Saturday, June 02, 2012

Sur-Noir: Sein und Werden #8.2 (2012)

Sur-Noir, Sein und Werden #8.2 (Spring 2012). Guest edited by Marc Lowe. Pp. 56. ISSN 2046-8601. £2.50.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Sein und werden: being and becoming; a self-professed “ongoing project” for experimental literature and art that is all about the surreal, the outré, about “change and evolution.” This is fiction on the move, self-describing and describing of the world around it. Expect the odd. Regularly producing anthologies of themed works submitted by independent writers, Sur-Noir is the spring edition for 2012. Typical noir-genre adventures would be all about the hard-bitten private eye, the grungy, corrupt city (mostly at night), the glamorous dame who’ll do the PI wrong, the hard-drinking flashes of inspiration. Billed as murderous, mythical, twisted, with “blood-stained walls and the foul odour of corruption,” S und W are trying to take noir to its most extreme; noir of the soul. These are existential crimes of existence illuminated in a dark, dark light, with “ne’er a happy ending in sight.” With the emphasis on noir as the collective genre for this outing, this is not meant to be out-and-out horror, and is instead meant to stimulate the mind and send the creepy thrill into the thoughtful areas of the brain.

Noir is about a crime; a crime that needs unfolding, but in doing so, unfolds seedier goings-on and interrelationships between those around the crime. The crimes here are of a less physically definable bag. There is psychological (‘The Spider or The Fly’), implied (‘The New Plastic House’), metaphorical (‘Horror’) and even science-fictional (‘Corrupter’). What makes them different from other genres, perhaps, and why they were chosen for this anthology is that there is awareness in each by the characters of some order of law; a moral imperative whether they agree with it or not. This is not always adhered to, but used as a yard-stick against which to bracket the content. The confused mentality of what appears to be a very disturbed mind in ‘The Spider or The Fly’, by A J Huffman, tries to ready what might be a crime scene (it’s not overly clear if it is, or if it is a trick of this mind’s perception) for the police, and awaiting their entrance.

Heavy emphasis on mysterious murders in a blacked-out city directs the reader of Daniel Schwartz’s ‘The New Plastic House’ to suspect that an odd arrival is, in fact, a psychotic murderer. The ‘plastic’ of the title referring more to the plasticity or malleability of the household within: a comment on the modern familial unit as one thrown together by circumstance. While ‘Horror’, by Matt Dennison, describes a metaphorical, emotional ‘crime’ of destroying another’s happiness (admitting one does not love one’s partner anymore, and how the ‘body’ of the relationship is carried around within one’ emotional baggage), it is also about the fatal quality of the attraction of women, when the ‘murderer’ of the last act realises he will become attracted again at some point. Women in noir are invariably unsettling, dangerous elements for male heroes. The voice of A A Garrison’s ‘Corrupter’, a third-person tale taking place in the mind of one who appears to be a schizophrenic, sociopathic personality, recognises his own brutality and murderous past. ‘Girl Four’, by Jamie Grefe, is good old-fashioned spurned-lover revenge on the man who nearly killed her, and Saul Hughes's ‘Bleach’ is a poem on the execution of a serial killer, suggesting violent deaths were the killer’s way of pushing back the fear of absolute nothingness after death.

So there is crime here, at the base of most of the stories, although ‘Dogsneer’, also by Saul Hughes, while it could be a poem on the sad murder of a noble hound, could equally be a poem on observing the rot of a random dog carcass. Possibly the crime is the injustice of so gruesome a death, visited on a simple animal? Really, at this point, any connection could be assumed, and partially verified by the extant text provided.

Noir, too, in its most ‘classic’ cinema outings is a double black and white genre. Firstly because a large percentage of noir films were made in the black and white cinematic era, giving it its trademark shadows and ill-lit set-pieces their distinctive shape. But secondly, there is a deliberate sense of right and wrong in noir, even if this is as one character against another, with neither utterly law-abiding. There are lines: us and them, me and you. The interconnection of human relationships within the story, the mixing up of said relationships and the maze of motivations this gives rise to provide complexity for noir. Actions, however, take place in a recognised sense of good and bad, of law and illegality, otherwise there can be no absolute crime to solve or react to. Baddies are baddies because they go against a prescribed set of rules; social or legal.

Within these stories, too, there is a sense of obligation to acknowledge if something is correctly done or not. The characters are not so lost in the scenic milieu that there is no recognition of a requirement against which they define their actions. Douglas Thompson’s ‘The Sleep Corporation’, while full of delirious imagery, is a policeman’s battle with inner demons, facing up to the realisation he is the very thing he hunts; the baddie, the killer. The poor confused soul in ‘The Spider of The Fly’ attempts, in a muddled fashion, to ready the room for police investigation. What has happened there, while definitely violent (“And red. Lots of red. Or was it blood?”), is unspecified; is she the victim fly or the perpetrator spider, drawing more victims into her bloody nest? She knows, however, that the right thing to do is involve the police. The ‘Corrupter,’ using a Being John Malkovitch moment, perched in a surgeon’s head, directs the surgeon’s hand to kill his own body on the table and end his killing spree.

Noir needs direct sense of causality. It is about a series of clues traced to reason and outcome. Crime as a genre is about cerebral involvement, and noir adds murk for mood and setting. ‘Girl Four’, third person view of an angry woman’s mind, uses drip-fed details of the physical and psychological agony the woman went through following her lover’s attempted murder of her to provide an implied ‘justification’ for her actions. Indeed, we are told that “it is evident to this writer” that there was reason for the criminal violence. In ‘The Rooming House’, by Fred Skolnik, a possibly amnesiac (he isn’t sure) lodger realises he remembers nothing from his past life, nor where or why he is. A murky suggestion of a desire not to know is one reading, or a victim of circumstance is another. This is a story that has lost its causality before it even starts; with no past, the man has no reason for the present. Indeed, I wondered why it was in this anthology. Instead of being draped in uncertain shadows and danger, this is a brightly-lit tale; removed of mental clutter. It falls squarely into a remit of a character ‘being and becoming,’ but I did not see how it tallied with the other dark fictions on display here. ‘The New Plastic House’ is interesting, as it is attempting to find cause and effect in human relationships that don’t always have them. There are clashes of will, apparently unmotivated actions, and the oddest choice of all is the decision to allow a stranger to stay overnight during a city-wide lock down as a killer is on the loose. And yet when something happens, the characters react to it, creating the effect of the cause.

What makes these ‘noir’ tales different is the emphasis on the psychological horror-drama. In fact, ‘Dogsneer’ and Noel Sloboda’s ‘Another Labyrinth’ are about the only ones that don’t feature a pronounced aspect of lunacy in the narrative or characters. If there is any ‘justification’ for most of these stories, it appears to be in the unhinged logic of minds gone astray. Indeed, the title, Sur-Noir; ‘sur’ suggesting over or above from the French. Is this super-noir; more noir than noir because it is a noir of the mind? Freud’s repressed, primeval Id comes to mind; do these crimes actually happen, or are they played out in the Id? Is the Id, let out to play through a breach in the mental dam, the cause of these effects? Is our subconscious mind the real home of noir; where we might think about killing our annoying boss, where we fantasise about sex as dangerous, dark and deadly to the person and soul? I felt as if these were being raised by the anthology, but it is up to the reader to finish them if they wish, or to enjoy the play of interrogatives within the semi-obscured visions of the authors.

I have already mentioned how ‘The Rooming House’ did not feel as if it fitted in with this anthology’s intention so well, and how ‘Dogsneer’, while visceral, does not imply a sense of noir; more a sense of body horror. ‘Another Labyrinth’, too, feels out of place. A short, mythological metaphor, I read this about how distrust can grow in a marriage. An “old hero” comes home with the Minotaur’s head, which he place son the kitchen table. His wife doubts its authenticity, and the head laughs at her, derisively, while the hero angry asks why she should make things more difficult, why she does not believe him; “must you always make a mystery out of what’s not there?” There’s a murder, here: one ex-Minotaur tallied up. And possibly there’ll be some domestic violence if the wife doesn’t cease her nagging suspicions. But it is more a behavioural parable than a noir by any of the definitions I’ve used to clarify matters, and neither does it meet S und W’s own definition above. For the rest, both my definitions of noir genre requirements and S und W’s desire to make things even darker are met within the stories chosen for this purpose.

The presentation is novel. A paper-bound stapled booklet, typed out using an old machine and photocopied so that the print is uniform and more ‘organic’ than a computer-printed document. Pictures have been cut and pasted into place for thematic illustration; a still from ‘Strangers on a Train’ and a montage of blonde femmes fatal. The intention is to make an old-fashioned police-report style package, beginning with a Probable Cause Affidavit for a contents page, and ending with the ‘Autopsy Report’- author biographies. It feels very ‘real’ to hold and read. In fact, I had a throw-back to the hand-made booklet documents that fan clubs and societies used to have before presentation became slicker. It slides a handful of quality fiction under the radar as something much more humble.

Sometimes independent publishers, especially those who collate surreal fiction, can be in danger of producing stories that are so far up their own mystical fundaments, they are ridiculous to read and very hard to credit. Even if a couple of the stories don’t fit the genre remit of this anthology, they are all of a sound and solid quality. And it is perhaps the very genre requirements I have identified above that help to framework the stories so weird, dangerous and dark doings can thrash about to their heart’s content within the narrative. There’s not a lemon among this lot; they all stand upon their own merits.

Order a copy of Sein und Werden from the publisher


Anonymous said...

just a small note. The editor is Marc Lowe with a "c". :)

Djibril said...

Thanks for pointing that out! I've fixed it in the review.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely wonderful review Kate. Yet again you show a great understanding of what I am trying to achieve. Thank you so much.

Rhys said...

One of the best reviewers around at the moment, in my view.

Russell Bittner said...


I agree with both Rachel and Rhys. This review (with the exception of a couple of typos and a misbegotten preterit tense of "fit" -- shame! SHAME, Kay! -- is BRILLIANT. Also one of the best I've ever read: on "S&W" or on any other zine. Both you and S&W's publisher are to be congratulated.

Russell (Bittner)
Brooklyn, NY, USA

Marc Lowe said...

Dear Kate,

I just wanted to thank you, as well, for the wonderful review.

Regarding "The Rooming House," in particular, I'll just mention that in my initial write-up for "Sur-noir," I'd stated that I was looking for metaphysical detective stories as well as "noir," and cited examples of the types of "lost" detectives who fit this description: Auster's Quinn, Borges's Lönnrot, Abe (Kôbô)'s nameless detective from The Ruined Map -- I might also have included Modiano's Guy Roland... At any rate, although "The Rooming House" was less gritty than some of the other pieces I ultimately published, it satisfied my hunger for a "lost [detective/character]," hence my decision to include it among the other, darker gems. And the "sur" of Sur-noir was, to my mind, the "sur" of "surreal," though I do like your take on it very much.

Again, many thanks for your insightful review.


Kate said...

Ta, chaps. I'm really happy and surprised it's gone down so well!

Marc- thank you for the added info on 'Rooming House'. It did have me puzzled on its inclusion.
I approach each review, each story, brand-new to begin with: how would this read to 'a' reader: how strong are the merits of its nature in being a piece of written work? And this first read is the impression that remains with me the strongest.
The added information on what 'sur' meant to you is a neat added extra :-)

And so allons-y with the next batch! My long-ago English degree thanks you all for the bottom of its utmost for verification of its worth!