[Note: I originally wrote this a year ago in an attempt to grapple with a few things including noir, new writers and their place and a growing frustration in authors and works from the last few decades not being discussed in certain conversations. In other words how narrow and confining the noir discussion can be sometimes. I won’t sit here and say that I did this successfully but this was what was going on. After sitting on this piece for a year I’ve finally decided F it, that I would go ahead and post it with only minor revisions.]
Baby Leg is a limited edition novella. The author dipped his hands in red ink and handled each copy, creating the effect of bloody hand prints. Each copy has a unique cover.
Brian Evenson is secretly a crime writer but he just doesn’t know it or won’t admit it. He might just be one of the best noir writers working right now, even if stating that runs the risk of pigeon holing him and overly fixating on only one facet of his work. But I can’t help it because I want crime readers to take notice of his work so it’s a risk that I run.
My problem with some noir enthusiasts around the world – whether they be acclaimed authors; message board and mailing list denizens or two bit Jim Thompson wanna-be’s – is that their heads are on backwards and they wear blinders. Their definitions and perceptions of what noir can/ought/should be are restrictively narrow. They look to the past and can’t or won’t see the present, or see how some of the themes of noir are spread out over different genres and mediums.
And when we talk about books in more interesting ways–say, even something simple like the commonality of theme between a book by Cormac McCarthy and a book by Connie Willis–we begin to create different kinds of connections between books, and more meaningful connections between books. If we “talk” in this way in blog entries or articles or essays, then we do in fact influence the minds of readers, which, just like the minds of writers, tend to be in flux on these issues. — Jeff VanderMeer
With blinders on you would never see the noir components of something like the comic Delphine by Richard Sala. A comic that while on one hand is a modern take on the Snow White fairytale but on the other hand is a night journey into madness, disorientation, confusion and unease, all of which comprises a kick ass noir. Or what about The Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin, a confusing book with a sleep deprived protagonist that leads the reader through cul-de-sacs of story. Maybe noir is an ingredient to be added rather than the basis for an entire meal. Figure out how to season the dish and you’ll really bring out the flavor. Maybe it’s something that has more flexibility then we give credit for and has applications broader then the crime fiction genre. Maybe the crime fiction genre shouldn’t have the only claim to it. Or maybe it’s a case of those works that find that they have bumped up against noir are more effective and successful than those that set out to do so. Most days I feel that if you have a clear idea or definition of what noir is and isn’t then you’ve missed the point. The books that are truly dark don’t have a readily identifiable set of genre markers. This is why you can never really try to write noir and succeed.
This brings me back around to Brian Evenson whose body of work is unlike any other. Brian Evenson is in the process of creating his own genre or rather he is his own genre. His work occupies an interesting sweet spot that sits in between quite a few different tectonic plates. One of those sweet spots is between horror and crime at a thematic level.
With Baby Leg Evenson takes us once more down the twisted rabbit hole of memory, identity and reality as Kraus struggles with who he is and who to trust. But this existential dilemma doesn’t render him immobile but instead he continues on even as events loop back around to itself, intersecting and twisting and confusing Kraus and the reader. If Jim Thompson wrote The Prisoner by way of Robert Irwin’s Arabian Nightmare you might have something close to Baby Leg.
One of the things I find interesting about his work is how others grope around in the dark to figure out what it is. There is no light switch. Viewed with a crime fiction lens his work has been described as “post-noir”, “[A] cross between hard-boiled crime noir and surreal horror”, “freak-noir theaters”, “existential noir”, “cerebral noir”. This is indicative of what I’m talking about. Reviewers, critics and readers who grapple with the works of Brian Evenson have to develop a new vocabulary to try and describe what it is he is doing because he is re-defining the baseline. You’re in great hands with someone like that you just have to trust and let go a bit.
These reasons and hundreds more are why I keep sounding the Evenson drum.
Dismiss him or ignore him at your own peril.
Noir is dead, long live noir.
Baby Leg is divided into four parts. The first part can be read in its entirety here.