‘After Dead Souls’: Poetry, noir and the American city in Robin Robertson’s ‘The Long Take’
Where O America are you
going in your glorious
down the highway
toward what crash
in the deep canyon
of the Western Rockies,
or racing the sunset
over Golden Gate
toward what wild city
jumping with jazz
on the Pacific Ocean!
— Allen Ginsberg, “After Dead Souls”
You can learn a lot about “The Long Take” by studying its cover art. A grey and obscure photograph, in it a foggy night scene features a pair of roads sloping upward through lighted tunnels. Shadows play across the foreground and recede into the distance. Above, on a hill, elegant 1940s and ‘50s cars are lined up in a neat little row, at first unnoticed in the dark atmosphere but gradually coming to take on an outsized presence. Off-center, to the left, a solitary figure of a man stands on the medium, frozen in the act of lighting a cigarette under a burnt-out street lamp, silhouetted against the bright interior of the tunnel behind. As far as one can tell, he is completely, utterly, alone.
It’s a classic film noir shot.
Robin Robertson’s Man Booker-shortlisted “noir narrative” is difficult to pin down. At once it’s a novel and an extended narrative poem (or, in some tellings, an “epic,” whatever that means in our post-classical age). It’s simultaneously a nostalgic homage to and a critique of the film noir genre. It both romanticizes and recoils from a certain mid-century manner of portraying the world. Whenever you try to put your finger on exactly what it’s trying to say about any particular theme it seems to slip just out of your reach, leaving little more than a general impression and a sense of having been in the presence of something meaningful. This is both frustrating and enticing, and it’s only at the end of the book that things start to come together in such a way that you can say, “right, this is what it’s about.”
What it’s about is The City. And the traumas of war, and the isolating nature of pain, and homelessness and cars and ingratitude. But mostly The City.
There’s a moment, not too far into the story, when the protagonist, Walker — a returned and traumatized World War II veteran from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders — is interviewing for a job at the Los Angeles Press, making the case for why he’s a worthwhile person to take on.
“‘I’m interested in films and jazz. Cities,’
‘Yes. American cities.’ /
‘What about American cities?’/
‘How they fail.’”
This essentially sums-up Robertson’s own preoccupation in this book, which, more than anything, is about the particular way in which Los Angeles — the seat of glamorous Hollywood, the wide-open Western automotive paradise and the American Dream — functions as the god who failed. Though Walker alights briefly upon New York and San Francisco, it’s here, in the sprawling Southern California megalopolis that’s played host to so many noir films, that Walker carves out a place for himself in the bleak space of his postwar existence. Against the monochromatic smear of its grey and black palette, Los Angeles is already, in its relative infancy, showing the signs of corruption creeping up through the sun-cracked concrete.
Throughout the book abides this pervasive feeling that there’s something rotten at the core of America, a slow putrefaction eating away at its body, “an infestation, a carcinoma.” And postwar L.A. is the perfect setting to explore it, where it seems like the seed of this creeping disease is already germinating. After all, L.A. is only a stone’s throw away from the same Orange County that gave us then-congressman Richard Nixon, who peripherally appears in the book in his old trappings of a cold warrior, smiting Alger Hiss from the heights of his HUAC seat — and if America’s mid-century decay has an avatar, Tricky Dick is as good a candidate as any other.
The city, Robertson says, is “not like in the movies.” Homelessness among the veteran community is rampant, as they’re forgotten by a public and a ruling class only concerned with the newest automobile and the fastest quarterly growth. City Hall, like a “whited sepulchre,” presides over the destitute and impoverished as they scrape by day-by-day — as all the while the mayor’s office negotiates deals with developers with an eye towards parking lots. Freeways crop up throughout neighborhoods, and — more like tourniquets than the the oft-touted arteries of commerce and culture — they partition off the disempowered residents into tiny enclaves, their communities broken, left to leave or to wither away at their own pace.
“People come to Los Angeles for refuge, sanctuary,” Robertson says. “But what they get / Is this massed, mechanized population moving in a confined space… a ballet of battle without the guns.”
And battle, or the memory of battle, takes a central role in the book. Walker, like many classic noir protagonists, is tortured by his past. But, unlike these protagonists he doesn’t have that exact sort of impenetrable toughness. Walker isn’t hard boiled. He’s just broken. He isn’t a Sam Spade. He’s a Nick Adams. We learn of the terrible things that were done to him in the war, and the terrible things he did.
But the most powerful moment of the book comes near the end, when the city and the war collide, memories of D-Day and the reality of the destruction of Walker’s L.A. neighborhood intersect, blending together in a seamless and masterly sequence that conveys not only the horrific violence of the war but also the inherent violence of urban development and the displacement of people, who become “bordered and policed by concrete” for nothing more than “the cult of the car.” It’s here, of all places, in the often-mundane observation that creation frequently leaves a wake of destruction, that the poem picks up poignancy. And it’s here that we start to realize what this whole long take is all about.