The Genre Always Wins

Daniel Davis Wood reviews Alan Trotter’s Muscle

Alan Trotter, Muscle.
Faber and Faber, £10.00.
Buy direct from the publisher.

One of the main characters in Alan Trotter’s Muscle is called ______. Quirky? Cute? Clever — or too clever by half? Your instinctive response to that name will tell you a lot about whether or not you’re ready for Muscle. Surely, though, at the very least, it’s worthwhile being curious about where a novel with a character called ______ might be willing to go.

Muscle is the sort of book you’d get if you threw a dozen editions of Black Mask into a shredder, along with one or two copies of Amazing Stories, and then tried to stick all the tattered lines together in a coherent way. It tells the story of two goons, two wannabe heavies prone to comic mishaps, named ______ and Box. Box arrives one day in an unfamiliar city — somewhere in America, sometime mid-twentieth century — and strikes up a partnership with ______ after ______ is literally thrown from a car to land at Box’s feet. The duo is odd from the get-go: ______ insists that he can only familiarise himself with a new city by surveying it from the top of a rollercoaster, even though funfair rides make him sick, so Box accompanies him to the nearest theme park and gives him a shoulder to lean on when the queasiness strikes. Then they set off in search of work, which isn’t easy to do when you’re in the industry of beating up people on behalf of mobsters, and so, not really knowing where to begin, Box and ______ basically go panhandling for jobs, door to door, seeing if any random cityfolk are looking to contract out a desire for vengeance.

Trotter’s setup is a model example of how to strike a balance between two disjunctive tones; the absurdity of the premise is amplified through dashes of deadpan humour but also reined in by outbreaks of sudden, visceral brutality. At one point early in Muscle, Box and ______ break into an unfamiliar flat and are forced to hide when the tenant, their target, arrives home without warning. As it happens, the only hiding place they can find is one more befitting a cartoon, behind some curtains which don’t go all the way to the floor. Box, narrating the incident, quips: “I was a big dumb ghost in a sheet, with a smaller ghost hiding in his skirts.” But this incident comes off the back of a sequence that shows us just how cold Box and ______ can be when meting out their brand of justice: “I watched through the door”, Box recalls, “as one of ______’s hands slipped across the large, wet face of the clockmaker and the other drove short punches with the small knife through straining waistcoat fabric, which striped with blood.” And occasionally, rather than simply alternating between humour and brutality, tempering the absurdity by seesawing from one to the other, Trotter collides them in lively, unexpected ways. In one shocking scene, as Box watches ______ literally sink his teeth into one of their victims, his narration renders it matter-of-factly:

There was blood around his mouth but I couldn’t see where he’d been biting the smaller man. He often bit. Once, among our hand-breaking, I had seen him bite through a man’s cheek and pull out one of his teeth with his own. The only explanation he’d given was to say that it was already loose.

In passages like those, you’ll get a taste of the best thing about Muscle: Trotter’s ability to make a sumptuous feast out of the pared-down, laconic language of pulp noir and hardboiled detective novels. With Box as the narrator of most of Muscle, a lush lexicon brings novelty to terse, clipped sentences. A victim isn’t merely a victim; he’s a “sap”. Box and ______ don’t wear hats; they wear “homburgs”. A private investigator is a “shamus”. A truncheon is a “blackjack”. A bill of paper money is a “fin”. When someone does someone else a good turn, it’s said that this is “white of him”. Is everything settled? Has everyone calmed down? “Things are jake between us”: that’s what Box would say.

More importantly, this diction allows Trotter to give his narrator a sensibility — unsentimental but not jaded, poetic but not lyrical — which colours the way he sees other people, notices their distinguishing features, and finds words to describe them. One man he meets “had a nose that had been broken so many times it lay flat on his face like roadkill”, and, in private, he even refers to this man as “Roadkill”. Another man “had memorable ears, ears like a mudslide: I’d seen him box once.” When a sap cuffed to a chair regains consciousness after a beating, Box says that “[the man’s] head lolled side to side and his mouth began chewing on vowels”. Most vividly, a key character, a young man named Holcomb, is introduced as “the sort that holds a cigarette only in ways that don’t quite make sense, like they’ve over-thought the whole exercise and now worry it won’t be impressive enough just to hold a cigarette.” That’s a beautiful example of reciprocal characterisation, through which Box’s description of Holcomb cuts to the core of both Holcomb and Box himself. Holcomb is a man of careful pretence, with a better-than-average poker face, but Box is a keen observer of people with a better-than-average eye for what they’re trying to conceal, and so, when the two of them sit down to actually play a game of poker, Box is able to read Holcomb’s losses even though the younger man’s expression betrays no hint of his misfortune: “You could have beaten him at cards dead drunk in a dark room”, he says, “so long as you had a protractor to take the angle of his spine.”

By now you’ve probably got the sense that Muscle is a rollicking good time, and you’d be right — up to a point. It is the language, above all, that animates Trotter’s novel, and not only the language of Box’s narration but also the dialogue of other characters who repurpose the kitschy ease of pulp noir. A woman who looks like a potential femme fatale, for instance, is explicitly designated as a generic type, as “the love interest” of a private investigator. And the shamus, for his part, speaks like the ideal of the hardboiled hero, telling his “love interest” not to worry, calling her “kid”, and issuing Box and ______ with a warning that properly belongs in a speech balloon from a comic book: “You two so much as wag your tails too hard and there’s lead coming back through this door for you to fetch.” But then, as will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to read a copy of Black Mask from cover to cover, there’s only so much buoyancy that a story can take from even this entertaining language, and beyond that point there’s a real struggle for fresh air.

Here’s the lesson I take away from Muscle: the genre always wins. No, Muscle doesn’t aim to be a work of genre fiction. It has a postmodern twist to it — more than one, actually — but then again, it’s not exactly a postmodern revision of the noir genre either. From the postmodern Westerns of Ishmael Reed and Thomas Berger to the lavish steampunk of Thomas Pynchon, most revisionary novels pick a genre to jump into and either ridicule or remix its conventions. More sober and serious writers might tone down the lampooning, reinvigorating moribund genres by finding new depths of meaning in their tropes, but the point is much the same. Ultimately, genres are agglomerations of conventional narrative manoeuvres and stylistic tendencies, and revisionary novels of the postmodern variety basically function by adopting genre conventions — not shrugging them off — and then repurposing them. What repurposing requires, however, is a good dose of scepticism on the part of the author, scepticism towards the norms of their genre of choice, even if it is paired up with an equal dose of affection. In Muscle, however, there’s not much scepticism to be found. In fact, at least a couple of elements of the novel seem designed to fill the lack caused by its absence.

One of those elements is an interweaving of the story of Box and ______ with several types of metatextual criticism. Holcomb, it transpires, is a writer of pulp science fiction. In one of his introductory scenes, he discourses at length on the narrative conventions of fairy tales, embarking on a four-page monologue about various permutations of the Red Riding Hood story and the ethical assumptions of the different ways in which the girl, the grandmother, and the wolf have been characterised. In later scenes, Box has the opportunity to read some of Holcomb’s short stories, and, in the novel’s most masterfully orchestrated sequence, the philosophical consequences of these stories are explored at such length that the conventions of pulp sci-fi begin to colonise the hardboiled narrative. And all of this is broken up by short interludes from an entirely different time and place, a fragmentary account of two men, also goons, who throw another man from a moving train. These mysterious figures don’t muck about with genre conventions quite as explicitly as Holcomb, but they do engage in a stilted, pseudo-profound theoretical dialogue which calls into question basic concepts of storytelling such as narrative arc and character motivation:

“So?” says Charles. “Why did we throw him from the train?”

“Exactly what I mean,” says Hector. “We could stay here and talk until you’d smoked me out of cigarettes and we’d still not have half an answer. There’s no money to connect us to the man, and no grudge. … Unreason and unpredictability are their own kinds of attack on society, which can only organise itself in response to the predictable. Without predictability, the best it can do is act randomly, and random actions are not a society at all. So in the face of aggression and unpredictability, in self-preservation, it would have to condemn us. However, it’s absolutely clear that it will never have the opportunity: we will never be held to any account for what we have done.”

But while all of these metatextual strains do indeed allow Muscle to take a critical approach to its genre conventions, the criticism remains a dispassionate, coldly intellectual exercise, without the scepticism to let Trotter run wild with his iconoclastic treatment of genre. They amount to conceptual devices that enable Trotter to give airtime to some complicating factors without then applying the complications to his own work. They are the highlights of Muscle, but they aren’t integrated into the main narrative and they don’t throw it off its axis as they have the potential to do. Many of the events, and most of the drama, still spring from the setup of the first few pages, as Box and ______’s search for work embroils them in a turf war between two crime bosses, Danskin and Jarecki, and another plot involving a private dick named Mike Swagger.

This is a problem, especially for readers who are receptive to the way the novel toys with the conventions of its genre. After all, if you’re a reader engaged by playfulness with genre, how likely are you to invest deeply in a novel’s fidelity to the rules? Not very. There’s real difficulty in simultaneously appreciating a narrative that trashes conventions and caring about its twists and turns, its resolution. And it’s hard to shake the suspicion that Trotter has a nagging awareness of this difficulty, because it feels like part of the justification for the interludes featuring Charles and Hector: if some readers aren’t attuned to the suspense of the drama involving Box and ______, maybe there’s compensation for them in the structural suspense of wondering how the interludes will dovetail with the rest of the novel. Ultimately, though, Muscle yields to the demands that any invocation of genre conventions places upon a narrative: that’s the price to be paid for toying with conventions joyfully, affectionately, rather than with scepticism. Ironically, then, the very affection for pulp noir that supercharges Trotter’s prose is also what constrains his novel’s ability to go further than paying lip service to the subversion of conventions. Loose threads are tied up, parallel narratives are brought together, and, justly or unjustly, characters meet their fates. Muscle starts off as a novel that shares the bones of pulp noir but tries to flesh out the genre in a fresh and challenging way. It ends up as a novel whose bones have become an exoskeleton, muffling its anarchic voice and coercing it into obeisance to a predetermined form.

There’s no denying Trotter’s talents. It takes skill to manipulate language the way he does in Muscle, to strike a range of registers and pivot from one to another. It takes keen attention to one’s choice of words, to the acoustics, to the pace of the prose. These capabilities are hard-won, and together with the ambition on display in these pages they make Muscle an impressive début. But they also make it a début that impresses as much through what it promises from future work as through what it finally delivers. Best to say what this feels like in the novel’s own lingua franca, the language of violence. It conveys the sense that Trotter is a heavyweight who ended up pulling his punches in this fight, or swinging with one hand tied behind his back. It also makes one eager to see what he can do when he really lets himself go berserk and starts to land his blows.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.