King: Greene and Zahavi

The Noir Thriller: Male Identity and the Threat of the Feminine

Naomi King, Lancaster University

Autumn 2002

Brighton RockIssues of identity, sexuality and gender are all key themes associated with the genre of noir. In his bookIn A Lonely Street, Frank Krutnik describes noir films and fiction as pervaded with an ‘excessive and obsessive’ sexuality that deviates from and challenges social norms, exploring the darker areas of the psyche. Krutnik also argues that noir texts are dominated by a sense of masculinity in crisis with their prevalence of male figures who are ‘both internally divided and alienated from the culturally permissible (or ideal) parameters [sic] of masculine identity, desire and achievement’ in a post-war world (Krutnik, p.xiii). This destabilizing effect is posited as a major factor in constituting the typical noir text’s atmosphere of anxiety and disorientation.

Closely tied to the issue of masculinity is that of female sexuality. In many noir novels and films, females and femininity are represented as Other, subversive and threatening. Sometimes this threat is overt, manifested explicitly for example in the figure of the femme fatale whose voracious sexuality has the terrifying power to entrap and doom the male protagonist. At other times it is not so obvious, but remains a latent presence lurking beneath the surface of the text. Noir fiction of the thirties, forties and fifties often seems to share with much ‘high’ Modernist writing this obsession with the female Other, Freud’s ‘dark continent’, expressed through fear and loathing of female sexuality represented symbolically through images of engulfing slime, darkness and fluidity. A good example here would be Conrad’s classic Modernist thriller The Secret Agent, in which the city of London becomes a frighteningly unknowable ‘slimy aquarium’ at night, and is linked associatively to the figure of the hysterical murderess Winnie.

It is this latter kind of typification of the feminine that I want to examine in this essay, and I am going to look at three very different noir thriller novels: Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938), Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1956) and Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend (1992). I am going to explore them from a psychoanalytic point of view, using the theories of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva to trace the construction of the male protagonists’ identities in Greene and Highsmith and the ways in which the feminine / maternal is presented as a threat. I am then going to look at Dirty Weekend and at how Zahavi turns this theme around, challenging ideas about men, women and sexuality in her feminist satire.

Published in 1938, Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock has become a modern classic with its dark themes of gang warfare, violence, despair and damnation. Set in the criminal underworld of 1930s Brighton, it revolves around the figure of Pinkie, the sadistic seventeen-year old gangster embroiled in the murderous business of trying to run a mob. Greene turned it into his first explicitly Catholic novel after starting it off as a thriller, but it remains nevertheless firmly within the genre of noir.

The novel is pervaded with anxiety about masculinity and almost all of the main male characters are ‘castrated’ in some way by their social or sexual inadequacies. The protagonist Pinkie, with his ironically babyish and effeminate nickname, is continually frustrated when people refuse to take him seriously because of his youth and lack of money and social position. The fact that he does not have a proper name and is often just referred to as ‘the Boy’ reinforces this sense of a misplaced identity. Traumatised by repeatedly witnessing the sexual activities of his parents as a child, he is repulsed by sex although he realises with horror that sexual potency is ‘how they judged you: not by whether you had the guts to kill a man, to run a mob, the conquer Colleoni’. The other members of his gang are aging, insecure men plagued variously with corns, dandruff, spots and rotting livers, enfeebled physically or psychologically. Images of mutilated men haunt the novel, including the blind band and the man selling razor blades on the kerb who has lost the whole of one side of his body, and Pinkie grew up in a suburb named after the famously diminutive Admiral Nelson who lost an arm and an eye.

The threat of being ‘cut’ or ‘carved’ with the razors of a rival gang is a constant fear for the male protagonists. Colleoni, the big-time gang leader, functions as the castrating father figure for Pinkie the Oedipal son; although he initially talks to him benevolently ‘like a father’ and offers him a job in his organisation (p.64), he sends his men to ‘cut him up’ at the races when Pinkie refuses to back down and give up his claim to Brighton. Colleoni lays down the Law of the Father and is snugly enmeshed in the Symbolic Order, Lacan’s term for the socio-cultural-linguistic network to which the father introduces the child; he looks to Pinkie as ‘a man might look who owned the whole world, […] the cash registers and policemen and prostitutes, Parliament and the laws which say “this is Right and this is Wrong”’ (p.65).

The danger in the novel ultimately comes, though, not from the castrating father but from the devouring mother. Although the real threats to Pinkie and his gang are Colleoni and the police, these are displaced onto the more immediate danger of the women who might inform on them and who are presented as constituting the real menace in the text. As Pinkie says, ‘there never was a safe polony yet’ (p.96), and all the female characters are depicted as being inherently dangerous, a condition which is linked imaginatively to female sexuality. Pinkie’s puritanical hatred of sex leads him to distrust all women because ‘every polony you met had her eye on the bed’ (p.90) and threatens to pollute him sexually. Marriage, he thinks, is like ‘ordure on the hands’ (p.101) and as he thinks about sex he looks towards the butchers’ shop with its ‘smell of fish’ and bleeding carcasses (p.165), a contrast to the scene when he eyes himself in the mirror and imagines a future alone again, and the whispered word ‘myself’ echoes ‘hygienically on among the porcelain basins’ (p.231). Women are associated with dirt and decay in comparison to the clean, ‘hygienic’ male self.

Although Pinkie’s perverted, sadistic narcissism is presented by Greene as unnatural and destructive, his fear of and disgust for women nevertheless permeates the novel. Female characters are continually depicted as alien, amphibious, slimy and fishy-smelling, from Mr. Prewitt’s mad wife with her passion for tinned salmon to Molly Pink, whose ‘fat stupid spotty face’ swims into Pinkie’s memory like ‘some monstrous fish in the Aquarium – dangerous – a sting-ray from another ocean’ (p.175).

In her book Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva theorises that disgust for the ‘dirty’ and ‘slimy’ female body and sexuality stems from a deep-rooted fear of being cast back into the ‘abyss’ of the ‘desirable and terrifying, nourishing and murderous, fascinating and abject inside of the maternal body’ from which the child must separate itself to enter the Symbolic. This maternal ‘semiotic’, Tania Modleski claims, continues to haunt the subject in adult life in the form of everything that is ‘subversive of male symbolic systems and masculine notions of identity and order’, that poses the threat of ‘annihilation, of swallowing up’ of personality and identity that the mother initially poses to the child.

At the very beginning, such a ‘swallowing up’ is seen as desirable by Hale when he recognises in himself the desire to get ‘back to the womb’ and be mothered by the bosomy, maternal Ida who is like ‘like darkness to him, shelter’ and will protect him from the men with razors (p.10). Elsewhere, however, it is seen as repulsive and terrifying. The text focuses obsessively on women’s mouths, lingering over Ida’s ‘big tipsy mouth’ and the way she eats éclairs, the cream ‘spurt[ing] between the big front teeth’ and settling on the ‘plump tongue’ (p.144), and then on Rose’s lips which arouse revulsion in Pinkie every time he is obliged to kiss them. On first meeting Rose, Judy (who buys tinned sardines and herrings for breakfast) fastens ‘a mouth wet and prehensile as a sea anemone’ on her cheek (p.192). A series of imagery prolongs this fascination: the tide sucks and slides like a ‘wet mouth’ around the piles of the pier (p.93); darkness presses a ‘wet mouth against the panes’ of the pub (p.231), and the opera singer’s voice on the wireless trembles over the stained used tablecloths at Snow’s like ‘the world’s wet mouth lamenting over life’ (p.26). The vision of Rose sucking a stick of Brighton rock merges with that of the sea sucking at the pier’s pillars beneath the Gents’ toilet, giving rise to the anxiety that phallic masculine identity is dissolving into feminine fluidity. Significantly, Pinkie has a timely horror of being drowned, and would prefer even to die by the razor because ‘no death was so bad as drowning’ (p.186).

One of the first things Pinkie says in the opening chapter is a comment on Ida’s singing: ‘Won’t anybody stop that buer’s mouth?’ (p.8), and he later develops a fixation on the danger of Rose talking to the police and how he will have to ‘close her mouth one way or another’ (p.114). But the world’s wet mouth will not be closed, as Ida does eventually go to the police and Pinkie ends up blinded with his own vitriol, swallowed up by the huge darkness of the sea.

The character of Ida is the most ambiguous figure in the text. Although she starts off as the embodiment of maternal warmth and benevolence, she becomes an increasingly sinister figure as the novel progresses, with her ‘dangerous and remorseless’ optimism (p.36) and her determination to enforce her view of right and wrong on everyone no matter what. By the end, she has turned into a ‘terrific force’ (p.222), a ‘terrible woman’ (p.244), the castrating pre-Oedipal mother with her maxim ‘an eye for an eye’. Her eventual triumph, at great cost to all the characters involved, marks what Slavoj Zizek would call an inversion of the dead Law-of-the-Father into the ‘obscene’, living, breathing law of the ‘ferocious maternal superego’, a cruel, avenging agency that paradoxically commands the subject to ‘Enjoy!’ Ida’s moral law is very much a ‘living, breathing’ one; she believes in ‘Life’ and sex and enjoying everything to the full with sensual pleasure, and is ‘prepared to cause any amount of unhappiness to anyone in order to defend the only thing she believed in’ (p.36). The superego manifests itself in the form of haunting gazes and voices, and Ida is first introduced as a voix acousmatique, a free-floating voice without a bearer as she sings in the bar. At the end, her power resides in the gaze she fastens on Pinkie and his group on the pier, watching them ‘like a ferret […] fastened to a hare’s throat’ (p.224). Stronger than all the men she draws into her power, she comes to represent an unstoppable female force overriding male notions of law and order, telling the police inspector, ‘I can manage this my own way. I don’t need your police’ (p.80). Far from being reassuring or stabilizing in its administering of justice, however, this triumph of the maternal constitutes one of the main sources of anxiety in the text and seems to lead us ultimately, in the words of the last sentence of the novel, towards ‘the worst horror of all’ (p.247).

Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1956) belongs to the era of the American paperback original rather than the British interwar thriller tradition in which Greene was writing, and it differs quite significantly in that its tone is lighter, lacking the big theological questions present in Brighton Rock and the sense of the impending horror and violence of the imminent World War II. Nevertheless, it is still a serious, rather than a pulp novel (Highsmith always insisted that she was writing ‘literature’) and, like Brighton Rock, it is an inward-looking psychological thriller that revolves around a young male serial killer whose defining characteristic is that he is vaguely repelled by anything to do with women or sex. The tortured anxiety about masculinity present in Greene’s novel is replaced here, however, by a more open-minded exploration of the protean identity and sexuality of Tom Ripley.

Tom has never really entered the Symbolic as his parents died when he was young and he was brought up by a domineering aunt who continually derided his masculinity. He recalls her telling a friend in one particular traumatic incident that he is a ‘sissy from the ground up. Just like his father’, a comment that manages simultaneously to shatter his masculine identity and prevent him from identifying positively with a father figure. After running away twice, is only his eventual going to sea that he feels ‘definitely cut him off from her’ (p.33) and lets him break away from the suffocating maternal body. However, he still cannot take up a place in the Symbolic, and consequently has no social or sexual identity. Socially, he is a nobody, wasting his time in dead-end jobs, and sexually he is what Marge calls a ‘nothing’, ‘not normal enough to have any king of sex life’, whether hetero- or homosexual (p.106).

The novel could be said to trace Tom’s attempted entry into the Symbolic Order. In the opening chapter, he acquires a surrogate father in the form of Mr. Greenleaf, who sends him on a mission to try to persuade his son Dickie to return from Europe. Dickie’s significant name helps to position him in this context as the Symbolic phallus (the ‘phallic signifier’ not the biological penis) that the father sends the male child out to attain.

When he reaches Italy, however, Tom decides not to carry out Mr. Greenleaf’s instructions and gain the social and financial rewards his patronage would bring, but enters instead into a narcissistic, Imaginary relationship with Dickie. For Lacan, the Imaginary is the realm inhabited by the child before it accepts its ‘castration’ by the father and enters the Symbolic; it is the world of ‘illusion, fascination and seduction […] the order of surface appearances which are deceptive’. The key experience that characterizes the Imaginary is the ‘mirror stage’, that occurs when the child catches sight of its own reflection or sees itself mirrored in another infant, and becomes fascinated by the image of wholeness and perfection it sees. The child comes to identify with this ‘specular double’ or ‘ideal ego’, forming its own ego in the process.

Tom perceives in Dickie his ideal ego, a more perfect version of himself and what he would like to be. Dickie has the money, confidence and good looks that Tom lacks, but nevertheless they do look strangely alike and their identities begin to merge into one another in the text. It seems to Tom as they sit in a café that he is ‘looking in a mirror’ when he sees Dickie sitting in the same pose beside him, and he reflects: ‘They were the same height, the same weight […] and they wore the same size bathrobe, socks, and probably shirts. Dickie even said, “Thank you Mr. Greenleaf when Tom paid the carrozza driver’ (p.59). For Lacan, the dual relation is always ‘characterised by illusions of similarity, symmetry and reciprocity’ and ‘the ego and its counterpart are interchangeable’ (Evans, pp.49, 82).

Tom’s fantasy of a life as Dickie’s double is shattered though when Dickie cools towards him and leads him to the horrifying revelation: ‘They were not friends. They did not know each other’ (p.78). The discovery of his misrecognition almost causes him to physically collapse: ‘It was too much: the foreignness around him, the different language. […] He felt surrounded by strangeness’ (p.78). Interestingly, it is presented specifically as the intrusion of language that casts him out of his Imaginary utopia; the Symbolic has imposed itself with a vengeance and language will forever after alienate the subject from the blissful illusion of unity.

The relation between the ego and the counterpart is always an ‘ambivalent’ one, and when Dickie begins to ignore him, Tom’s narcissistic love turns to hatred and he is seized by a violent desire to kill him, which he acts upon not long after. By murdering Dickie, Tom symbolically castrates himself in an ironically literal rendering of Lacan’s claim that to enter the Symbolic involves a death, because ‘the symbol is the murder of the thing’ (Lacan, Écrits, p.104). By assuming the identity of Dickie Greenleaf, Tom acquires the Name-of-the-Father and a social position. He is obliged to become proficient in the Italian language, and the Law also enters his life at this point in the form of the police network investigating Dickie’s disappearance. The figure of the father imposing the law and language on the child materialises in the figure of the police tenete who comments on Tom’s grammar in a ‘tone of gentle, almost paternal correction’ (p.174).

As the police web appears to tighten around him, however, Tom’s hold on the Symbolic becomes increasingly shaky. He starts expecting his double to reappear, ‘looking everywhere for Dickie, below the half-drawn shades at the window, and on the floor on the other side of the bed’ (p.143), and fears above all, not the punishing father but the unspeakable maternal Thing: ‘[He] did not know who would attack him. […] He did not imagine police, necessarily. He was afraid of nameless, formless things that haunted his brain like the Furies’ (p.186).

At the start of the novel, Tom recalls his violent resentment towards his domineering aunt and his fantasies of throttling her and stabbing her to get away (p.35), and later, this antagonism towards smothering women is projected onto Dickie’s friend Marge who is presented as a censorious maternal figure with the look of a ‘mother or an older sister’ (p.61). Tom is repulsed by Marge’s body and sexuality, the ‘big bulge of her behind’ (p.67) and the thought of her underwear draped over his chairs (p.195). Her name, evocative of margarine, calls to mind something greasy, fatty, viscous and unwholesome and these are the associations she raises for Tom all the way through the text. Her house is ‘sloppy-looking’ (p.50); Tom imagines her buying ‘gooey presents’ for Dickie at Christmas and thinks of the turkey and how she will ‘slop it up with her saccharine sentimentality’ (p.83); she is ‘bogged down’ with her book (p.83); her speech is ‘abominable’ because of the slippage of signifiers when she pronounces different words exactly the same (p.61). This abject, feminine ‘bodily flow’ arouses physical symptoms of nausea in Tom, the response of the subject confronted with the threat of being ‘“swamped”, of “sinking” into the morass of the maternal’ (Modleski, p.107). When Marge visits him in Venice, this danger materializes literally in the form of the ‘repellent’, oozing canals with their slippery moss like ‘messy dark-green hair’ (p.196). Like Rose for Pinkie, Marge poses such a threat to Tom because she could give him away to the police and destroy his carefully constructed social identity if she ever realised what he had done.

At the same time, however, Tom appears unconsciously propelled towards the lure of the maternal and semiotic, the underside and escape from the world of masculine law. He initially revels in being able to lose himself in the dark fluidity of Venice, a city whose streets, he thinks, are ‘like veins […], and the people were the blood, circulating everywhere’ (p.168). On his voyage to Greece when he is certain of being captured at the other end, he regresses again into the Imaginary, attaching himself to a domineering old lady who he suspects of having been ‘a hellcat in her youth’ and ‘clutched her daughter so closely to her that it was impossible for the daughter to lead a normal life and marry’ (p.244). He has delusions of omnipotence, feeling ‘possessed of a preternatural strength and fearlessness’, and dreams of performing heroic acts like ‘fighting through the waters of a ruptured bulkhead to close the breach with his own body’ (p.245). This fantasy speaks more than anything of the desire to return to an inter-uterine existence, to deny the castration imposed on the split subject in the Symbolic by sealing the ‘rupture’ with his body and achieving fusion with the mother-ship.

While some critics have accused Highsmith of being misogynistic and stereotyped in her attitude towards her female characters, The Talented Mr. Ripley is hardly a novel that defers to the masculine either. Ripley ultimately enjoys being a chameleon, an impersonator and a non-subject with no fixed identity who can outwit the police and defy the Law of the Father, and it could be argued that this theme of cheating the father and refusing castration is what taps into our unconscious fantasies and seduces the reader to the text.

Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend is a very different novel from either of the two examined so far. Published in 1992, it is a feminist satire that deliberately uses and parodies some of the conventions of the noir thriller in a metatextual fashion, rather than being a generic piece of noir fiction per se. Like many classic noir texts, it functions as a tool for social criticism, but it does this by taking up traditional noir themes and giving them a feminist twist. The alienation of the protagonist, the atmosphere of fear and anxiety, and the sense of entrapment and claustrophobia, for example, all result in this case from the fact that the protagonist is female and oppressed by a patriarchal society. In this novel it is female identity that is under threat from the Other of men. On one level, Zahavi quite crudely appropriates the figure of the femme fatale and makes this a positive rather than a negative embodiment of female sexuality and power as the heroine, Bella, goes around exacting her deadly revenge on her oppressors. However, the text also investigates and challenges ideas about male and female sexuality in a more complex and conflict-ridden way.

The obnoxious dentist Reginald voices the most extreme misogynistic sentiments in the novel, ranting to Bella about he loathes his female patients because of their ‘stinking woman smell. Vaginal discharge smell. Menstruation smell’, and fears they will contaminate his clean surgery with their ‘filthy female muck’. Male characters constantly refer to the sexually available Bella in terms of waste and dirt, as a ‘dirty little sow’ (p.20), a ‘slag’, a ‘slut’, ‘scrag off the streets’ (p.93), a ‘piece of rank trash’ (p.94). At the beginning, Zahavi locates Bella within the discourse that associates femininity with the abject, as she lives in a dark, dank hole of a flat, surrounded by dirty dishes, breathing stale, clammy air and wiping her ‘moist neck’ (p.7). However, she goes on to reverse this stereotype when Bella decides to murder Timothy, and steps for the first time into the ‘pure night air’, a ‘clean kind of air’ (p.49) to walk across the ‘hard, unyielding mother-earth’ to Timothy’s flat (p.51). The maternal is no longer swamping or slimy, but instead it is Timothy’s carpet that seems to ‘suck at [Bella’s] feet’ when she enters his home (p.52). From here on it is the men who are presented as embodying the threat of the abject, and Dirty Weekend draws a lot of its power from Zahavi’s ability to evoke abjection through graphic descriptions.

Kristeva was heavily influenced by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and his concept of the ‘grotesque body’ which, unlike the ‘clean and proper’, finished, isolated ‘classical’ body, is the degraded, eating and excreting, oozing and protruding one. Traditionally, men are associated with the classical body, or with disembodied spirituality, rationality and culture, while women are relegated to nature and physicality. Zahavi’s tactic for deflating male power, however, is to bring them down to the level of the body in a series of carnivalesque debasements. Men’s bodies are always grotesque in the text, and even the phallus itself becomes a small, sluglike object, ‘quietly dribbling’, in Bella’s encounter with Norman (p.107). Dirty Weekend draws heavily throughout on the politic of carnival, which, according to Bakhtin, embraces a world turned ‘inside out’ or ‘upside down’, in which ‘liberating’ violence, excess, and a focus on the grotesque body help the marginalized and suppressed to ridicule and overthrow oppressive regimes, in this instance, patriarchy.

Bella’s first act of violence is to crack open Timothy’s ‘sleep-sodden face’ with a hammer (p.54) and to kill him as he sits in his own sludge of blood, tears, brains and semen, ‘oozing from every orifice’ like a newborn baby (p.58). The first thing she notices about Norman is his smell of sweat and brown suit, the colour of dirt and excrement (p.98), and he too oozes bodily fluids everywhere from his revoltingly overweight body. Bella turns all the men she crosses into corpses, ‘the utmost of abjection’ (Kristeva, p.4). For Zahavi, it is men who pollute women rather than vice versa. After her encounter with Reginald, Bella thinks ‘that dirty beast had dirtied her’ (p.140) and when she sees the serial killer on the beach she can ‘almost feel the filth that clung to him. He wanted to unclean her’ (p.172). Bella’s ‘dirty weekend’ is actually a cleaning spree; as she tells Norman in the bar, she works in ‘sanitation’ and feels she has been called to ‘clean up the mess’ (p.98), rather like the Continental Op in some of Dashiell Hammett’s stories. Her choice of the word ‘sanitation’ is interesting though, as it also calls to mind sanitary protection (and ‘Bella’ is also a brand of sanitary towel). This could suggest that rather than celebrating the feminine ‘bodily flow’, Zahavi is also trying to police it.

It could even be claimed that Zahavi merely reinforces a misogynistic horror of the female / maternal body even as she projects it onto men. Norman especially is rendered explicitly feminine with his wide, ‘child-bearing hips’, huge breasts, swollen belly and ‘weak, wet, woman’s mouth’ (p.110), whereas Bella, by contrast, usurps male power by using the phallic, masculine weapons of the knife, the gun, and Reginald’s powerful car. To do this requires that she reject the maternal semiotic, represented by her basement flat at the beginning: ‘A hole in the ground. A pit in the belly of the earth’ (p.52) This description conjures up images both of the lavatory and the womb, a conjunction that Kristeva would link to the fantasy of the ‘intolerable mother whose interior is associated with excremental decay (Vice, p.172).

In Dirty Weekend, the abject is depicted as disgusting but not particularly threatening. Near the start of the novel, Bella thinks she has got the upper hand over Timothy and revels in the power of the castrating female mouth / voice when she starts talking back to him: ‘You’ve got a cock, and the cock is king. Then suddenly, horribly, disgustingly, she opens her filthy mouth and she whispers filthy words’ (p.43). However, Timothy has the last word when he threatens to burn her with acid. For Reginald, women are metonymically reduced to repulsive oral cavities into which he is daily obliged to ‘crawl inside and scrape out the decay’ (p.128), but at the same time, his drilling of Bella’s tooth is presented as a painful rape. When he later does literally rape her (orally), she is unable, as she would like to, to close her teeth and bite off his penis. Men’s fears about the female mouth prove unfounded, while women’s fears of the male phallus are justified. In her ultimate victory, Bella does not devour or castrate the serial killer but turns the tables on him and knifes him repeatedly in a parody of the actions of a male rapist.

The message that women must ‘climb […] out’ of the abject (p.52) is problematised, however, by the incident with the old tramp woman. To her three male tormentors, Mary is an alien, ‘dirty’ Scouser littering the street (p.147), a senile, ‘clapped-out whining crone’, the epitome of ‘weakness and putrefaction […] stench and decay’ (pp.151-52) that drives them ‘wild’ with loathing. They, meanwhile, embody the Law of the Father, the power of patriarchy, telling her, ‘We’re the police, […] we’re the law’ (p.149), and stuffing her clothes and bodily orifices with bits of the Financial Times’ ‘polished prose’. Masculinised language and the Symbolic of finance and communication networks are forcibly imposed onto the female body. Our sympathy lies with Mary at this point and when Bella saves her, she is left to wander her way through the dark streets again, a repository of the grotesque, the inarticulate and the irrational semiotic that underlies the Symbolic and haunts it with its eruptions.

Dirty Weekend also challenges the Symbolic through Zahavi’s use of language, which becomes slippery and destablised through the continual use of puns and other word play. This is completely the opposite to the terse, no-nonsense prose style of the male-authored ‘hard-boiled’ crime novel which, as Krutnik says, employs a ‘clear masculinization of language’ to help solidify a sense of tough masculine identity (Krutnik, p.93). Bella’s name is probably the best example of a slippery signifier that gradually accrues more and more associations, from belle to belladonna, to the Hizbellah, to the tolling bell. As Bella is the only name we are given for the heroine, she escapes being fixed in the Symbolic by the Name-of-the-Father.

Zahavi’s strategies, then, are multiple and double-edged, but the main achievement of the novel is that it succeeds in exposing and challenging stereotypes about gender that are often taken for granted. By making a female character the subject instead of the Other of the narrative, and reversing the cliché of woman as dirty, devouring body against which man can construct himself as a clean, rational individual, Zahavi draws attention to the artificiality of this binary opposition. Her positioning of women as clean and men as dirty and polluting is ultimately ironic, not serious. As one writer on pornography says: ‘Nothing is inherently diry: dirt expresses a relation to social value and social disorder. Dirt […] is that which transgresses social boundary’. This is the message that emerges most clearly from Dirty Weekend, as the ambiguities of the title suggest; we are not sure by the end whether ‘dirty’ is meant to refer to sex or murder, men or women, the murderer in the act of killing or the dead bodies of the victims. Just as killing can be either ‘dirty work’ or a cleaning mission depending on who you see as being on the right side of the law and upholding social order and social values, so male and female bodies are never inherently ‘dirty’, although can be made to seem as such depending on who defines the social boundary that separates the ‘normal’ from the ‘other’. It is in the Symbolic Order that the social codes of cleanliness and bodily boundaries are established (Vice, p.163), which would help explain Zahavi’s recourse to the abject and semiotic to undermine these conventions, even if she does stress throughout that women need to negotiate with the Symbolic too.

As I have argued, the dynamic between masculine and feminine, the Symbolic and the semiotic, runs through the noir thrillers analysed here as a major theme. Rather than just being one facet among others in the texts, though, I hope this last reading in particular shows how what may appear at first to be a purely psychoanalytic reading is actually inseparably intertwined with the social and political dimensions of noir writing. Issues of gender in these novels seem to underpin, rather than merely supplement, the themes of law and transgression, power and vulnerability, and the questioning and destabilising / re-establishing of social values that are intrinsic to the genre of noir.

Copyright © 2002 Naomi King


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Muller, John P., Beyond the Psychoanalytic Dyad (London and New York: Routledge, 1996)
Munt, Sally R., Murder By the Book: Feminism and the Crime Novel (London: Routledge, 1994)
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan, ed’s, Literary Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998)
Vice, Sue, Introducing Bakhtin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997)
Zahavi, Helen, Dirty Weekend (London: Flamingo, 1992)
Zizek, Slavoj, ed, Everything You Wanted To Know About Lacan But Were Afraid To Ask Hitchcock(London: Verso, 1992)
Zizek, Slavoj, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991)
Zizek, Slavoj, The Zizek Reader, ed. by Elizabeth and Edmond Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999)
Seminar notes and handouts for Dr. Lee Horsley’s ‘The Noir Thriller’ course, MA in Contemporary Literary Studies, Lancaster University.