Monday, December 9, 2013

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Number 98 on the Modern Library’s list is a title familiar from its movie version, The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain.  The novel came out in 1934, the movie in 1946, the grand era of film noir, and the movie remains an important piece in the American film canon. (It was remade, considerably less successfully, in 1981. If this were a film review column, I would be tempted to expound on the mistakes made in trying to translate the story into another era, not to mention the casting.)
            At the heart of the story are lust, misplaced passion, and deep festering dissatisfaction feeding a fixation that can only lead to destruction of all concerned.  These characters have lonely, isolated lives. They long for fulfillment of an external variety, such as money, sex, and adventure.  They want everything but what they have. These elements comprise the fertile soil of the noir genre.
            Just as the original film version is highly watchable, with its shadows and sweat, its hidden corners, its palpable waves of suspense, so too is the novel highly readable.  The tension can sometimes cause the reader to forget to breathe, while the obsessed attitude of the two plotters and the obliviousness of their intended victim induce a nearly unbearable level of frustration mixed with anticipation.  Whether it is possible to learn anything from this novel I don’t know. Perhaps this is why it is usually classified as genre fiction (one of only two genre works on the 100-book list).  It is, however, possible to obtain a great deal of reading pleasure, as well as lessons on writing techniques, from this masterfully constructed story. 
            A bonus pleasure I gained from the novel stemmed from the search for it. At my local library branch I could not find the title on the shelves until a librarian pointed me to the anthology section and a Library of America edition, entitled Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s, which he obviously was also personally attached to.  With good reason: It is a beautiful book, heavy and compact, elegantly bound, printed on thick creamy white paper that is satisfying to the touch.  After my self-assigned reading of The Postman Always Rings Twice, I read all of the other novellas in the volume also, which included The Big Clock and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, among others.  Then I returned to the library and checked out the book I’d spotted next to this one on the shelf, the companion volume Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, and I read through that one, too. If the Modern Library were to expand its list to 101 books, I would argue for Chester Himes’ The Real Cool Killers, from the 1950s collection, to make the list. 
            These stories might not qualify as “real” literature, but they are serious and deep, giving unusual insight into segments of the society usually overlooked. The writers’ craft is expert and without the pretensions that literature sometimes brings forth.  There is some maudlin, ridiculous, clichéd, trite, and/or sloppy genre fiction out there to be sure, but the noir crime stories chosen by the Modern Library and by the Library of America shine with quality.  And, for me, the serendipitous reading adventure I embarked on through the public library and its fiction-loving librarian made the experience all the more worthwhile. 

Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also an editorial assistant for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.