Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pointless rebellion

The revolutionary upheaval of France in May of '68 has had a profound impact on the pysche of the participants. That imprint has turned up in literature.

In my continuing reading of noir fiction I've recently come across Jean-Patrick Manchette. The frenchman, initially an active communist until reading Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle," was an author of noir novels in the late seventies and early eighties. Three of his novels; "The Prone Gunman," "Fatale," and "3 to Kill," have recently been published by San Francisco's City Light Books. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, a former member of the English section of the Situationist Internationale, the novels take on the usual plotlines of the noir genre. In "The Prone Gunman," we have a hired assassin who returns to his home town to reclaim his highschool girlfriend wanting to settle down and get out of the business, but the company he works for is not obliging. "Fatale," follows the story of an opportunistic female killer as she enters a town and seeks to exploit the town's internal social contradictions in order to make money. In "3 to Kill," a bougerois middle manager worker aids a man after a failed assassination attempt. The bumbling killers come after the worker and in turn the hunted becomes the hunter.

What sets these novels apart is not only the characterizations but also the surprising endings. Unlike most noirs in which the protagonists' battles against a corrupt society come to naught giving only the character a bitter outlook, Manchette's protagonists' indivual rebellion come to nothing. Manchette points out the futility of individual rebellion against society in his excellent "Five Remarks on How I Earn My Living;"

"Less obviously and yet surely, the roman noir is characterized by the absence or weakness of the class struggle and its replacement by individual action (which is, incidentally, hopeless). While the bastards and the exploiters in fact hold social and political power, the others – the exploited , the masses of people – are no longer the subject of history, and in any case only appear in the roman noir in minor roles, more or less socially marginalized – taxi drivers, racial minorities (blacks, chicanos), vagabonds, the unemployed, déclassé intellectuals, servile personnel (but also, in surprising numbers, in the figure of workers, always especially mistreated before or during the novel’s action by the bosses, big shots and their strong-arm men)."

In "3 to Kill," Georges Gerfaut's 9our protagonist) life is thrown dramatically off course when on a holiday two hired killers attempt to take him down. He is able to throw off the attempted slaughter and leaves his family and the trappings of a comfortable but boring middle class life. He settles for nearly a year in a small town cabin, aided by an ex-military man who teaches him how to live in the "wild." The military man's daughter comes to visit and engages in a relationship with Gerfaut allured by his rejection of middle class life. Yet the killer's return and eventually Gerfaut is forced to hunt them down. When his mission is successful he claims amnesia and returns to his ordinary life. Manchette ends the novel with haunting emptiness "Once, in a dubious context, he lived through an exciting and bloody adventure; after which, all he could think of to do was to return to the fold. And now in the fold, he waits. If at this moment, without leaving the fold, Georges is racing around Paris at 145 kilometers per hour, this proves nothing beyond the fact that Georges is of his time. And of his space. (p.134)"
Despite breaking out of the "fold," Georges is unable to do anything but return. His continuing desire to live a life beyond the constraints of society is obvious in his recklessly fast driving (90 miles per hour) yet he is simply unable to leave this world behind. Unlike other noir protagonist senseless victories Gerfaut is given absolutely nothing. Other protagonists' are given a moral victory, Gerfaut is handed the continued feeling of existential emptiness of his time and of his space.

In Manchette's "The Prone Gunman," we see the continued theme of individual rebellion amounting to nothing. Martin Terrier, a hired killer, returns home to reclaim his high school girlfriend. The woman, an incorrugible alcoholic, is dumbstruck by his obtuse goal but goes off with him after her homelife is destroyed by killers looking to track down Terrier. The woman's alcohlic lifestyle, and her nymphomania are obvious signs of her dissatisfaction. Women given set options on how to behave and are also given equally restrained options in how to rebel. Terrier continues to doggedly pursue the woman despite the obvious failings of his narrow romantic dream. The woman ends up sleeping with one of the men from the assasination company Terrier desires to quit and Terrier goes mute. Unable to deal with the woman's sexual "betrayal," Terrier internal problems become externalized in typical male inability to express feeling. Terrier's hurt masculinity is the flip side of his love interests' disatisfied feminity. Eventually Terrier is shot in the head again, which allows him to speak again but at times he babbles. His inability to express his turmoil is no longer mediated by silence it is now communicated by senseless speech. In the end his Terrier's love interest leaves him and his "3 minute coitus," suddenly and without explaination. Terrier is reduced to a common worker's life, engaged as a waiter in a brasserie. Manchette leaves us on a more humorous note than in "3 to kill," with his ending referring to the love interest's leaving; "May we surmise that she is running around the world and leading a passionate and adventurous life? We may; it's no skin off our nose (p.153)." The pointlessness of the character's rebellions and actions still come to naught but in this case Manchette offers us a shrug and an absurdist laugh. Afterall Terrier's position is the same as it was in the beginning, prone, isn't there some humour in being postrate?

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