Like culture or a chronic condition, noir is a form of being in the world. Easily mistaken for the symptoms of its golden age—a particular black and white era in the imagination, a type of dress, a style of prose—noir is, nevertheless, loyal to none of that. Noir is a persistent suspicion, good at getting in to just about everything. Once inside, it sets to work, changing things—rearranging mental furniture and going monochromatic on the walls till all thoughts feng shui back to the same basic assumption: things are not what they appear.
Steph Cha’s Follow Her Home is a case of noir becoming terminal. It starts innocently enough. The novel’s protagonist Juniper Song, used to like to stay up late reading Raymond Chandler– so much so that she ruined her eyes doing it. The exploits of Phillip Marlowe served as her initiation, by proxy, into an underground world as remote from her nearly blemish-free child and young adulthood as any thing of fantasy could be. Nearly because she lost her father at a young age, before he could become a memory that would haunt her, but whose absence took on a presence when she recognized in Marlowe the figure of a father of the spiritual variety—someone to emulate.
By the time the events of Follow Her Home begin, Marlowe’s influence has trailed Juniper into her late twenties where she lives the ethereal life of an underemployed high-achiever on the drift. A first generation Korean-American with a degree from Yale, Juniper makes ends meet tutoring part time in Los Angeles, living a solitary life in a small, La Brea apartment—not unhappy, but not quite content—voraciously reading bleak detective tales to salve a trauma grimmer and more recent than the untimely demise of her unremembered father. When her old college friend Luke invites Juniper over, ostensibly for an apartment warming party at his posh new Hancock Park pad in a building called “The Marlowe,” only to reveal that he’d like her to snoop confidentially on Lori, another party guest who Luke believes may be secretly seeing his high-powered and unhappily married lawyer father, Juniper—like the soft-boiled wannabe she is—agrees.
The plot, as tends to happen, thickens, details of the incipient case growing more personal as its stakes grow more dire. Threats are made, the past is dredged up, beatings occur and death makes an appearance or two. What at first seemed certain to spoil as a playfully soft-boiled, maybe even meta-fictive romp in the the tall shadow of L.A’s long noir legacy, is revealed by Follow Her Home’s end to have been the thing itself all along—the sort of hardboiled noir that obsessed Juniper through her teens and clearly inspired Follow Her Home.
This tension, between what is and what seems to be, is what makes Follow Her Home true noir and gives it its subversive strength. Partly, this subversion is carried out in the details of character and setting and partly in the language itself. Juniper’s little slice of contemporary Los Angeles is, on the surface, a deceptively clean and cheerful place. Juniper and her friends are young, optimistic, highly educated people with type A personalities who talk like they’re on television and, all the eddying motions of quarter-life crises aside, seem destined for wealth and success. As the case develops into something more sinister and dire (and bloody) by the page however, that cheer, if not entirely demolished, is increasingly revealed for the veneer that it is; the optimism and chattiness of its upstanding young cast (and the disbelief, even denial with which they confront tragedy) functions of the privilege at the heart of their naiveté. For Juniper, the case turns from an excuse to act out her adolescent fantasy of playing the private eye, into a bid for redemption. Both herself for the role she played in a past trauma which serves as Follow Her Home’s hidden fulcrum and Lori, the novel’s version of the femme fatale—another young, first generation Korean, brokered by her mother as a fetish commodity to white men over twice her age.
Occupying an odd territory somewhere between tongue-in cheek pastiche, earnest homage and plain utility, Follow Her Home’s prose style complicates matters further. Much more than the transparent nods, nudges and winks to symptoms of the cannon that play out on the diegetic level—the name of Luke’s building, a mysterious hit man who calls himself “Humphrey Bogart,” our hero’s chain smoking and penchant for rotary phones—Juniper’s narration reflects a sensibility that is vitally noir, it’s self-referentiality a symptom of its contemporary flavor.
While Juniper’s tendency to ape the simile-rich argot of Chandler’s Marlowe can result in some offbeat lines such as “He was sitting with an ankle resting on the opposite knee, loafered foot, rotating slow and smug as a rotisserie chicken” there is pathos and humor in the way Juniper gets Chandler’s rhythms right, even as she doesn’t quite deliver on the diction. She’s a fan after all, not a pro.
In spite (or perhaps because) of its jarring contrasts, Follow Her Home is a subtly effective book that takes noir into an intriguing new realm. More than a staging ground for one-liners both credible and cringe inducing, noir for Juniper (and Cha) is about where you’re going, and Follow Her Home in the grand tradition, heads ultimately where it has to—into the dark machinery that drives the hidden economies of desire, where, Juniper learns, danger and death, if not always glory, really do lurk, eager to disabuse the rubes of their footing on the thin scrim of a supposedly stable world.
Seth Blake is a writer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has appeared most recently in [out of nothing], nat brut., and trop where he is a contributing editor.