A few years back I was on an existentialism panel at NoirCon that went a bit off the rails (those who were there may recall why) so we never really got deeply into the topic. It’s hung around in the back of my brain pan for a while and two recent reads pinged a few sparks around that got me thinking about different ways of embodying existentialism.
The first book had been one of those gaps in my noir reading: Down There AKA Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis. You probably know the Truffaut film even if you haven’t read the book. I sort of thought I had, but I hadn’t. If you know Goodis at all, you know not to read his books when you’re feeling low. The most painful sort of existentialism that might be summed up as the “just put one foot in front of the other because that’s all there is” school. Edward Lynn is the titular player and he’s playing hot music when his brother Turley staggers into the bar and upends his life.
But we find that’s not the real beginning of the story. We backtrack eventually to find out how this prodigy went from concert halls to an ex-wrestler’s dive bar. And we meet Lena, the first bright ray of sunshine and an all-right dame who makes Eddie remember what it’s like to want to live.
Things don’t stay that way: this is bleak stuff with some great jazzy prose in between. The last line, “He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard” epitomises the alienation Goodis makes you feel. There is no hope. All you can do is just soldier on.
In some ways, the existentialism of Patricia Highsmith’s The Tremor of Forgery is even more disturbing. Howard Ingham goes to Tunisia to work with a director on a screenplay only to find out the director has committed suicide back in New York—in Ingham’s own apartment no less. He decides to hang around anyway and work on his book about an unrepentant con man, feeling superior to both the locals and to the other American resident, Francis J. Adams, the purveyor of All-American propaganda behind the Iron Curtain (it’s 1969) arranged by a private donor.
Without all his normal social interactions, Ingham goes to pieces. His moods swing, he loses interest in then fanatically loves his lukewarm girl friend. His writing goes great. His writing stops. He enjoys Tunisia. He hates it. In short he has no moral centre. And things get weirder. The director may have committed suicide because of Ingham’s gal. Adams is maybe CIA or something or maybe it’s all his imagination.
Maybe Ingham kills someone. But if he does, no one seems to care.
He travels. He moves out of the hotel. His girlfriend visits. He’s not going back. He’s going back. It gets to the point you don’t know what’s real. Ingham certainly doesn’t. How much of this is Highsmith’s own xenophobia, racism and misanthropy? It’s all subsumed in the noise. Even Ingham’s final words are obscured, “unheard in the shuffle of sandals, the din of transistors, the blare of the unintelligible flight announcements” and the possible and ever so apt murder weapon, “the typewriter in his hand weighed nothing at all now.” It’s all messed up. As Denise Mina warns in the introduction, “Her books will make you reckless.”
Think I might be up for a trip to Tunisia. It’s not like anything means anything, right?
K. A. Laityis an award-winning author, scholar, critic and arcane artist. Her books include How to Be Dull,White Rabbit, Dream Book, A Cut-Throat Business, Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, Chastity Flame, and Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering Uterus, Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.