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Debut novel creatively honors literary conventions but avoids parody

| Saturday, Aug. 18, 2012, 8:50 p.m.

Review

Noir is, first and foremost, style. It's like kabuki, or, more to the point, the blues — a folk art defined by its conventions, by a sensibility and a form. The best noir is pointed, not so much about plot as it is about voice. It's about what happens when someone gets pushed beyond the limit, when he or she comes face to face with the emptiness inside. Think of Raymond Chandler, who helped define the genre when he started writing detective fiction in the 1930s, or Jim Thompson, whose pulp novels of the 1950s and early 1960s gave it a more desperate edge.

For both, the point is to get in and get out, to forgo the niceties of dramatic resolution for something more like atmosphere or mood. “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?” Chandler writes at the end of “The Big Sleep.” “In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”

That nastiness, or something like it, sits at the center of Ariel S. Winter's “The Twenty-Year Death,” a first novel that is both pastiche and homage and very much a testament to style. Written in the form of three connected novels (more on that in a minute), it is a risky project, not least because it is nearly 700 pages long. Noir is not built for the extended format; this is one reason the later novels of, say, Michael Connelly or James Ellroy tend to falter, because they can't sustain either urgency or voice.

Winter understands that, but he wants to play with it all the same. His solution — to build one long narrative out of three smaller ones — is ingenious, not least because he never loses sight of the requirements of the genre. Rather, he embraces them, framing the book through three representative voices (the Belgian writer Georges Simenon and Chandler and Thompson) to develop a story that is also a reflection on the history of noir.

How does this work? As the title suggests, the book takes place over 20 years, beginning in France in 1931 and concluding, a generation later, in Maryland. In the first section, “Malniveau Prison,” we are introduced to American writer Shem Rosenkrantz and his French wife, Clothilde; in the second, “The Falling Star,” Shem and Clothilde (now a movie star known as Chloe Rose) have come to Hollywood; and in the last, “Police at the Funeral,” Shem is on his own, trying to clean up the wreckage of his life.

Each segment can be read as a novel in its own right, but the beauty of Winter's construction is the way it allows him to push the boundaries of these narratives.

As for what these connections are, I don't want to give too much away. Part of the pleasure of “The Twenty-Year Death” is seeing how it unfolds. But Winter knows what he's doing, both in terms of expanding the narrative and in his ability to mimic Simenon, Chandler and Thompson.

If you think that's easy, think again: One challenge of noir is the extent to which its conventions have become cliches. In a recent interview, Winter explains the conundrum: “I wanted the books to be mine and not just parroting. Perhaps the most important decision stylistically was my choice not to try any Chandlerisms in ‘The Falling Star.' I knew I wouldn't be able to write even one as good as any of his, and flashy metaphors usually signify a Chandler parody.”

Most effective, perhaps, is “Police at the Funeral,” a nearly flawless channeling of Thompson's classic style: mouthy, cynical, narrated by an unreliable protagonist who is at once self-loathing and self-delusional and featuring a twist reminiscent of the author's 1955 novel “After Dark, My Sweet.” You can read “The Twenty-Year Death” without being familiar with these antecedents, but there's no doubt that the more you recognize, the more the experience of the novel is enhanced.

And, yet, this is as it should be, for part of Winter's intent is to honor these writers and their genre. His is not a postmodern work, endlessly self-referential, but it is a book that winks at us, that wears its affection on its sleeve. That's how Winter can get away with writing a 700-page piece of crime fiction — not just by breaking it into three 200-plus page sections but by engaging us in the process, by tapping into our sense of how such novels work. Style again, but there is something else at work: Aesthetics, let's call it, a collective understanding of the extent to which noir's conventions have become part of the vernacular.

Noir, after all, has been around for a long time, since before Chandler or Simenon. Its longevity makes it difficult to see, except, perhaps, in terms of commonplaces: the ennui, the tough-guy talk, the corruption and the despair. And yet, these commonplaces are the elements that sustain it, also — partly because they never go away. This is the triumph of “The Twenty-Year Death,” not to lose sight of that, even as it frames the genre through its own reflective lens.

David L. Ulin is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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