"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Eng. 180 and Beyond: For the Love of Irish Noir

I’m finding my academic ADD to be particularly irritating right now.  I’m three weeks out from my deadline to finish my Focus portfolio for my comps (the one on contemporary Irish prose) and for the most part, I’m on track to do that.  Of course, that does not preclude the stress dreams of late (I’m mostly prone to the ones where the brakes in the car fail or my teeth fall out).  But then I get up in the morning, make my tea, sit down in the brown chair in my grandparents’ living room, listen to the wind in the leaves, the loons on the lake, try to ignore the irritating buzz of boat motors and jet skiis, drink my tea, and remember that my life is pretty dang good.

My ADD right now has to do with this corollary thing I’ve picked up in the last few months (mostly because the book I’m writing my paper on, what I’ll present to the IASIL conference in three weeks, is on Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, billed as a murder-mystery)—Irish crime literature.  Naturally, I see this as a gorgeous hybrid of the crime literature class I’m teaching in the fall and my focus list.  Contemporary Irish crime literature?  Yes, please.  I’m reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in my spare time (yes, that’s sarcastic) to get ready for the class, as well as anything else I can get my hands on to build up a better base for what I’m going to teach.  But I keep getting side tracked into Irish noir.  I don’t have time to be side tracked, but I can’t stop, so I’m trying to make a productive something out of it, so I can justify the time I’m spending on it.

This is not a small genre either, as I’m learning—enough going on there that I’m going to work up a syllabus on the subject, partly for the fun of it and partly to build up my folder of ready-to-go classes to teach.  I’ve got a creative writing class worked up (which I taught Spring 2012) and I will work up an introductory Irish lit class for my Focus Portfolio requirements—but I also want to work up an advanced Irish lit class.  The dream class, as it were.  Just as I think that teaching crime literature—both classic and popular—provokes us to conversations that we might not have otherwise, narrowing that idea to a specific place is right up my place-conscious alley, so to speak.

But when I came across Andrew Kincaid’s article “‘Down These Mean Streets’: The City and Critique in Contemporary Irish Noir,” a couple of puzzle pieces I hadn’t known I was missing fit into place.  Kincaid wrote of the eminent Declan Kiberd’s questioning (in 2005) where the literature that reflected the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger—and Kincaid argues that the literature has been written, but not in a form that Kiberd recognized:  crime literature.  Crime literature, especially of the noir/hard-boiled variety (pioneered, of course, by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, among others) is the genre that reflects the “violence, ugliness, the distrust, the moral conflicts, and tempo that are inherent in the moment” (41).  Later, Kincaid writes that “In noir the city is not a mere physical backdrop in which the plot can unfold; the city itself functions as a central character, frequently determining the emotions of the hero as much as in any naturalist narrative” (41).  This is true.  And something I’ve based a lot of my teachings on, no matter what kind of text we’re looking at and no matter what type of class I’m teaching (composition, creative writing, or literature).  Looking at any type of writing through the lens of place studies then opens up the opportunity for students to question how place functions in their lives, what kind of role it plays.  Of course, this type of looking-outward is the goal of any class.

I’ve written here before of my deep and abiding adoration for John Banville and his crime-writing alter ego, Benjamin Black.  I found Elegy for April in a thrift store recently, which was rather exciting, and was a welcome return to the world of Quirke (since I was disappointed by The Silver Swan, though I might have to reread it to be sure I disliked it as much as I remember).  And also the amazingness of Tana French’s In the Woods.  I haven’t gotten a chance to read more of her work, but I can’t wait till I do.  I picked up Declan Hughes at the library yesterday (surprised that the little library had any of the names on my list), but I’m only a few pages in, so I have no opinion yet.  I did lend Christine Falls and In the Woods to a lady I’m cleaning cabins with this summer—and she was nearly speechless with adoration for Christine Falls when I saw her the next week.  She said she’s halfway through In the Woods and will be hard-pressed to say which one she likes better.  (This, given my Chocolat savant dreams, made me exceptionally happy.) 

What teaching—or taking—a class in such a narrow area offers is beyond the benefits I’ve mentioned, because one place is not like another place.  Crime fiction set in Los Angeles is not the same as that set in Boston or northern Minnesota or Dublin.  Each place has its own character, its own particular set of cultures and problems.  It’s like I wrote when I posted on Benjamin Black’s Silver Swan—I know that 1950s Dublin is a very specific place with its own very specific issues and cultural expectations and gender roles.  (Which is why I loved Christine Falls more than Silver Swan, because those pieces played a role in the plot.)  And being able to teach these things on a literature level (or a creative writing level) means giving them the tools to be aware of everything they take for granted when they read a book “for fun.” 

A friend did her project in our Women’s Rhetoric class this last semester on sex trafficking in popular fiction and in her presentation, she talked about who the protagonists were, what they tended to do for a living, how the law was involved (cops, lawyers, or journalists, generally made up the bulk of careers)—but the thing that stuck with me was how she said even if a woman was the protagonist, trying to stop this trafficking, she more-than-frequently fell into the hands of the bad guys herself and needed the male protagonist to save her.  So even though we had a strong female in the lead of the story, she still needed to be saved by a man.  And now I’m on the lookout for whenever I see that happening in any story I read—and awareness is the largest challenge of academia, that moment where my student says, “I never thought about it that way before” the sweetest.  If our students don’t recognize that something is happening, we can’t have any sort of a discussion about it.

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