Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James Cain.


Part of the noir reading list I put together for my thesis with the help of Robert Polito and Jeffery Allen. As such, it was "required reading."

I read The Postman Always Rings Twice prior to The Maltese Falcon, mainly because the former was shorter.

I can understand why The Maltese Falcon is the grandaddy of the genre, and especially its hard-boiled angle. Characters like Brigid O'Shaughnassy and Sam Spade are so vivid that reading them is something of a visceral experience, and so simply and directly rendered that their dopplegangers might crop up in any number of stories. Still, I never lose a sense of stylization in the Maltese Falcon, and like most stylized writing, its symbolic vocabulary is so netted in time and place, that the thing read as somewhat dated.

Postman had its dated moments too, and was probably equally stylized, but the elements were neither as intrusive or conspicuous. Part of this clearly derives from the focus of the stories. In The Maltese Falcon the biggest mystery is actually the protagonists' intentions. To accredit their emotions is to basically give away their hands, so at most the characters' feelings are described as symptomatic, and in most cases are affected. The question for the reader, then, is if she can determine who to selectively trust and when. It is a story of semantic and gestural clues.

There is never any question of authenticity of emotion in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Certainly, the characters deceive one another, but the candor of the narrator with his readers is in such a direct opposition to his conduct elsewhere that there seems to be no reason to second-guess him. Seemingly absent from the plot are the mechanical subtleties of cause-and-effect that are so abundant in the Maltese Falcon. More the emotions the characters engage are instinctual and ubiquitous in any reader's life: lust, hunger, jealousy, anxiety... The question for the reader, then, is whether he can predict where these familiar but unpredictable desires will take the character.

The novel is officially noir when the characters voluntarily choose a dark and nasty path.

So I liked this novel, and it was fun, even if the end is predictably wretched for all involved. It was eminently more feasible than Falcon and certainly more psychologically compelling. Which is not to say that it's the better book; both are exceedingly well crafted in very different ways. But if I wanted to recommend one of these two classics to frighten and/or trouble you, Postman is the clear choice.



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