IN CONTEMPORARY NOIR, you are often your own worst enemy. This is stylishly illustrated in the 2012 movie Looper, in which time travel has been outlawed but is still used as a handy black-market tool for assassins. To get their lifetime supply of gold for services rendered, the assassins must kill their future selves to retrieve the lucre off their own dead backs. It’s about as blatant a metaphor as you’re going to get for foolish youthful decisions ruining one’s future. As young Joseph Gordon-Levitt stands in a cornfield and prepares to blow away his older self (who has, through casting and cosmetics, smirked his way into Bruce Willis), we hear the lonely silence that surrounds a man who sold himself out. In only a few seconds, Gordon-Levitt will permanently destroy everything that he ostensibly could be. No matter who he falls in love with or what personal discoveries he makes, from this moment forward he knows he’s destined to end up in this cornfield, hog-tied and bullet-ridden. Of course, he has his reasons: the cynical, crumbling reality of Looper lacks fairness or easy choices. The silence also allows us to explore the feeling of alienation of living in a world where once clearly defined processes (like the linear flow of time) have been disrupted and perverted to suit the needs of dark forces. Substitute the notion of a fair living wage, or even the right not to have all of your personal data collected by agencies that pass around your nude selfies like napkins at a picnic, and Looper begins to feel less like science fiction and more like the bleakest noir. No one — not even you — has your best interests at heart.
This is not accidental: every era gets the noir it deserves. In the 1940s and 1950s, alienated war vets found themselves in a sanitized land of top-down conformity, struggling against gentlemen’s agreements and outlawed passions. In the awkward aughts and 2010s, noir has lurched forward into a time when formerly rock-solid institutions and infrastructure have either collapsed or morphed into something unrecognizable. Noir is no longer about the damaged soul rebelling against a clearly defined system; it’s about the damaged soul confronting the realities of a world with no central power, authority, or narrative. Everyone is equal parts friend and enemy, especially oneself.
The novels of Alan Glynn and Natsuo Kirino playfully leap into this abyss, inviting us into techno-corporate landscapes that are as unpredictable as they are treacherous. Glynn in particular has a knack for depicting a shifting reality, partly by introducing us to characters who are already at their mental and emotional limits. Both Graveland (2013) and The Dark Fields (2001; later brought to the screen as Limitless with Bradley Cooper) begin with characters who are a hair’s breadth away from losing it. Their malaise stems from the chaotic push and pull of a world that has no clearly defined moral center. The comforts of the family, of a solid job, of a physical reality that is predictable enough to be reassuring yet stimulating enough not to be boring are all unavailable. Glynn’s heroes exist in contemporary freefall, bracing themselves against whatever surface is available. This constant shift in perspective makes their choices entirely unpredictable and thus endlessly fascinating for readers who have long tired of clichéd denouements.
Graveland begins with financial maven Jeff Gale on his way for a morning run in Central Park. Within only a few sentences, we are enmeshed in his anxious existence, in which every important aspect of his life, from his children to his wife to his business, are sources of distrust and upset. Is he a good father, or has he raised his daughters to be the equivalent of orchids in a world sans hothouses? Can he speak honestly to his wife about the fact that their $12 million townhouse renovation is probably not the best financial move? Has he stretched himself too thin when it comes to his powerful corporate position? Nevertheless, Gale’s anxieties are eased a few paragraphs later by a quick third-party bullet to the brain. This remarkable opening chapter instantly positions the reader in a defensive crouch. We’re being conditioned to the fact that nothing and nobody, including the characters who will occupy the principal positions in the narrative, are to be trusted. As we are introduced to other characters in the narrative, among them a former architect turned chain store manager and a journalist who has allowed herself to slide into writing glossy puff pieces, we understand that these people came up against an economic cold front and suffered frostbite on their souls. Can they overcome the crushing weight of the post-Occupy economy, or is life now just a series of ever more degrading personal compromises?
Similarly, Glynn’s The Dark Fields opens with Eddie Spinola in anxious lockdown in a generic hotel suite monitoring reports of a chaotic world on television. While Fields has a first-person swagger and bonhomie lacking in the chillier Graveland, the basic construct is the same: a narrator who is alienated from an unpredictable world and, indeed, an unpredictable self. The first sign of deep personal conflict starts when Eddie begins blacking out after taking the miracle pills that act like a rocket booster to his creativity and productivity. What is he up to during these drug-fueled blackout periods? At first, he sees no downside to waking up amidst finished novels and effortlessly mastered languages. But when he wakes up to realize that the woman he was with last night is now dead, he begins to wonder. Is he responsible for her murder? Is he capable of murder? He hopes not, but, well, he honestly doesn’t know.
As Glynn’s books unspool, the narrators are not simply up against their own demons, but also against an international corporate agenda that is as manic as it is omnipresent. In The Dark Fields, as Spinola gets more and more involved with taking the super drug, various corporate-sponsored henchmen begin to interfere with his life. Their attacks are frightening, but they’re also impersonal: instead of the heat of a grudge-match or epic feud, these attacks have the emotional quotient of a violent Fed-Ex delivery. Generic messengers arrive with guns, knives, and fists to retrieve information for a faceless entity. Spinola is experiencing the multiple-front assault of an agency, not an individual. In Graveland, we quickly realize that Gale’s murder is simply the latest in a series of takedowns. Nothing in these attacks is personal; they’re part of someone’s (or something’s) to-do list.
While this may sound like an echo of the 20th-century noir template, the difference is that the corporate agenda is not tethered to a particular principle or vision. No one country or person is steering the reins: rather, variable economic market forces and shifting power plays within multinational headquarters continually modify the plan. The characters in these books aren’t fighting a clearly identifiable foe, but rather a trademarked hydra.
Most alarmingly, as readers we intuitively understand that Glynn’s protagonists are fundamentally compromised simply by interacting with these corporations. By electing to play, that is, attempting to live, the characters in these books have already lost the game. The end of The Dark Fields is particularly bleak, because the narrator thinks he has beaten the corporation, while in reality he has simply absorbed its changeable motives, and along the way disregarded his innate humanity. He becomes the breathing embodiment of all the traits they applaud back at HQ. This is in stark contrast to the ending of a movie like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), which also tackles the notion of how a man survives in a world run by impersonal, anti-human forces. Brazil gives us a glimmer of dystopian hope — in Gilliam’s movie, our hero is captured by corporate fascists, but despite their best efforts he remains true to his inner vision, albeit in the form of a benign dementia, that is, if you call being eternally strapped into a chair in a windowless chamber while you hallucinate benign. In contemporary noir, the protagonists are nothing more than reprogrammable conduits, allowed no possible escape. The idea of a noble calling or an adherence to some personal truth is totally, frighteningly absent.
Glynn tends to analyze corporate agendas from the top-down, while Natsuo Kirino tackles the subject from the bottom-up. In Out (2003), Kirino explores the changing dynamics of female friendships as influenced by shifting corporate needs. The novel is set in Japan and centers around a boxed-lunch packing plant where one of the workers has an abusive husband. The workers end up covering up the husband’s murder in an attempt to help out their coworker. Of course there’s financial gain involved for the coworkers willing to chop up and dispose of the physical remains of the dead husband, and with it the chance to escape the grind of back-breaking factory life. But as the realities of the workplace and their botched cover-up increase pressure on the group, different factions form, splinter, and ultimately transform their feminine bond into a traitorous nest.
Out’s group of female Japanese factory workers are only a notch or two from Japan’s lowest class. They’re out of shape, deeply in debt, and unhappy about their closest relationships. In essence, they have betrayed themselves. Kumiko, who has bought a car she can’t afford and clothes to match, is “up to her eyes in debt.” Yoshie is scrambling to cover basic expenses by borrowing money from her friend Masako because the factory is trying to cut down her overtime hours. For her part, Masako lives with an emotionally distant husband and the gnawing feeling of failure, unable to find a job similar to the more prestigious, better-paying one she lost when she was downsized. Echoing the underlying futility found in Glynn’s work, the women are doomed before they even begin. We know that their plans will come to nothing because they are engaging with forces that are intended to corrupt them and with the power to do so. By attempting to subvert the agenda they are now part of it, they will ultimately either be killed or warped until they are unrecognizable. Yoshie skillfully decapitates a corpse after finding out there’s 100,000 yen ($900) to be made for the task. Masako ultimately abandons her husband, her son, and her life as a diligent worker, choosing to take her share of the money from the killing and step inside an elevator that “moaned like the wind as it came to meet her.” To survive, these women not only had to cut up a body and dispose of it, they also had to dispose of some intrinsic part of themselves.
In the novels of 20th-century noir our central character knows his own mind and his own code. He can be shocked and horrified by the treachery and corruption of others, but he retains his steadfast dedication to rightness to the end. The new noir offers no such comfort. Out of necessity, due to the larger forces the heroes are fighting, they need to adapt to the changeable rubric of the corporate mindset. They are loyal to no one, not even themselves. Their fundamental motivation is to win, and to win in this world, they must abandon any principle that is not adaptable. In a sense, contemporary noir charts the transformation of a person into a business plan, and with that transformation the need to discard their old, useless humanity. From Looper to The Dark Fields to Out, these heroes can only survive the corporate world by killing themselves off.
Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Salon, Dwell, Guernica, The LA Weekly, Archinect, and on KCRW.