On Friday, I introduced you to David Anthony's Something for Nothing, which asks just how far family man Martin Anderson will go to maintain his extravagant lifestyle. As I mentioned earlier, one of the intriguing aspects about David's debut novel is that it seems to defy categorization.
I hope you took the time to watch the video interview (put together by Algonquin Books) I posted last week, in which David introduces his novel and discusses the bag-of-money concept. Today, David is back to talk to us about about blending genres.
Mixing Genres: The Suburban Noir
Someone asked me recently about the genre of my novel, Something for Nothing. "I mean, is it a thriller?" she asked. "Or a domestic kind of thing?"Thanks so much, David; I love the term suburban noir. It's the perfect descriptor of the mix of thriller and mystery, humor and action, domestic and underworld that readers will find in Something for Nothing.
It was the question I had both hoped for and feared. Hoped for because I think my book is actually an interesting blend of these two genres. Feared because I know that this sounds like a bit of a cop-out. Or, worse, as if I'm just indecisive.
As best I can remember, my answer to this question began with a caveat: I didn't start out with any sort of formula in mind. Instead, I just had a place (northern California), a time (1974, the height of the Arab oil embargo), and a situation (a protagonist, Martin Anderson, owns a small craft airplane business and has fallen into serious debt and so decides to accept an offer to fly heroin up from Mexico in order to preserve his lavish suburban lifestyle—one that includes race horses, a deep-sea fishing boat, and a cabin in Tahoe).
But I also explained that although the book revolves around the heroin trade (with several trips back and forth from the San Francisco Bay Area to Ensenada, Mexico), this really isn't a white-middle-class version of The Wire. No seedy heroin dens or scary needles here. Instead, Martin really only takes a tentative step or two over the edge of his safe suburban cordon sanitaire and into the criminal nether world. And this is by design, because in fact it's the borderland between these two spheres that I'm interested in. Or rather, what I'm really focused on is the emotional fallout (the anxiety) that comes from inhabiting this unstable borderland.
My term for the genre that best depicts this liminal space is suburban noir. And I think that this is the genre that best links the thriller and the domestic novel. As I said, I didn't set out to write within a specific genre, but as I started creating Martin's response to his situation, I realized that I had placed him in a noir-like space, one where the boundary between middle-class security and criminal danger has become porous. Think for example of the William Macey character in Fargo, the Fred MacMurray character in Double Indemnity, or the Janet Leigh character in Psycho. One minute their lives are secure if a bit mundane and perhaps disappointing; but then they step over the invisible dividing line, and they're in emotional freefall.
I should add, though, that this space is also fun—certainly for me as a writer, but also, hopefully, for readers. Because the anxious clashes between these worlds is both titillating and, to my mind anyway, the source for often comic tension. On the one hand, this stems from the oddness and incongruity of Martin's encounters with the denizens of the drug world and a police detective that enters the picture. But it also derives from his increasingly odd behavior while at home in the suburbs. Whether sneaking into people's homes and snooping around, lying to his wife about what he's been up to, or burying money in the neighborhood orchard, Martin's erratic behavior is, I think, the mark of his increasing hysteria. And again, this unsettled and sometimes comic quality is what accompanies Martin's location between cultural spaces (middle class and criminal) and genres (thriller and domestic novel).
Or at least that's what I'm hoping for—a mix of the pleasantly suspenseful and the darkly but awkwardly comic, both of which expose the familiar locale of the suburbs for what they are: a pretend space teetering nervously on the edge of the very things they're designed to hold at bay. This is how the suburban noir works, and hopefully it's what readers will find and enjoy in the book.
So to answer the usefully difficult question about the genre of my novel: It's neither a thriller nor a domestic novel. In fact, it's both.
For more about David's novel be sure to check out the Imprint Friday post that spotlights this terrific debut.
Algonquin Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Executive Editor Chuck Adams's introductory letter, posted here on January 7, 2011.