement. He can solve the local crime in a local way, but he cannot solve the problems of society and political economy that enable the crime at a further remove. He can only act as social critic, pointing to the powerful politicians and businessmen, the Mr. Bigs and Harlan Potters, who bear social responsibility.
So what this leads to, in these books and films, is an attempt at a critique of American capitalism itself, but one that still has to present that critique as an indictment of bad individuals. I go on to argue that in the sixties this critique gets taken one step further as noir evolves into the conspiracy narrative. In those texts—Pynchon’s novels, for instance, or the paranoid films of the seventies—the detective can no longer solve the crime at all. The conspiracy of multinational capital is too large and complex to be understood by the individual, so the noir investigation fails. But that failure still works as an example of noir political critique, since it suggests the presence of the large political and economic forces that it can’t actually represent, when the protagonist runs into a wall as blank and forbidding, in its way, as page 106.
Learn more about America Is Elsewhere at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue