Noir writer Megan Abbott and Los Angeles Review of Books noir editor Boris Dralyuk discuss James Sallis's latest, Driven, a sequel to Drive, the novel made into last year's film by the same name, starring Ryan Gosling and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
MEGAN: I FINISHED DRIVEN a few days ago and have been wrestling with my reaction ever since. There were moments of brilliance (no one can spin a sentence like Sallis), but I struggled with the sense of having been here already (I won't use the word "retread") — the inevitable sequel problem perhaps unfairly intensified by the fact that I recently re-read Drive and saw (and loved) the movie. I fear the fault is with me. And, of course, it's a double challenge to fashion a sequel to a quintessentially noir novel, which is already dependent on a feeling of doomed inevitability.
BORIS: I'll lay my cards on the table: I loved it. In some ways, it's undeniably a retread — but when your canvas is a two-lane blacktop, you're sure to end up spinning your wheels a good chunk of the time. The moments of brilliance were worth it for me. I'm really taken with this vapid sociopath's-eye view of our late-late capitalist desert landscape.
I keep thinking about the wonderful thing Fredric Jameson noticed in Chandler — those paranoid intermezzi, when Marlowe notices a housewife peeking through the blinds over her kitchen window. Sure, she may be a killer. That's perfectly reasonable in Marlowe's world. But she almost never is. She's just a housewife, peeking through the blinds. The problem is the blinds themselves, and the seedy barrier they represent. I'm just going to transcribe it:
I find my neighbor unlocking his mailbox; I have never seen him before, we glance at each other briefly, his back is turned as he struggles with the larger magazines inside. Such an instant expresses in its fragmentary quality a profound truth about American life, in its perception of the stained carpets, the sand-filled spittoons, the poorly shutting glass doors: all testifying to the shabby anonymity which is the meeting place between the luxurious private lives that stand side by side like closed monads, behind the doors of the private apartments: a dreariness of waiting rooms and public bus stations, of the neglected places of collective living that fill up the interstices between the privileged compartments of middle-class living. Such a perception, it seems to me, is in its very structure dependent on chance and anonymity, on the vague glance in passing, as from the windows of a bus, when the mind is intent on some more immediate preoccupation: its very essence is to be inessential.
Those moments, available to us due to Marlowe's heightened sense of awareness (ok, paranoia), are, according to Jameson, unavailable to great literature — where they'd have to signify something, become "infused with symbolic meaning." But here, their presence is neutral, justified by the form. It makes life in the forties and fifties look seamy. Literally.
What I see in this Drive(n) series is the disappearance of the "privileged compartments of middle-class living." The meeting places, with their "shabby anonymity," have overtaken private lives. All we have is the diner that was once a Mexican joint that was once a chain restaurant. And Driver's intense focus points up that shabbiness — gives me a real frisson:
...he'd seen a diner two streets up, Billy's or Bully's, hard to tell from the sign, where the last time he'd been through, there'd been a Mexican restaurant.
Its historic smells had come forward with it to the new ownership. As though chile and cilantro and cumin were additional pigments in the wall's blue paint. Judging by the row of counter seats, booths and gunnery windows to the kitchen, the place had in some earlier incarnation been a Big Boy's or Denny's. An old man with a fringe of dandelion white hair sat at the counter, looking as though he grew there. A waiter stood off at a safe distance, talking through the half-door into the kitchen. Young couple in the back corner booth by the emergency exit, both busily engaged with hand-held devices, iPods, cells, whatever.
MEGAN: I actually agree with you — those interstices were wondrous. One of my favorites:
A young woman was bent over something that looked like a gymnast's pommel horse, bare butt in the air, eating a burger as the tattooist worked on her. Every time she took a bite, a brownish mess of grease, mayonnaise and who knows what else spurted onto the floor. Hebrew letters took form slowly on her butt. Justin's eyes kept going back and forth from that butt to the printout tacked on the wall. His Rasta hair looked like something pulled down from attic storage, first thing you'd want to do is thwack out the dust. Jeans low on hips, shirtless, nipples sporting tiny gold anchors. After watching closely a moment, Driver wondered if the young woman or anyone else realized how bad Justin's eyes were.
Those who wore their exception like a billboard were a puzzle to Driver. Given his circumstances, he'd always worked hard to appear to fit in, not be noticed. But he was with them in spirit.
It reminded me even more of Ross Macdonald (but we know how that lineage works), a more generous, less neurotic rendering than Chandler's charged landscapes. I do think I want to return to it in a month or so. I was so emotionally gutted by the movie Drive and that may have made me too demanding.
BORIS: Well, the movie was damned good. So, how did Refn gut you? He had me at the hot-pink-lipstick-on-a-bathroom-mirror titles...
MEGAN: Oh, me too! I know some folks have implied that the eighties aesthetic is kitsch, but I don't think so at all. To me, the title sequence, the look and, of course, most of all the music, tapped into a very intense strain of neglected early eighties dark romanticism. Thief, To Live and Die in LA, Manhunter, Bad Boys, Eight Million Ways to Die, Gloria — widely varying degrees of romanticism, but I guess what I mean by romanticism is a sense of deep noir longing and the fleeting hope of something still pure in the hard circuit from seventies disillusionment and retreat into the self into the slick studio fabrications of the mid to late eighties.
Though Drive has an even deeper romanticism, I think. My pal Ed Brubaker (Criminal, Fatale) told me in advance it was like a cross between early Michael Mann and David Lynch, and he's so right. The strains of deep, almost holy connection between Driver and Irene feel like those moments with Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern in Blue Velvet. The audience I saw it with kept nervously laughing. It's so romantic; it hits us so hard that our first reaction (and we might be tempted to stop with this reaction) is to laugh, to distance ourselves. I think the music hits us the same way.
How about you? And were you a fan of the music?
BORIS: You've hit the nail on the head with the eighties romanticism, and I'd like to think more about that. I've always loved films that lovingly and bullheadedly recreate a style or conjure an era that common wisdom declares ought not to be recreated or conjured.
But first the music. It did its job, and then some. When you see the car gliding through the L.A. River and hear College's synths start to throb, your adrenaline kicks in. It's irresistible and just right. But that sad, wispy voice, imploring the listener — Driver? itself? me? — to be a "real hero and a human being" really twists the knife. There's something wholly incongruous about that quietly desperate plea emerging — and barely — from the robotic drone. One gets the sense that Driver — just then demonstrating his mechanical prowess — can easily be a hero, but humanity remains elusive and ill-defined. He has a hard time being human.
What do you think of him, anyway? One of the reasons I find the character so fascinating is that, to me, he's a new kind of sociopath — not the gleefully Gothic Jim Thompson sheriff or Mitchum preacher, and not even the Don Siegel-Clint Eastwood-Lee Marvin craggy moralist for an immoral time. There's certainly a holy attachment to Irene, but it's a matter of obsession — a strangely affectless obsession. He's heard he needs to be a human being, and he's set his mind on it. When the time comes to be a hero, he pushes her to safety, and his humanity goes right out of the elevator with her; Driver stomps the threat to a pulp — his Scorpion glinting and his neck flaring to reptilian proportions. The throbbing synths win and drown that little voice. Not a hint of affect. The L.A. River Savior might as well be the Green River Killer.
Or am I wrong?
MEGAN: I must be entirely seduced by the narrative because I can't quite, even squinting (or putting my glasses on) see Driver as a sociopath. Within the structure of the story, the world it offers us, his fate seems so heavily proscribed (in noir fashion), and the fact that he can have this holy attachment to Irene seems a testament to a humanity he has (or, at least, a human longing) in spite of the world in which he finds himself.
Suddenly, I find myself thinking, most of all, of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers — maybe Ethan 15 or 20 years before the start of that film. He's been made savage by not just the world in which he finds himself but, yes, also by his decision to remain in that world. And he feels always a stranger, hovering in doorways, knowing he doesn't belong inside, but still wanting to. He wants to be the kind of man Irene could be with. And in the confined space of the elevator he realizes he can't hide the Driver he needs to be from her. There's no place to hide. She's going to have to see it.
It's certainly a powerful scene because it forces us to reckon with a major conflict in American "types" (rugged pioneer, cowboy, etc.): the "savage" impulse isn't outside, it's inside. It's in him, maybe in us.
I'm surprised how many women I know (and not just because of the obvious appeals of Ryan Gosling) who find that scene "complicatedly" erotic. And I think the music really plays games with us there — the synth that cues us for eroticism then becomes the music that, as you say, muffles the human. If we've been seduced, we are implicated. The audience I saw it with gasped and even laughed.
I find myself wondering throughout: is this existential noir (the books feel so for me) or something new? What do you think?
BORIS: See, that's why I'm glad you're patient with me. I didn't mean it, really. I was just taking it out for a spin. You're right about Ethan Edwards. I see the family tree taking shape. There is a sorrow in the first book — and in Refn and Gosling's Driver — that slipped my mind in the months since I read Drive and saw the film. Maybe it fell under Driven's wheels. The loss of another holy attachment — to Elsa, with whom Driver (or some construct named Paul West) had shared a life inside, above the surface — doesn't land the punch it ought to land: "Walking away from Elsa's body had been the hard thing." This isn't enough. There's a body. There's a hardness. But there's no heft, as you said earlier. And I'm wondering whether that's intentional.
Elsa's father tells Driver that "our girl loved you, and you loved her ... We are your family." Driver sees the source of Elsa's "spirit, the quiet at her center, her generosity" in her father's words — then drops "his paper plate, cup and cell phone in the recycle container." That conclusion is so oddly specific that it demands closer attention: is this to say that the dropped identity will cycle around to haunt Driver?
"Something from the past, then."
"It usually is."
The recycle container is both a noir omen and an absurd anticlimax. A strange recoding of the noir tradition.
And as for the monotone philosophizing that you mentioned, what we get from Driver himself seems to attenuate the link to the American "type":
Driver wasn't sure he'd ever made a decision, not in the sense Manny meant. You stayed loose and when the time came, you looked around, saw what was there, went with it. Not that you let things push you, but you moved faster with the current than against. It was like reading signs, following spoor.
A beautiful and chilling statement of non-purpose. I can't imagine the Duke playing this kind of Driver.
Driver may be a noir existent, but unlike James M. Cain's deluded boobs he seems to be stripped of libidinal motivations. He's closer to Horace McCoy's and David Goodis's dissociative fall guys, except he's cruelly efficient at staying alive.
Heft stems from decisions, while Driver drifts. Perhaps it isn't sociopathy, but there is something pathological about his withdrawal. The childhood trauma may account for it, but the effect on the narrative is no less disturbing for that:
...he had a fascination with malls. ... He visited them, stepped into them, as though just off the ship. As though if only he sat in them long enough, put in enough miles along those arcades and scuffed floors, ate enough food court specials, something — some understanding, some sense of belonging — might solidify around him.
And we're back to the anonymity of our world's "meeting places." Somehow I feel that Driver fits this world a lot better than he himself can appreciate. And that's not his tragedy. It's ours.
Does Driver — in both books and in the film — seem like a throwback to you, or a man of our time?
MEGAN: So much here to say. I loved the walking around malls bit because that's what I've done when I've lived, for periods in time, when I knew few people. Sometimes I still do it. You feel like you're part of an energy, but you don't have to expend the actual energy of connecting. Or maybe you don't know how anymore. That feels true. And it feels as storied as the pioneer hero. I'm trying first to reckon with the idea that Driver lacks libidinal motivations. Somehow this strikes me as deeply romantic, as Driven does (even more than Drive). But I think Driver's libido probably gets its greatest reign while, well, driving. What do you think?
The more you lay it out, the more convinced I am that my initial hesitancy with the novel is its "meta-ness" because it puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to examine my romanticism of this archetype. The philosophizing makes me have to stand apart, examine it. But now I wonder if it's another kind of critique of the archetype, the genre as a whole. That Sallis isn't saying: Hear the wisdom of these men. He's saying: Look at us, hoisting all this symbolic weight on this man, hoping he'll let us carry the tradition, keep dreaming the cowboy dream? Maybe what I really want is the throwback, and Sallis won't give it to me without some strings attached. And that's quite a feat.
One other thought in terms of the philosophizing: I'm realizing now a connection to my experience with Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, book vs. film. It is one of my favorite films and I loved the book too, but I so preferred the way the Coen Brothers scaled back the Sheriff's (conservative) longings for a safer, more human past. I didn't want it so openly articulated. Didn't want to reckon with the idea that I might share that conservative (reactionary?) nostalgia.
Another question: Can true noir have sequels? I wonder if one of my other discomforts with noir is Sallis showing me: Look what happens when you want this twice. You will have to look at it more closely. Face the fact that you savored, vicariously, the fantasy of the first round. Now, watching it again, watching it turn back around on itself, you see that it's a dead end.
BORIS: Yes, that's exactly the kind of romanticism we get. Driver sublimates his drive in driving — "that was what he did, that was what he'd always do" — and what could be more "meta" than a literalized metaphor? (Aside from placing a John Shannon novel on Driver's nightstand and then naming his mentor Shannon.) Numbered slots in garages, the arteries, the interstates — that's where he fits.
I think this question about sequels is key: Sallis knows it has to end. Driver's stubborn survival, which carries us along and makes us hope, as you say, that he'll go on carrying the tradition, is insistently and necessarily circumscribed by that vision of him going "down at 3 a.m. on a clear, cool morning in a Tijuana bar." A slick telegraphed ending. But Driver careens toward it in slow motion. And the longer the sequence lasts, the more we're forced to confront that seductive self-delusion.
This Driver business, for all of its romance, really is self-delusion. To go back to the notion of existential noir, it's a masterful act of profoundly bad faith. Driver is a "Driver" like Sartre's waiter is a "Waiter." Like Goodis's Eddie is a "Piano Player." The difference is that Eddie wore his pathos on his sleeve; we knew there was an Eddie down there. What we get here is far more frightening.
Driver was heavy-laden with promise in the first book. We brought a hell of a lot of expectations to bear, and he bore them. He was more of the throwback we wanted — the strong, silent type, who cared for the kid (well, at least he stuck the drawings on the fridge), appreciated a good Scotch, and the "good, old stuff you only caught then, late at night" on local TV. There it was, late at night, a flicker of the frontier. Something with the Duke in it.
But here we are, and the wheels keep spinning:
Friend of mine claims the story of America is all about the advancing frontier. Push through to the end of it, he says, which is what we've done here at land's end, there's nothing left, the worm starts eating its own tail.
MEGAN: "Sallis knows it has to end." That seems precisely right. I think where this conversation leads us is to the deep dark secret of noir. Noir's rap is bleak, nihilistic, hardbitten. But at heart it's a deeply emotional genre and a deeply nostalgic one. And its readers aren't just looking to go to dark places, they're seeking to be assured of something primal. That stories have meaning, that our heroes will not change, that we all have dark places inside and that someone — this author, this book, this character — understands it. That there will always be a wilderness and we will always have someone to push through those wildernesses for us. To show us how much it matters.
If, as has been claimed, noir is essentially frontier literature at its terminus (there is no wild left), what happens when noir reaches its terminus too? Will we have to leave this curious brand of nostalgia behind and face something real? As Sallis writes, "Sunlight, air, and freedom — his impulse was to dive back in. He wanted darkness, safety, anonymity. Needed it. Didn't understand how he could live without it."