Monday, March 29, 2010

Noir by Olivier Pauvert

The time is somewhere in the near future. A typical everyman who indulges in one vice too many now and again wakes up to the most gruesome sight possible--a dead woman hanging off a tree, completely mutilated.

Soon enough, he's the chief suspect, and under a totalitarian regime, he's guilty before the eyes of those who find him. But fate spares him and now he has the time to figure out what really happened.

There's only one problem--our protagonist seems to have shifted out of time. Not only does he no longer feel part of the world around him, that might just be true! Searching for answers on a multitude of questions, our "hero" must travel all over France to find his answers. They just might not be the ones he's looking for!

This was a random library grab, one of my favorite things to do when I have those rare moments with room on my card. As followers of my two review sites know, I like noir stories, so a book titled like this is going to catch my eye.

The thing is, while this was a pretty good story overall, I felt like it was trying to do too much in only about 250 pages. There are all kinds of concepts thrown about as our present-tense narrator walks about in this world that's changed because the white majority voters give in to fear. I'm a big fan of shorter novels--I prefer them, in fact--but in this case, it seems like the book is a platter with too many ideas piled on it, and as they shift off, I want to look over the edge and see what happened to them.

Here are just a few of the ideas brought up by Pauvert that don't get much room to breathe: A resistance movement, French minorities as guerrillas, the fate of the protagonist's family, and the implications that what we see has happened to France ends up quite possibly infecting the world.

That latter question is given about one paragraph with only a few pages to go, thrown in as part of a conclusion that rushes to get everything in that the writer wants to say before hitting the last white page. It honestly annoyed me more than anything else--why include such a tantalizing idea if you aren't going to do anything with it? I was perfectly happy living in the world of France only; there was no need to go outside the boundaries.

I understand that in a first person present tense novel, we aren't going to see anything that isn't in front of the narrator's nose, but I felt like there was a better way to go about addressing these issues. While his family is a priority early on, by about halfway through, they're barely mentioned. These kinds of omissions bugged me as I was reading.

I also had a problem with the fact that this book really does fall into the traps of a book like this, where everything is so bleak. Every character you meet is going to die after talking to the protagonist, because the Police State will get them. The hero will have all sorts of narrow escapes, usually one per place setting. Everything is bleak, but that doesn't seem to make more people want to resist. The back cover blurb mentions that this book echoes other books written in this style. What they don't mention is that this book copies them almost like a formula.

There are some good things about Noir that I did like. The idea that people who voted for the horrible government that takes over end up being used as their bag men is a great concept. Only minorities can see through the haze of lies, even as they are the worst treated. That echoes how Europeans have always seemed to find a way to harm people of color, basically from the date of first contact. Experimentation with dangerous drugs to control the masses probably happens today, in some laboratory no one knows about.

I also liked the very natural way in which our narrator realizes what's happened to him. I thought his revelations occurred steadily based on what he discovered on his quest to make things right, and his final fate made sense. His love of motorcycles and use of them in the book was a nice humanizing touch as well. One could blame the lack of focus on his need to keep moving, but I think that's a bit too easy. There had to be a way to get some answers added into the book via our narrator, and the book suffers for lack of it.

Overall, Noir was a quick read, but one that did not satisfy me as much as I'd hoped. I's a perfectly okay book, but it's not special enough to warrant some of the praise listed on the back cover. There were a lot of great ideas contained within, but the execution is a bit too derivative for my taste. Combined with the fact that the book leaves too many unexplored ideas on the table, I just can't recommend this one for others to read.

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