Denis Johnson’s ‘Nobody Move’: brutally noir


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Since June, Jacket Copy has been hosting an ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson’s noir serial ‘Nobody Move,’ which is being published in four parts in Playboy magazine. Part 3 has just hit the stands; Tod Goldberg adds his thoughts.

First, I have to agree with David: This is the best installment of the series. I feel Johnson hitting his stride here — he’s set his characters into motion in the previous sections, set up the action, and now here, he’s dealing with the tangible consequences, and it really clips along. The dialogue is sharp, the scenes are all moving toward conflict and away from banter, and you can really see that things are going to fall apart and fall apart in magnificent fashion. Plus, any time someone gets hit in the head with a shovel after digging his lovers’ grave, well, color me smitten. There are twists and turns and ramifications in this section that don’t end up in murder — well, apart from the demise of Capra — but which is no less brutal. What I also like is that when people get hurt in this story, they stay hurt. No one is superhuman; they continue to suffer their physical pain.


As for Carolyn’s question, I don’t think there are rules per se. I mean, certainly, there’s often a woman involved, and money, and pride, and stupidity, but I think that’s true for most novels and stories. I went out the other night with a friend who is a DA in Los Angeles, prosecuting gang murders and the like, and I asked him whether he thought the people killing one another on the streets were evil or stupid, and he said he generally thought they were stupid, that they didn’t interpret the world outside the three miles around their neighborhood, didn’t realize that in other places, other settings, you didn’t shoot your best friend in the face over a dice game, thought that if you took these guys out of their world and put them somewhere else that they’d adapt and change and learn the new rules of life, because they’d want to be respected in that world, too, and respect in that world means something different.

I think, in a way, it’s a similar thing: You write a noir story and you’re placing people in a particular setting where certain behavior is expected of the people. In ‘Nobody Move,’ in a world filled with criminals, we expect certain things to happen: sudden violence often followed by sudden sex and a healthy dose of the absurd. Why the absurd? Because if you dealt with things too directly, too clinically, it would be impossible to feel empathy toward the characters. You might feel sympathy, which I think makes the reader pity a character, but the absurd allows for us to look at the particular situation and laugh a little. But if this were your life, or the life of your friend or someone you loved, this would be the most horrific story ever, the worst experience of an entire life, but rendered as noir, it’s stylized in such a way that we can laugh at it a bit. So maybe that’s the one rule Johnson adheres to: He allows us to disassociate from reality and shows us bad people doing bad things to worse people. And here, in this installment, he does it better than most.

— Tod Goldberg

Photo by tanakawho via Flickr