Noir: A Love Story, by Edward J Rathke. Civil Coping Mechanisms. 172 pages. $13.95, paper.
There is something to be said about authors who manage to publish their first writings. There are always tales of novels in trunks in the attic, projects that you just couldn’t find a way to finish or a publisher to run with. For instance, it is one thing to read Stephen King’s Carrie, an incredible debut novel, and then to read The Long Walk, a novel he wrote as a young college student. As a student myself, I sat in awe. There is nothing quite like seeing an author at the same age as yourself produce a work of art like that. For me, it showed not only growth—but his passion for storytelling itself. It’s one thing to write for an audience in mind, to know that you want something published; it’s another thing entirely to publish something that your readers are intensely curious about. Publishing your first true novel after publishing others is both risky and rewarding, and in the case of Edward J Rathke and Noir: A Love Story, it is a risk worth taking and a reward for readers and this author alike.
Noir begins with a hanged man in a tree and ends with understanding the subtle dance between life and death over a strange girl. Part whodunit and part whydunit, this story is about time, memory, and dreams. Some of which may lie to us in obvious fashions, while others have subtle truths right in front of us. Early on, a narrator (one of twenty-six) simply tells us the only rule we should follow in this book: “The details get fogged up here and everyone has a different story.” It is about the death of a girl many people try to know, and it’s in that attempt we learn a different answer entirely; the more we try to see others, we in fact see ourselves. This particular passage sticks with me, not only in the confines of the novel, but also in where Rathke places himself as an author: “It seems significant, meeting the same person for the first time on three different occasions. What I mean is that she was never the same person, even in looks. Time does that, though, changes people, changes everything. We only count years to show how different we’ve become from who we used to be. We, I, whatever. It’s why we do that, too, talk in the plural when we’re really talking about ourselves or we’ll say You when we mean I.”
The world, and plot, of Noir is split between the world of the town and the world of outward reality. It is split between understanding an explainable suicide versus a mysterious death. The wealth of narrators present allows Rathke to jump with ease between the two worlds, sometimes allowing us to see the moments they blend. The outsider doesn’t quite fit in with the new world he jumps into, and a young girl struggles with life outside of her own. The placement of chapters results in jumpy narration that may lead to disorientation at times, specifically early on, and it takes a while to feel comfortable to not move forward into the story but instead to observe the world they travel past. There is a clear conflict between the old and new generations, the idea of conserving the old while progressing into the new, and the reality of how people are viewed is clearly what we think of them. Each narrator gives just enough of the plot, enough for the reader to dig for more, to keep the story moving forward, an interesting result considering the quick pace of the process of making this novel. We see a world obsessed with the concept of utopia with capital D dreams and The Parents—a creation mythos well-conceived and simply constructed. We see, what Rathke mentions, as strangers who give shots of focus on a dead girl in passing. Her life is dissected carefully; the hanged man’s is explained bluntly within the place of this created mythology.
This novel has sprinkles of magical realism and the fantastic here and there, but not in the overt sense. Each narrator shows a different shade of gray, some darker or lighter considering the time and place, and each their own version of the same world. One chapter in particular manages to temporarily travel into this town, this utopia and self-created myth driven locale, and survive on the way out, thus giving the readers the clearest sense of what it’s like to be in both of Rathke’s created worlds. Keeping a full house of unreliable narrators discussing the lives of the dead is dangerous work; it’s a slippery slope, and the importance of it is shown here. It is amplified and harnessed with, at times, precision. Take the following passage, for instance:
She was lucky to find such a man, to find such love. It’s something I’ve never found. Love. Love is hard and it’s not enough that you’re perfect for each other because that can only ever be the first step. Even perfect love doesn’t last and sometimes there’s no reason for why that is. Even if there was a reason, it usually doesn’t matter. What matters is the love and what kills is the devastation that follows. Love can kill you, love can make you kill, but love can save, and it can make a thousand tragedies for a lifetime be worth it, even if it’s only a single moment of true and perfect love. All things must end. Even love.
The process of Rathke writing Noir is fascinating and well documented. It enhances the reading experience itself. Written hastily over the span of a single week, he outlines the word counts, sometimes up to nine thousand five hundred words per day, an incredible feat for just about any writer I’m aware of. And a feat young writers dream of doing. Young writers question and admire in ways that seem both naïve and ignorant. There is very little cynicism within the pages of this novel, at least that of the world we live in. Much like his attempt to place the chapters out of order, a Memento-like shuffle by means of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Noir comes out after such projects as Twilight of the Wolves and Girl with Ears & Demon with Limp. Both of the aforementioned projects have been touted as some of his best and passionate work, so seeing Rathke’s beginning now may at times show a sense of rawness and youthfulness that may not excite readers. But it should. And I think the placement of the chapters as-is, with the idea of reading out of order in mind, will.
Noir hits a few chords for me as both a writer and a reader. For all of its rawness (which at times is a double-edged sword), there is a level of focus that must be appreciated. It’s incredibly easy to write about youth and questioning the concepts of what we fundamentally believe in, but it’s difficult to thrust those ideas out in the open. Rathke may in fact be writing for himself at times, questioning the authorities of our mind, but that’s what good writers do—or at the very least aim for. This sample of rawness at its best is found late in the book:
But, like, if God is everything and I am a thing, aren’t I God? And if I’m God how can I ever commit a sin? But even if you go and say that God isn’t everything, but everything is because of God and made by Him the same kind of problem comes up. How does God who is perfect make people that are so imperfect? Original Sin makes sense, but even Adam and Eve weren’t perfect or they wouldn’t have disobeyed God. We blame the Devil for that, but the Devil was made by God too, so how come God didn’t make Satan perfect? I didn’t and still don’t get it and it was crazy confusing back then. It’s still confusing but I don’t care that much about it anymore. I go to church but I don’t think God lives there. Sometimes I wonder what happens to those dreams, the lost ones. They must go somewhere. Maybe your brain has a storage facility for them. Because you forgot doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Good writers write scared. They write with the intent of falling and seeing what happens next. This is what we have with Noir, and Rathke said this shortly after publication: “The narrative here, it isn’t mine. It’s yours. It’s for the reader to construct. I placed the stars in the sky but it’s up to you to write the constellations, to map the landscape of their lives.”
I kept thinking about this as I continued down the rabbit hole in front of me. I can’t help but wonder what current and past Rathke would talk about if they met today, but I would wager that it would be one hell of a conversation, no matter how many narrators chime in. Noir is like a Lego set you want to build according to the guide but are seduced by your very own imagination.
Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.