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Category: Nobody Move

Denis Johnson's 'Nobody Move': brutally noir


Since June, Jacket Copy has been hosting an ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move," which is being published in four parts in Playboy magazine. Part 3 has just hit the stands; Tod Goldberg adds his thoughts.

First, I have to agree with David: This is the best installment of the series. I feel Johnson hitting his stride here — he's set his characters into motion in the previous sections, set up the action, and now here, he's dealing with the tangible consequences, and it really clips along. The dialogue is sharp, the scenes are all moving toward conflict and away from banter, and you can really see that things are going to fall apart and fall apart in magnificent fashion. Plus, any time someone gets hit in the head with a shovel after digging his lovers' grave, well, color me smitten. There are twists and turns and ramifications in this section that don't end up in murder — well, apart from the demise of Capra — but which is no less brutal. What I also like is that when people get hurt in this story, they stay hurt. No one is superhuman; they continue to suffer their physical pain.

As for Carolyn's question, I don't think there are rules per se. I mean, certainly, there's often a woman involved, and money, and pride, and stupidity, but I think that's true for most novels and stories. I went out the other night with a friend who is a DA in Los Angeles, prosecuting gang murders and the like, and I asked him whether he thought the people killing one another on the streets were evil or stupid, and he said he generally thought they were stupid, that they didn't interpret the world outside the three miles around their neighborhood, didn't realize that in other places, other settings, you didn’t shoot your best friend in the face over a dice game, thought that if you took these guys out of their world and put them somewhere else that they'd adapt and change and learn the new rules of life, because they'd want to be respected in that world, too, and respect in that world means something different.

I think, in a way, it's a similar thing: You write a noir story and you're placing people in a particular setting where certain behavior is expected of the people. In "Nobody Move," in a world filled with criminals, we expect certain things to happen: sudden violence often followed by sudden sex and a healthy dose of the absurd. Why the absurd? Because if you dealt with things too directly, too clinically, it would be impossible to feel empathy toward the characters. You might feel sympathy, which I think makes the reader pity a character, but the absurd allows for us to look at the particular situation and laugh a little. But if this were your life, or the life of your friend or someone you loved, this would be the most horrific story ever, the worst experience of an entire life, but rendered as noir, it's stylized in such a way that we can laugh at it a bit. So maybe that's the one rule Johnson adheres to: He allows us to disassociate from reality and shows us bad people doing bad things to worse people. And here, in this installment, he does it better than most.

— Tod Goldberg

Photo by tanakawho via Flickr

Denis Johnson's 'Nobody Move': notes on noir

film noir


Reviewing a batch of DVDs in the New York Times, Dave Kehr wrote: "Film noir is a notoriously difficult concept to define." I don’t buy that. In a narrow way, noir is the film style that emerged when German expressionism met the American hardboiled idiom through the agency of the émigré writers and directors who fled Europe and flocked to Hollywood throughout the 1930s.

The genre, in this classic sense, probably begins with Billy Wilder’s "Double Indemnity" and was given its full stop in the 1950s by Robert Aldrich’s "Kiss Me Deadly" and "A Touch of Evil" by Orson Welles. That's the broad stroke of the history. Check out Paul Schrader’s essay “Notes on Film Noir” — he nailed it.

The genre reflected post-WW2 American unease about sex, politics, identity, the future and was characterized, as Carolyn says, by pronounced black and white chiaroscuro, exaggerated camera angles and shadows. Noir has a broader thematic meaning, too, however, and this is what David is getting at.

Noirs are stories that operate like traps, in which characters come to sense, and even rush toward, their own destruction. Pushing it, we might say that “Oedipus Rex” is the first noir; noir tweaks a fear of fate that’s haunted humanity forever.

Where Denis Johnson fits in, after the jump.

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Denis Johnson & the expectations of noir


Since June, Jacket Copy has been hosting an ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move," which is being published in four parts in Playboy magazine. Part 3 has just hit the stands, and once again, we pick up where we left off.

Although the movie "L.A. Confidential" was entirely noir in subject and time period, it upset expectations for noir, particularly in how it looked. Compare the high-contrast black and white of Veronica Lake's publicity still with the soft golds and blues of Kim Basinger as a Veronica Lake look-alike in "L.A. Confidential." Traditional noir films filled much of the screen with blackness (hence "noir"), but "L.A. Confidential" dragged its seedy doings out into daylight, in full, saturated color. The film honored and reenergized the noir genre by subverting one of its essential elements — its darkness.

David Ulin writes about Denis Johnson's noir "Nobody Move":

we can also see where this is going, see how all the various plot lines will converge as the novel narrows to its inexorable end.

That, too, is one of the pleasures of noir, the way it is a fiction not so much of choices but of the lack of choices, in which the challenge for a writer is to gradually close down possibilities and channel everything into a single narrative chute.

I'd like to think that the rules of genre can be bent and retooled, as they were in "L.A. Confidential."  If there once was a dictate to shrink characters' choices, is it still the rule? I wonder where it comes from: Tradition? Readers' expectations? Is there a Noir Writers' Playbook? Are there Noir Police — or, more likely, Noir Thugs — deployed to keep writers in line?

But I don't have to just wonder. I can ask. Richard Rayner, Susan Straight and Tod Goldberg have all written noir. So, what are the rules? Can any be ignored? Does beginning a novel or story as noir mean that you must narrow it to an inexorable end?

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credits: Veronica Lake / Associated Press; Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential" / Warner Bros. Inc.

Denis Johnson's 'Nobody Move': Where do we go from here?


Since June, Jacket Copy has been hosting an ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move," which is being published in four parts in Playboy. Part 3 has just hit the stands, and once again, we pick up where we left off.

Let's start with some hyperbole: The third installment of "Nobody Move" is the best yet. The action moves like a steamroller, and the dialogue, which I liked in Part 2 but Tod Goldberg thought was overdone, has been pared back to a minimum, a way to highlight the tension rather than drive the plot. Again, I don't want to give too much away, but Johnson kicks the narrative into high gear, moving us out of set-up mode and into the meat. In fact, reading the third installment, I feel for the first time that we're in the heart of the heart of the story, that things are driving finally, that we're on our way to some kind of inexorable end.

What Johnson does so well here is to reintegrate his two parallel plot lines -- the one involving Jimmy Luntz and the other about Harry Gambol -- while starting to suggest how the whole project will resolve. Jimmy and Harry have been apart, you may remember, since the very beginning of "Nobody Move," when Jimmy shot Harry and left him by the side of the road. Harry's been recuperating ever since, but now he's back, strong and silent -- a great white shark of a man, ignoring Mary, the nurse who has become his lover, when she warns him to be careful with his injured leg, that his sutures haven't completely healed.

With Gambol out in the world, Jimmy's life immediately becomes more dangerous -- desperate even. "Luntz pushed it hard," Johnson writes toward the end of the installment, "making sure he heard the tires on every curve. If a cop lit him up, he'd steer it off a cliff."

Now we're in the real stuff, where noir becomes existential, where all the choices are bad ones and "[t]here's no way to go," as Jimmy tells Anita, "but the way we're going. I know how it ends, but there's no other way."

Where it's going after the jump.

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Denis Johnson's 'Nobody Move': Third time's the charm


The third part of Denis Johnson's serial novel "Nobody Move" is out in the September Playboy, and starting next Tuesday, we'll be back on the case, with Richard Rayner, Carolyn Kellogg, Tod Goldberg, Susan Straight and I weighing in on this newest installment, as well as the project as a whole.

What's the latest with Anita and Jimmy? Will Gambol ever get his revenge?

Stay tuned. We'll let you know. ...

— David L. Ulin

Photo by Chor Ip via Flickr

Denis Johnson's characters hook up


Jacket Copy's ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move" continues. ...

In "Nobody Move," Denis Johnson makes sure that his leads, Anita and Jimmy, hook up. When we left them at the end of Part 1, they were heading toward bed:

"When was a guy like you ever lucky?"
He pulled her blouse over her head and a couple of buttons popped loose and flew at his face…. “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately? I’m lucky now."

Cut to Part 2: Jimmy wakes up and looks at Anita’s body between the sheets; whatever happened between them goes unwritten. Soon they get up, encounter authorities, embark on their road trip and wind up together again in a seedy room above a bar. Anita’s aphrodisiac is booze, and when Jimmy finally gets her in the mood...

The TV emitted a small steady roar. In the show a man clung to the side of a speeding train. Luntz let the TV run so he could see her by its light. All through their lovemaking Anita kept quiet, but she looked right at him....

And then there’s a break. Right when Denis Johnson gets to the sex, his details get rather vague. Has the author of "Jesus' Son" gone prim?

That's after the jump.

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Denis Johnson's 'Nobody Move' ... and story neatniks


Jacket Copy's ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move" continues....

This point that Susan and Carolyn make about plot holes and ellipses is really interesting.

In one of my novels, a thriller set in the 1950s called "The Devil’s Wind," at one point the heroine is presumed to have committed suicide, apparently drowning herself in Lake Mead. Later she shows up and starts offing the bad dudes. The bloated and disfigured body that had, indeed, been found in Lake Mead wasn’t hers, but somebody else’s. Which was as much explanation as I wanted to give. I didn’t bother putting in sentences about lots of people having killed themselves in Lake Mead and still doing so, blah-blah, and this case of mistaken identity being perfectly reasonable, especially back then, blah-blah-blah. Anyway, my editor in New York, a very demanding guy and a big thriller honcho, accepted what I’d done without a blink. Likewise the publishers in Germany and Spain. But this plot-point drove the French and Dutch editors crazy. I got polite e-mails from Paris and Amsterdam, asking, "Well, whose was that body in the lake?," then not-quite-so-polite ones suggesting I tie up this loose end in the story quilt, or they wouldn’t publish. So I did, and the current discussion about Denis Johnson and his story blips got me wondering why some very attentive readers didn’t register or worry about my carelessness (and it was that, to some extent, I just thought, "Come on, you don’t really want me to explain that, do you?") while others — well, it just bugged the heck out of them.

Partly it’s just a question of simple human difference. Story neatniks want everything tied in a bow. Others don’t bother with what Jonathan Demme calls "fridge-door questions," the thing that happens when you get home after a movie, want a snack, open the fridge door and suddenly find yourself thinking: "Hey, Bourne had the briefcase when he crashed the car, then we saw him getting out of the car without the briefcase, but it was in his hand in the next scene. What was that about?" But there is, too, the question of the attitude and expectation we bring to genre.

expectation and attitude after the jump.

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Hell of a ride


Jacket Copy's ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move" continues....

I think what Carolyn says about implausibility is absolutely right, and the point she makes about Chandler and noir working with those kinds of ellipses in fact or logic is true.  Last summer I reread a lot of Ross MacDonald, and this summer I'm reading my fifth Raymond Chandler, so I've been thinking about why those noir novels did such a great job of keeping the reader intensely interested, so much so that who cared about minor details?

I believe what a lot of literary novelists lose sight of, with their love of language, is plot, and this excerpt, as David says, is loaded with plot -- it's the classic noir road trip.  (I did think exactly the same thing about the duffel bag, though.)  Once these characters are on the road, everything sings.  The descriptions of the landscape are great, again. I love the way Anita gets mad about buying JC Penney clothes.   

But what about the dialogue? It's after the jump.

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A literary palate cleanser?


Tod makes an interesting point about the way our experiences of Johnson's work color our expectations of "Nobody Move." I, too, am a huge admirer of Johnson, especially "Angels," "Jesus' Son" and the wildly underrated "Already Dead" — all of which are, as Tod points out, monumental because of how they get at the interior, explicating not just action but their characters' inner lives.

I agree that this is not part of "Nobody Move" — not yet anyway. But that's OK, and here's why. I did read "Tree of Smoke," and I was disappointed. The reason? The same one Tod cites in regard to "Nobody Move," that I was "aware of the writing for the first time in a book by Johnson; that I can see the machinery at play." I'd never had that experience, and it made me approach "Nobody Move" with trepidation, which, I'm glad to say, the story has not borne out.

But ... is this anything more than Johnson lite? Find out after the jump.

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Spare the banter, please

Nickandnora0731_2 Jacket Copy's ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move" continues....

The challenge of writing crime fiction on deadline is dependent on one's ability to perfect the great lost art of witty banter. I found this out a few months ago when I was charged with writing an entire 300-page novel in three months — this from a writer who took two years to write a novel that clocked in at just under 200 pages and about 10 years to write a story collection that is on the bright side of 175 (though, to my credit, there are 12 entirely different stories there, so that's something) — and spent the first month doing things like playing Scrabulous on Facebook, googling the symptoms for various diseases I was certain I was coming down with and, strangely, completely dedicating myself to physical fitness for the first time in about, oh, 10 years. Maybe 15.

At any rate, those three months became two months, and I didn’t have a word on the page, so I decided I just needed to get people talking and eventually things would sort themselves out and I'd find that elusive flow. What I learned was that, unlike in my literary fiction, where characters utter a few lines of subtextual dialogue that then leads them to ruminate internally on the way their parents/husbands/wives/children/Elvis ruined their lives and brings them to a dreadful moment of self-realization, in crime fiction half the joy is pretending you're conjuring Nick and Nora Charles, where every line of dialogue is loaded with conflict, sexuality, violence, hubris and, periodically, a shred of evidence.

To get to those shreds, however, you sometimes end up going on and on, falling in love with the way your characters sound; in my case, I was thrilled by this new toughness that was coming out, the muscularity of the sentences, the staccato beats. (The other half of the fun, incidentally — and particularly if, like me, you've spent the balance of your career writing about the sad passages of memory and trauma — is blowing stuff up.) In a perfect scenario, you then go back and cut away the excess and find those nuggets of conversation that convey character, reveal your character's emotional state, deliver conflict and move the story forward ... while still being witty.

(More after the jump)

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