As someone who’s doing a PhD on Australian noir fiction, I’d be the first to tell you there hasn’t been a hell of a lot of it around. When I started my research a few years ago I identified roughly seven novels, all wildly different in character, setting, and even genre, most of which had never been described as noir. They were scattered throughout the last five decades, from Kenneth Cooke’s Wake in Fright (1961) to Dorothy Porter’s Monkey’s Mask (1994) and more recently Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (2013). As the t-shirt below suggests, noir is a contested term.
I’m pretty fond of definitions such as ‘a nightmare narrated by a drunk’ and ‘you’re fucked on page one and then it gets worse’ but the academic definition I love best is Christopher Breu’s, who argues that noir is a ‘negative deformation’ of a number of different genres that ‘reworks their positive or utopian content into self-cancelling allegories of failure and futility.’ It totally fits. Wake in Fright is a negative deformation of the coming of age story, Monkey’s Mask of the hard-boiled private eye, and Burial Rites of the historical fiction novel.
Luckily, the Australian noir scene has started to flourish recently, and Iain Ryan has a lot to do with it, having released 5 novels in the last 2 years.
I’m in awe as I happen to be the slowest writer on the planet, as anyone who’s been waiting for my next book will attest.
Iain’s latest novel, The Student, is set in Gatton, Queensland, in 1994 and the protagonist is Nate, business student and pot dealer. In true noir fashion Nate is fucked on page one, and things go downhill from there. It’s September and the weed supply is drying up.
‘-All I have is grief. There hasn’t been a bud in a fortnight.’
Nate’s friend and supplier Jesse has gone missing, owing drugs and money to a bikie gang. The bikers bash Nate and heavy him to come up with either Jesse, the money or the gear, so Nate starts his own shambling, drug-fucked investigation around the Gatton campus and up to Toowoomba, tangling with redneck agriculture students, share house stoners and gun-toting chicks. At the same time, a missing local girl is found murdered and you just know Nate’s search and the murder are going to intersect.
I was really looking forward to The Student, because as much as I love Iain’s previous novels about cops and crims, what really floats my boat is the kind of noir that’s about ‘ordinary’ folks who get caught up in shit with NO WAY OUT. And while some Goodreads reviewers might disagree (Carol wrote ‘I do hope this is not a realistic portrayal of university life in the 1990’s’ which made me roll about laughing) Nate seems like an ordinary mid-nineties uni student to me - drinking goon, punching cones, listening to Soundgarden and selling dacca on the side. Now that I think about it, Nate may have been my actual boyfriend in the nineties.
I stupidly started reading the book backstage at the ICN All Female Classic bodybuilding competition, and got so caught up I nearly missed my call out on stage.
Iain Ryan does a lot of things well – dialogue, setting, black humour, fucked-up-but-completely-realistic characters and that classic descent-into-hell plot, but he’s a master of pace. I tore through this book in a couple of hours, easy.
The Student features all the things I love to read about: sex, drugs, violence and suitcases stuffed with VHS recordings of amateur porn. It also has something else I like about noir but have a hard time describing: a kind of wild, manic energy and intensity that makes your heart pound and makes you feel like you’re trapped in a fever dream, complicit in all the corruption and feeling kind of…depraved. Which I guess is the point. As Iain said at his book launch:
‘I don’t think I’m done (writing) until I feel a little bit of shame. I’m not joking.’
Iain also talked with Andrew Nette about his writing process (he apparently pumped the whole thing out one summer, damn his fast-writin’ ways) and his influences, in particular James Ellroy. He went so far as to reveal that he saw himself as Ellroy’s own personal Buffalo Bill (you know the serial killer from Silence of the Lambs?) cutting up Ellroy’s novels and dancing luridly around in them. I immediately pictured Iain doing this, and will never be able to get the image out of my mind.
While there are thematic similarities with Ellroy’s writing, Iain’s voice and style are all his own and the book is distinctly Australian. The Student is dark, dangerous, exciting Australian noir –a negative deformation of the Campus novel, I reckon, and I’m totally going to study the shit out of it for my PhD.
You can get all of Iain's books HERE and The Student is available at bookshops now.