...the novel’s clout comes to rest on how Box manages his emotions once he arrives in Evelyn’s life, as Trotter’s pastiche edges into more painful exploration of male violence and its aftermath. You see what he’s up to – questioning noir motifs rather than just rehearsing them – but can’t help feeling the novel gets into waters that are too deep and too murky for the abrupt resolution to be persuasive. Still, for three-quarters of the novel, Muscle is some high-wire act, channelling Samuel Beckett as well as Dashiell Hammett, with a dash of quantum mechanics to boot.
Alan Trotter’s impressive debut, Muscle, is very much in this form, being part Raymond Chandler and part Italo Calvino. It is a novel of strange ennui and sudden horror, of stories within stories within stories, of femmes fatales and hard men... None of the pyrotechnics mean much without a core of seriousness, and Trotter has that. This is a novel that asks “Can I undo what I have done?”, “What might I become?”... He is an author whom, like a tail in a trilby, I shall be keeping an eye on.
When a writer enters this literary territory, they are instantly going toe-to-toe with Raymond Chandler. You need strength, then technique, but you also need grace. The first part of the noir sentence is easy enough to pull off: it gets action done minimally but elegantly. It’s the set-up punch: “His moustache twitched …” Any writer can write that. But then you get to the pivotal word “like”. After this, you’re on your own. You have to deliver the follow-through. Trotter’s moustache-twitching sentence continues, “… like a car veering into oncoming traffic”. It’s balanced, light on its toes – a sweet punch. Chandler might win on points, but this fight could go the distance.
The dialogue and the prose in Muscle flit effortlessly around the whole range of its sources and influences. Its prose is sullen, muzzy, droop-lidded. Some of it reads like a David Mamet play; there are undercurrents of Damon Runyon. There are utterances recognizable as pure Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But Muscle’s inner logic, though highly poetic, is far superior to the junk in which it finds its origins... This is a remarkable, radical, historical novel. It’s as if everything bad about the 1940s and 50s are still circling the earth, another planet. You are practically strapped into a broken chair in a smoky, dingy room and forced to watch a writer at play, to watch his imagination, and what imaginations he gives his characters, zoom.
Muscle reads like a tragi-comic mash-up of Elmore Leonard and Samuel Beckett, with more than a dash of Tarantino for added zing. Trotter delights in the language of noir fiction — one minor character has ‘a nose that had been broken so many times it lay flat on his face like roadkill’; it’s a typical throwaway line, and a pleasure to read. Not everyone will relish the novel’s laboriously contrived construction, with its welter of nested, genre-fluid narratives and its dreamlike atmosphere. But Trotter is undoubtedly a writer to watch.