Choose Your Own Advent, Day 5: The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. CainChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Postman Always Rings Twice
Author: James M. Cain
Year: 1934

When I think about The Postman Always Rings Twice, one word comes to mind: bleak.

That’s for good reason, and it’s therefore somewhat remarkable that I enjoy the novel as much as I do.

I’m not really sure why that is. “Bleak” and I don’t get along all that well, at least not when it comes to literature. I’m much more forgiving of it in passive media, such as film and music. I can even (usually) handle it in video games, where it’s often something of a selling point.

In novels, though, it’s a bit different. Novels engage the mind in a completely unique way. The work of translation, of visualization, of narrative identification, all takes place within the mind. Novels tap directly into your center of empathy. Your brain decodes them in a way that only your brain can, and, if the writing is effective, it can make you, as a reader, feel things more potently than even real life can.

That’s why “bleak” is difficult to process as a reader. It’s why I skip many books. However well they’re written, however impressive or clever their narratives, however memorable a bleak novel might be…is it really worth putting your mind through that? Transporting it to and forcing it to endure a small universe of relentless, tormenting darkness? I’m not even speaking about horror; horror can operate at a remove, wherein there’s a certain thrill to the gore and the violence. No…I’m speaking expressly about bleakness. Pure, potent bleakness that surrounds, envelops, weighs upon the reader.

Horror can be fun. Bleakness doesn’t allow even that much.

I remember Last Exit to Brooklyn feeling very bleak. In fact, it took me two attempts to even finish it. I remember Push being so bleak I couldn’t finish it. The same applies to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; however much I enjoy Murakami, I made it a bit more than halfway through that book and simply couldn’t keep reading. It filled me with such despair that I couldn’t operate.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a different kind of bleak than those novels, but I wouldn’t say that it’s any less bleak.

It’s relentless. It’s tragic. Neither of its two main characters (and co-conspirators) have any redeeming characteristics…unless you count good looks, which, the novel makes clear, you emphatically should not.

It’s the story of Frank Chambers, a conman who identifies an easy mark in a Greek restaurateur who was dumb enough to reach out to what seemed like a man in need. Frank picks up on a familiar capacity for selfishness and mischief on the part of the Greek’s glamorous wife Cora, and before long they scheme to murder the man for his insurance money.

They carry out their plan.

It fails, and they have every opportunity to reconsider their choice.

Needless to say, they do not. They carry out a second plan, and it succeeds. Without the Greek left to betray, they soon turn on each other.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is structured something like a tragic romance. Frank and Cora are forbidden from love, and so they topple the obstacles, one by one, that stand between them. The only problem is that they’re awful human beings, rotten to the bone, and, ultimately, they don’t like each other any more than they like anyone else. Which is part of what makes the novel so bleak; there’s no hope for a happy ending, because neither of the main characters wants a happy ending. They delight in being irredeemable. That’s who they are. And though they’d never admit or recognize that fact, that’s the only way they’re comfortable.

The one character in the novel who seems to at least have the capacity for good is their victim, several times over. Frank and Cora aren’t forces of evil; they’re forces of bleakness.

I first experienced the story in the largely faithful (the only time The Postman Always Rings Twice and faithfulness can go together) 1946 film version, starring John Garfield and Lana Turner. I remember being impressed with how bleak and daringly unromantic it was, but it’s got nothing on the source material.

As an author, James M. Cain wasn’t subject to the same necessary censorship that Tay Garnett was as a director. And I will say right now that Garnett got away with much more than you might have expected in mid-40s Hollywood. But Cain can go further, and he does. And it’s not just that he can present more of the sex and violence…it’s the way in which he presents them. The way in which it isn’t glorified at all. The way in which it’s described so bluntly that it’s impossible to be seduced by it.

Frank and Cora have a lot of sex. They use almost every free moment to have sex. We’re privy to a lot of it…and yet, it’s not a turn on. It’s abusive. It’s a coupling free of love, romance, or even respect. It’s often bloody. It’s always cruel. Each time these two characters come together, we’re reminded of how important it should be to keep them apart. They are awful to each other, and they relish their awfulness.

It’s not two characters who are in mutual agreement about rough sex. It’s two characters who want to hurt each other, and who are only happy when they push each other too far, beyond their realm of comfort, beyond even the basic decency of treatment they should be able to expect as human beings.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a sad story of inhuman, remorseless ugliness. It’s a tale that’s not only without a hero; it’s a tale that doesn’t deserve one.

And yet…I can read it. It’s bleak, but it’s a bleak I can go along with. Cain is effective at defining these characters as deeply monstrous, but he also–perhaps even by focusing in so tightly on that monstrousness–somehow reminds us there is good in the world.

Just not here.

The Postman Always Rings Twice thrusts us into a vacuum of hopelessness, but it defines it so well that we know that, beyond the boundaries, something good is happening. Somewhere.

Frank and Cora entangle one another in their own self-perpetuating miseries, and that’s where the entirety of the novel takes place.

Any other household in the world is bound to be better than this. And that, in its own bleak way, is the novel’s ultimate reassurance.