Nearly half a century has passed since most films and texts in the Noir tradition were created, yet one may wonder how much is really known about these popular American products. Scholars remain fascinated by many aspects of Film Noir, yet it appears that its fictional precursors (such as the texts of Cain, McCoy and Hammett) may have been too quickly ignored within the canon. Many have enthusiastically studied, for example, Film Noir’s ground-breaking effects on lighting and acting techniques, as well as its value as a gauge of socio-political climate; couldn’t Noir texts, too, have initiated equally significant results?
Whilst critics continue to dispute the categorization of filmic Noir, the very texts that spawned this filmic (r)evolution have been largely dismissed as predictable ‘junk’ for the plebian masses, unspectacular in their normalcy as standard Modernist works. So I wonder: what is it that makes these texts so plain and ordinary, and so Modernist that they require no further attention? Furthermore, in aligning these texts with one particular school (‘Modernism’), are we not limiting their potential to convey a marked unique or progressive ideology?
These questions propelled my investigation into Horace McCoy’s novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. In the examination of this particular source, then, the premise of this paper is to highlight the capacity of Noir literature to defy Modernist values and pioneer later avant-garde literary movements.
Through the close analysis of its narrative development, ideology and style, McCoy’s work appears a novel both aware and critical of its Modernist ancestry, and thus intentionally identifies itself as a resolutely Post-Modern text. In its commitment to entropy and semi-nihilistic sense of an ending, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? expresses Post-Modern themes of chaos and anarchy, and critiques of Modernist (a) meta-narrative, (b) idealism and (c) abstract theorizing.
In order to discuss such reiteration and negation of Modernist themes in the novel, a brief discussion of Modernism is necessary. The term ‘Modernism’ refers to the drastic shift in aesthetic and cultural values of art and literature following the First World War. The movement marked a noticeable break from the ordered, stable and inherently ‘meaningful’ texts of the nineteenth century and from Victorian optimism, instead presenting a profoundly pessimistic picture of society. In literature, Modernism became synonymous with the works of Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, Yeats, Pound and Stein, among others. Recognizing the failure of language to ever fully communicate meaning (“That’s not it at all, that’s not what I meant at all” laments Eliot’s Prufrock), the Modernists were usually more concerned with an exploration of form than the development of content. In doing so, it established a new fragmented, non-chronological style of poetic narration and form. Modernism’s acclaimed emphasis on formal experimentation, however, was also the source of its derision: the movement was often criticized for its abandonment of ‘reality’ and the social world in favour of a narcissistic interest in language. (Klages)
The aesthetic and ideological burdens of Modernism, including its non-egalitarian nature, affinity for formalism and excessive pessimism, fueled its reincarnation: Post-Modernism (‘Pomo’). Pomo’s foundation in Modernist roots, however, is precisely the trouble: their inter-dependency makes a separate or bound examination of either movement nearly impossible. Thus while classification of ‘noir’ as a genre, historical period or style is endlessly disputed among academics, the categorization of such texts from the 1930s and 1940s within any particular model of literature seems an equally dubious task. It is commonly accepted that Noir literature (offspring of the Depression-Era’s pulp fiction, industrialization and the rise of capitalism) conveys a strong Modernist agenda; yet a textual analysis of Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? reveals a surprising, although latent, Post-modern undercurrent.
Dismissed as a ‘pulp’ novelist by American critics, Horace McCoy (like James Cain) received acclaim in Europe for the absurdist and existentialist themes apparent in his work. [Ohlin 3 Feb 2004 ] In choosing unremarkable and insignificant characters as protagonists (those on the edge of society who are struggling to make sense of a random an unstable world), McCoy uses They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? to foreground motifs of isolation, alienation, and loneliness. Riddled with drifters and strangers, McCoy’s California emerges as a mythical land of corruption, disappointment and failure (as epitomized in Los Angeles ) where vagabond characters arrive at dead-end circumstances. In depicting naïve, yet respectable, personages unfit to cope with life, McCoy reveals a raw deprivation and desperation in the post-Depression age.While McCoy’s Robert continually avoids confronting the meaninglessness of his existence, Gloria revels in her role as the Post-Modern critic: ‘What are you going to do now?’ she finally asked.
‘I don’t know exactly. I thought I’d go see Mr. Maxwell tomorrow. May be I could get him to do something. He certainly seemed interested.’ ‘Always tomorrow,’ she said. ‘The big break is always coming tomorrow.’ (McCoy 116)
À la Waiting for Godot, she recognizes that she and Robert, along with the rest of the dance hall participants, are waiting for something (success) that will never come. Gloria’s refusal to subscribe to self-induced ignorance to blind herself from the mundane quality of life, and her disdain for Robert’s confidence induce the literary manifestation of the novel’s Pomo core: she offers an anarchical alternative to the Modernism’s privileging of hierarchy and order. Lacking faith in any stable system (whether social, political, or economic or religious), Gloria Beatty represents the anti-authoritarian view that life is futile. Her various commentaries on Mrs. Layden, in particular, highlight Gloria’s radical skepticism. In one instance, while Mrs. Layden proudly draws the numbers for an evening’s derby, Gloria comments to Robert sarcastically, “this is a big moment in her life.” (56)
Quick to point out the emptiness of Mrs. Layden’s days, and her own, Gloria seems brutally aware of the meaninglessness of life during this period, and in contrast to the very linear, action-reaction theories of Modernism, recognizes the haphazard and random nature of existence in a Post-Modern way. Gloria (and thereby McCoy) does not pledge a notion of a ‘universal truth’ or ‘greater purpose’ as did the Modernists, but rather views most things as insignificant. In response to Robert’s endless romantic observation of the rising and falling of the waves, she snips:
‘I can feel it without standing still, she said, ‘but that’s no reason to get yourself in a sweat. It’s been going on for a million years.’ (116)
While a Modernist edge is certainly present in this dark view of life as futile, a hint of Post-Modernist thought is noted. Whereas Gloria’s lack of individual agency would be reasoned by Modernists as the direct effect of a greater cause (perhaps God, or a previous action), McCoy identifies determinacy as purely coincidental, based on chance. Indeed, the author’s Californians seem to lack any agency, and instead the purpose of their time, rather, is simply survival. As Robert narrates,
After we changed our technique we had no more trouble [finishing the derby]: we had stopped trying to win, not caring where we finished so long as it wasn’t last. (64)
This desire to ‘simply survive’ is echoed throughout the text as the marathon continues. As Gloria explains to Robert,
‘This whole business is a merry-go-round. When we get out of here we’re right back where we started.’
‘We’ve been eating and sleeping,’ [Robert] said.
‘Well, what’s the good of that when you’re just postponing something that’s bound to happen?’ (65)
On a side note: a fascinating parallelism exists between the notion of ‘survival’ and eating in McCoy’s story. No doubt a result of post-Depression mentality, the availability and ingestion of food has become synonymous with purpose, as if the presence of food alone were to justify the success of any given circumstance. Socks Donald, for example, justifies the aimless marathon to the Mother’s League by saying, “’There’s nothing degrading about this contest. Why, these kids love it. Every one of them has gained weight since it started’.” (84) Robert, too, is deluded by the company of food: “’We’re better off than we’ve ever been – at least we know where our next meal is coming from’”, he says to Gloria (65). It appears as though in McCoy’s world eating and gaining weight can make up for a lack of intellectual consumption – the body gains, it seems, because the mind cannot.
As the characters strive to avoid extinction, then, the author discreetly exposes his Post-Modern critique of society as entropic. In scientific theory, entropy is “a measure of disorder of a system. Systems tend to go from a state of order (low entropy) to a state of maximum disorder (high entropy).” (OED) Post-Modern writer Thomas Pynchon first applied this theory to a socio-cultural environment in his short story, “Entropy”. Pynchon invokes the concept of a ‘heat-death’, whereby change stops occurring within a closed system, to anticipate a parallel fate for ideas, prophesizing an eventual global culture of homogeny.
Entropy, in the literary Pomo context, then, can be understood as the inevitable decline of society into nothingness and the “tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity.” (Pynchon 24) McCoy’s Gloria is particularly aware of the entropic quality of her social environment. The appearances of celebrities at the evening derbies, for example, fuel her contempt for the sickening fallacy of the ‘ Hollywood machine’:
‘I’m sick of this,’ Gloria said. ‘I’m sick of looking at celebrities and I’m sick of doing the same thing over and over again.’ (McCoy 76)
Gloria sees Robert, too, falling into the trap of the ‘American Dream’; he still dreams, for example, of an imaginary career as a successful director:
I was on a boat going to Port Said. I was on my way to the Sahara Desert to make that picture. I was famous and I had plenty of money. I was the most important picture director in the world. I was more important than Sergei Eisenstein. The critics of Vanity Fair and Esquire had agreed that I was a genius. (61)
Yet this imagination is not recommended in McCoy’s narrative; it seems, on the other hand, that the author wishes to show the reader a world devoid of such idealism. True to its underlying Post-Modernist themes, the novel seems suspicious, and even intolerant, of ‘truths’ or values unless they are considered local, relative social constructions. McCoy’s work, like that of the most Pomos, supposes that identity, beliefs and values are purely subjective and individualized – rather, there is no such thing as a ‘masterpiece’ or an ‘ideal’ – and can thereby been seen to subtly attack Modernism for its conviction in the possibility of any objective truth.
The world of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? lacks a meta-narrative of truth, justice or purpose, and McCoy seems to suggest that society is deteriorating towards a state of patterned, chaotic sameness, and thus a sort of ‘“intellectual inertia.’ The dance marathon itself best serves as an example of the author’s Post-Modern social critique. McCoy constructs the marathon as a metaphor for the ‘noise’ (chaos, instability, anarchy etc.) of socio-political life. The marathon, then, becomes synecdochal of ‘a world gone mad’, functioning only to create excitement while awaiting death. The repetitious evening derbies and continuous dance-a-thons highlight the abuse of disenfranchised ‘Others’ for the sake of entertainment; the marathon as entertainment, like the pursuit of truth, serves as a distraction from, and as a way to avoid, a life without meaning. Robert recognizes his own blind sighting by the event:
I knew Gloria and I were in no danger as long as we held our own but you never could tell when your partner would collapse. Past a certain point you kept moving automatically, without actually being conscious of moving. (98)
McCoy offers two ‘solutions’ to the meaningless existence of this society of increasing entropy. (1) One can choose to be distracted (that is, to stay in the Matrix, to take the ‘blue pill’) and avoid the banality and purposelessness by perpetuating the cycle (i.e. participating in the marathon, following the clichéd ‘living for tomorrow’ mentality, and accepting the capitalist myths of success); or (2) one can exit, via death.
In deeming ‘progress’ an illusion, Pomo denies the existence or plausibility of an ideal, utopian society. Thus Gloria’s excessive skepticism, like Post-Modernism’s, poses a threat to the conceptual hegemonic values of capitalist America . The murder scene, in particular, emphasizes the author’s desire to write a Post-Modern text within the acceptable boundaries of Modernist ideology. Modernism (embodied by Robert) must return to symbolically ‘kill’ the free-thinking non-conformist (Gloria), and encourage faith in logic, reason and truth. On the night of the murder, “the night was black; there was no moon, no stars”, McCoy writes. Thus rather than depict a romanticized, dramatic rendition of murder, as most authors might, McCoy chooses instead to downplay the killing, deeming at as unmemorable as possible. Thus by story’s end, order is restored and the Modernist meta-narratives of ‘Democracy’ and ‘Justice’ are re-instated.
Thus it appears that McCoy is only half convincing in his attempt to write a ‘resolutely Modernist text’, but rather succeeds in writing one with a revolutionary Post-Modern undercurrent. In denying the rational, logical, organized and systematic construction of Modernist texts, the author instead chooses a literary approach fraught with chaos, fragmentation and uncertainty. Unlike most Modernist writers, too, he avoids any abstract, theoretical philosophizing in exchange for a practical, concrete depiction of the ‘real’ experience of the dance marathon craze without the use of sweeping narratives. In a Post-Modern style, he also chooses to represent a seemingly meaningless and purely subjective account of a story (as seen in Gloria’s shooting, for example) rather than the purposeful and intentional construction of Modernist plot and style.
Moreover, McCoy’s style is heavily Post-Modernist in its non-analytical, rhetorical and subjective approach (rather than the analytic and synthetic one of ‘high art’). The symbolic elements of the novel (the ocean and the waves, in particular) can be interpreted, or not, depending on needs and desires of the reader (Ohlin, 3 Feb 2004) and in this way does not limit itself to the literary ‘upper crust’ as does Modernism. McCoy’s novel (as well as other Noir literature), in its simplistic narrative style, seems one of the few Post-Modern texts that is wholly accessible to ‘mass’ audiences for consumption.
The compelling elements of McCoy’s story, however, are those that are resolutely Post-Modern. As has been discussed, Gloria’s murder (a sense of ending) and the circuitous marathon dance (a commitment to entropy) project decisively Post-Modern themes, including: (a) critique of meta-narrative (there is no such thing as ‘meaning’, ‘purpose’ or ‘truth’; life is but an entropic decline towards nothingness and eventual death); (b) denial of idealism and utopia, but rather realistic account of the actuality of society; (c) a sense of chaos, anarchy, chance and randomness; (d) avoidance of the linear, thoughtful philosophies and theorizing of Modernism, and a tendency towards clarity, concreteness and example; and (e) an admittedly subject account and construction of history.
While it is clear that McCoy founds much of his text on the customary concerns of Modernism, these hidden themes also make a case for his underlying Post-Modern urges. McCoy’s novel, then, offers some fascinating questions: could Noir literature have pre-dated the onslaught of post-World War Two Post-Modernist fiction? My guess is McCoy, and other Noir writers, were inner Post-Modernists aching to break from Modernist convention, while still turning a profit on their ‘pulp’ fiction.
- McCoy, Horace. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. London: Midnight Classics, 1995.
- Mary, Klages. Postmodernism. 21 Apr. 2003. University of Colorado. 24 Apr. 2004 .
- “entropy •n.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Ed. Judy Pearsall. Oxford University Press, 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. McGill University (Nylink). 25 Apr 2004.
- Pynchon, Thomas. “Entropy”. The Crying of Lot 49. Perennial, 1999.