Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Goodbyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Raymond Chandler
There is a moment in the 1994 movie Speed which suddenly transforms the movie from a good action movie into an exhilarating thrill ride: it is the moment when the bus goes over 50 mph. From that moment on, the movie, which was already good, becomes great, as an intelligent thriller results, with complication after complication thrown in our characters’ faces. Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye contains the exact opposite of this moment: it begins as an intelligent and rather enjoyable story, but suddenly transforms into a mind-numbingly painful experience when it reaches Chapter 13.

Before I go any further, let me say two things. First off, a confession: I did not finish reading this book. Second off: I absolutely despise Raymond Chandler. [Also, be warned: I avoid rude language in my reviews because I believe in using intelligent language, but I found it unavoidable today, and the nicest term I could think of to describe just about all the characters appears quite often: “jackass”. I considered replacing it with “Pineapple”, but it came across as too silly. So "jackass" it is.]

If you’re still in the room, I assume you want to hear more. Well, let me put it this way: Raymond Chandler is an awful writer. Oh, I discovered one or two neat things about him while reading The Long Goodbye, but my general impression remains the same. I cannot understand why so many profess to enjoy reading his books. Raymond Chandler’s world is an openly hostile, grim, and bleak one. I admit there is something to be said for his writing style, which is nice, but you need more than just good prose in a book.

But let’s get back to The Long Goodbye. As I said, the book begins intelligently, as a rather poignant tale of futile sacrifice. It is not a mystery, but a story of character about a person who happens to be a private detective and who happens to get himself mixed up in a murder. It is well-written, with a note of passion to it and a curious note of poignancy. I was surprised that I liked it. Oh, sure, Raymond Chandler’s flaws were apparent, but they didn’t interfere too severely. The most prominent problem was Chandler’s universe, which is not merely dark— it is practically inhuman. Almost every character is absolutely unredeemable, and those who weren’t could be classified merely as “recognizable humans”.

I was most surprised by the character of Philip Marlowe. My experience with Chandler beforehand extended only to The Big Sleep. I found it an incompetent book, with Marlowe being a complete jackass who had an unusual preoccupation with being as rude as possible to everyone. Here, I discovered he was a cynical person on the outside with a heart of gold beneath, with a moral code he refused to flaunt or to corrupt. That was admirable.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from a bad case of [Untitled] Syndrome. Here are the symptoms:

(a) The book starts off strong. You rather like it. Oh, sure, there are problems, but they don’t severely interfere.

(b) Those same problems suddenly stage a coup d’état, and just like that, the book drops in quality.

(c) You refuse to believe it’s so bad at first. After all, you were enjoying it only 25 pages ago… 45… 55… 61… 62… The harder you try to get through it, the more painful it gets.

I’ve already seen this a few times this year: John Rhode’s Mystery at Greycombe Farm and most notoriously, George Baxt’s The Affair at Royalties. Why is it called [Untitled] Syndrome? Well, because it’s such a bad effort, it doesn’t even bother naming its own syndrome. (Plus, I couldn’t come up with a catchier name.) The end result is nothing but frustration, and you feel like you’ve been robbed. That’s why I elected to stop reading The Long Goodbye.

It’s an appropriate title. I’m sure there’s something symbolic about it, but I refuse to sit around to find out what it is. But two words describe it so well: “long” and “goodbye!” (that last was a comment from me). This book is far too long. The plotting is awful and disjointed. The first 12 chapters I liked so much can be read as their own story. The next few chapters are also their own story. Then Raymond Chandler makes obvious attempts to create a connection between these stories for a third. Aside from the first story, none of these are interesting, and the second story is mind-bogglingly stupid.

Raymond Chandler famously wrote an essay on mysteries bashing almost every author he could lay his hands on because they showed no “realism”. This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. Allow me to explain: Philip Marlowe is asked to find the novelist Roger Wade, who has disappeared after getting himself gloriously drunk. While drunk, he typed out two notes. One of these refers to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the other is a rhyme: “I do not like you, Dr. V. But right now you’re the man for me.” Observe the perfectly logical conclusion: this second note must be a clue to Wade’s location, because somebody in a cowboy outfit dropped him off home one time after he briefly disappeared. Also, Marlowe says so.

Realism? This plot should never exist. What you have to do here is swallow two things so improbable, they make the Apocalypse happening in two seconds seem like a certainty!

(a) You have to be willing to accept that this note, and only this note, can be a clue to his location. It can’t just be some drunk idea of a joke. Also, the reference to Fitzgerald can’t be a clue. It has to be Dr. V and can be nothing else.

(b) Of all the doctors in Los Angeles whose name starts with V, just how likely is it for Marlowe to come across the right one? Well, he does: he narrows the list down to three, for reasons that I still don’t swallow. Also, “Dr. V” can’t be a nickname or a typing error.

But this is Raymond Chandler. He has achieved some sort of immunity against any sort of criticism, and he’s allowed to get away with stupidity on this level. This is realism, folks. Take a good look at it. How Chandler was not laughed off the mystery-writing stage, I have no idea.

But this isn’t the only problem. Earlier, I spoke well of Marlowe. It’s as if the character in The Big Sleep was completely different! Well, maybe I wasn’t too wrong about that, because all of a sudden, Marlowe becomes that sort of jackass again, being rude to everyone left and right, picking random fights for no reason, etc. He joins the long chorus line of jackasses who parade through this book and the character I liked is never heard from again. (He didn’t even get to say goodbye.) Just consider this: he runs around from doctor’s office to doctor’s office, saying they’re all criminals when we have only his word for this. One doctor is such a jackass, he’s obviously crooked. The other seems nice, and that itself is a crime in Chandler’s world. This doctor takes care of elderly patients, but Marlowe insinuates that it’s a place to kill them off. Naturally, the reaction he gets is a hostile one, and for good reason. (Is any other reaction possible? If it is such a place, he'll get mad. If it isn't such a place, he has even more of a right to get mad. Marlowe just says it is, so you're supposed to swallow that, I guess.) Marlowe makes a jackass of himself, being unnecessarily rude to everyone around him, and it’s at moments like this that I want to assemble a death-squad of fictional characters to take him out once and for all. My wish list starts with the Terminator and ends with the Mummy, with the T-Rex from Jurassic Park being somewhere in the middle.

There’s another of my huge issues with Chandler: nobody is nice in his nasty “realistic” world. Everyone is mean-spirited, rough-necked, tough, moronic, manipulative, homophobic, corrupt, abusive, alcoholic, perverted, mentally retarded, psychotic, or a combination thereof. The characters fall into two categories: Recognizable Humans (population: 1) and Absolutely Unredeemable Jackasses (everyone else). Even in the first bit where the book is strong, we run into a power-hungry cop, an abusive cop, a bureaucratic lawyer, a tough-talking parking attendant, and the list goes on…

Realism, my foot. This book is merely painful, and it gets so lazy, it has its characters tell you the symbolism Chandler is trying to make outright. There’s a very nasty doctor who is 100% despicable, but Chandler makes an amateurish attempt to create sympathy by having him care for a psychopathic mentally retarded person. (Why, we never find out.) But that’s not enough. So this doctor is sure to emphasize to the reader: "I am a mixed character like most people." The epitome of laziness, ladies and gentlemen— subtle... Ironically, this statement applies to almost nobody in Chandler- or at least what I've read. If a character isn’t nasty, they’re cardboard cut-outs for an awful plot.

Overall, this reads like a short story collection hastily converted into novel form a few “and”s and “the next morning”s later. The plotting is truly transparent. I didn’t even get to the 200 page mark and I’m convinced I have all the major elements of the solution down. Chandler has barely enough of a story to fill 200 pages, let alone 400. Sure, he has nice prose, and some one-liners early on are genuinely funny. But you need more than just good prose, and after the first 12 chapters, elements of artistry such as symbolism are overdone to the extreme—it’s a painful affair. Chandler’s world is an unpleasant one to spend any amount of time in, and I have no intention of finishing the book now or ever.

I would like to conclude this review with a translated quote from Paul Halter’s A 139 Pas de le Mort (139 Steps from Death) that I found online. It sums up Raymond Chandler and his followers far better than I could ever hope:

 “The mystery novel has become the vehicle for a social message and for exploring humanitarian and philosophical issues.  It is almost indispensable these days to portray the police as corrupt and the murderer as the innocent victim of fate…  There’s never any doubt about the identity of the villain: it’s always ‘society’.  And all that, of course, while wallowing in the most stupefying utopianism.” 

3 comments:

  1. I think you should give The Lady in the Lake a shot. Like I said on the GAD group, it's basically an orthodox detective plot told in the typical hardboiled manner.

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  2. I might. I might not. But I probably won't any time soon. This was an off-putting experience.

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  3. I don't get the Chandler mania either. I made myself read most of them a few years ago for research; the only good one was Lady in the Lake, which is Chandler doing Freeman. (Barzun liked it.) This is the one with Marlowe in the asylum, isn't it? And is that Chandler? He looks more like Dr Priestley!

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