Real Qualities of the Microcosm: Raymond Chandler in Los Angeles, USA
A long time ago when I was writing for the pulps I put into a story a line like “He got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.” They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing — just held up the action. I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that the readers just thought they cared about nothing but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, the thing they cared about, and that I cared about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description.
That the detective story represented something more to Raymond Chandler than a mere commercial product, furnished for popular entertainment purposes, can be judged from the fact that he came to it late in life, with a long and successful business career behind him. He published his first and best novel, The Big Sleep, in 1939, when he was fifty years old, and had studied the form for almost a decade. The short stories he had written over that period are for the most part sketches for the novels, episodes that he will later take over verbatim as chapters in the longer form: and he developed his technique by imitating and reworking models produced by other detective story writers: a deliberate, self-conscious apprenticeship at a time of life when most writers have already found themselves.
Two aspects of his earlier experience seem to account for the personal tone of his books. As an executive of the oil industry, he lived in Los Angeles for some fifteen years before the depression put him out of business, enough time to sense what was unique about the city’s atmosphere, and in a position to see what power was and what forms it took. And, though a born American, he spent his school years, from the age of eight, in England, and had an English public school education.
For Chandler thought of himself primarily as a stylist, and it was his distance from the American language that gave him the chance to use it as he did. In that respect his situation was not unlike that of Nabokov: the writer of an adopted language is already a kind of stylist by force of circumstance. Language can never again be unselfconscious for him; words can never again be unproblematical. The naive and unreflective attitude towards literary expression is henceforth proscribed, and he feels in his language a kind of material density and resistance: even those clichés and commonplaces which for the native speaker are not really words at all, but instant communication, take on outlandish resonance in his mouth, are used between quotation marks, as you would delicately expose some interesting specimen: his sentences are collages of heterogeneous materials, of odd linguistic scraps, figures of speech, colloquialisms, place names and local sayings, all laboriously pasted together in an illusion of continuous discourse. In this, the lived situation of the writer of a borrowed language is already emblematic of the situation of the modern writer in general, in that words have become objects for him. The detective story, as a form without ideological content, without any overt political or social or philosophical point, permits such pure stylistic experimentation.
But it offers other advantages as well, and it is no accident that the chief practitioners of art-for-art’s sake in the late modern novel, Nabokov and Robbe-Grillet, almost always organize their works around a murder: think of Le Voyeur and La Maison de Rendezvous; think of Lolita and Pale Fire. These writers and their artistic contemporaries represent a kind of second wave of the modernist and formalistic impulse which produced the great modernism of the first two decades of the twentieth century. But in the earlier works, modernism was a reaction against narration, against plot: here the empty, decorative event of the murder serves as a way of organizing essentially plotless material into an illusion of movement, into the formally satisfying arabesques of a puzzle unfolding. Yet the real content of these books is an almost scenic one: the motels and college towns of the American landscape in Lolita, the island of Le Voyeur, the drab provincial cities of Les Gommes or of Dans le labyrinthe.
In much the same way, a case can be made for Chandler as a painter of American life: not as a builder of those large-scale models of the American experience which great literature offers, but rather in fragmentary pictures of setting and place, fragmentary perceptions which are by some formal paradox somehow inaccessible to serious literature.
Take for example some perfectly insignificant daily experience, such as the chance encounter of two people in the lobby of an apartment building. I find my neighbor unlocking his mailbox; I have never seen him before, we glance at each other briefly, his back is turned as he struggles with the larger magazines inside. Such an instant expresses in its fragmentary quality a profound truth about American life, in its perception of the stained carpets, the sand-filled spittoons, the poorly shutting glass doors, all testify ing to the shabby anonymity of a meeting place between the luxurious private lives that stand side by side like closed monads behind the doors of the private apartments: a dreariness of waiting rooms and public bus stations, of the neglected places of collective living that fill up the interstices between the privileged compartments of middle-class living. Such a perception, it seems to me, is in its very structure dependent on chance and anonymity, on the vague glance in passing, as from the window of a bus, when the mind is intent on some more immediate preoccupation: its very essence is to be inessential. For this reason it eludes the registering apparatus of great literature: make of it some Joycean epiphany and the reader is obliged to take this moment as the center of his world, as something directly infused with symbolic meaning; and at once the most fragile and precious quality of the perception is irrevocably damaged, its slightness is lost, it can no longer be half-glimpsed, half-disregarded — the meaningless is arbitrarily given meaning.
Yet put such an experience in the framework of the detective story and everything changes. I learn that the man I saw does not even live in my building, that he was in reality opening the murdered woman’s mailbox, not his own; and suddenly my attention flows back onto the neglected perception and sees it in renewed, heightened form without damaging its structure. Indeed, it is as if there are certain moments in life which are accessible only at the price of a certain lack of intellectual focus: like objects at the edge of my field of vision which disappear when I turn to stare at them head-on. Proust felt this keenly, his whole aesthetic presupposing some absolute antagonism between spontaneity and self-consciousness. For Proust we can only be sure we have lived, we have perceived, after the fact of the experience itself; for him the deliberate, willful project to meet experience face to face in the present is always doomed to failure. In a minor way the unique temporal structure of the best detective story is also a pretext, a more organizational framework, for such isolated perception.
It is in this light that the well-known distinction between the atmosphere of English and American detective stories is to be understood. Gertrude Stein, in her Lectures in America, sees the essential feature of English literature to be the tireless description of “daily life,” of lived routine and continuity, in which possessions are daily counted up and evaluated, in which the basic structure is one of cycle and repetition. American life, American content, on the other hand, is a formless one, always to be re-invented, an uncharted wilderness in which the very notion of experience itself is perpetually called into question and revised, in which time is an indeterminate succession from which a few decisive, explosive, irrevocable instants stand out in relief. Hence the murder in the placid English village or in the fog-bound London club is read as the sign of a scandalous interruption in a peaceful continuity; whereas the gangland violence of the American big city is felt as a secret destiny, a kind of nemesis lurking beneath the surface of hastily acquired fortunes, anarchic city growth and impermanent private lives. Yet in both, the moment of violence, apparently central, is nothing but a diversion: the real function of the murder in the quiet village is for order to be felt more strongly; while the principal effect of the violence in the American detective story is to allow it to be experienced backwards, in pure thought, without risks, as a contemplative spectacle which gives not so much the illusion of life as the illusion that life has already been lived, that we have already had contact with the archaic sources of that Experience of which Americans have always made a fetish.
We looked at each other with the clear innocent eyes of a couple of used car salesmen. (The High Window)
European literature is metaphysical or formalistic because it takes the nature of the society, of the nation, for granted and works out beyond it. American literature never seems to get beyond the definition of its starting point: any picture of America is bound to be wrapped up in a question and a presupposition about the nature of American reality. European literature can choose its subject matter and the width of its lens; American literature feels obliged to put everything in, knowing that exclusion is also part of the process of definition, and that it can be called to account as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does.
The last great period of American literature, which ran more or less from one world war to the other, explored and defined America in a geographical mode, as a sum of separate localisms, as an additive unity, at its outside limit an ideal sum. But since World War II, the organic differences from region to region have been increasingly obliterated by standardization, and the organic social unity of each region has been increasingly fragmented and abstracted by the new closed lives of the individual family units, by the breakdown of cities and the dehumanization of transportation and of the media which lead from one monad to another. Communication in this new society is upwards, through the abstract connecting link, and back down again. The isolated units are all haunted by the feeling that the center of things, of life, of control, is elsewhere, beyond immediate lived experiences. The principal images of interrelationship in this new society are mechanical juxtapositions: the identical prefabricated houses in the housing project, swarming over the hills; the four-lane highway full of cars bumper to bumper and observed from above, abstractly, by a traffic helicopter. If there is a crisis in American literature at present, it should be understood against the background of this ungrateful social material, in which only trick shots can produce the illusion of life.
Chandler lies somewhere between these two literary situations. His whole background, his way of thinking and of seeing things, derives from the period between the wars. But by an accident of place, his social content anticipates the realities of the fifties and sixties. For Los Angeles is already a kind of microcosm and forecast of the country as a whole: a new centerless city, in which the various classes have lost touch with each other because each is isolated in its own geographical compartment. If the symbol of social coherence and comprehensibility was furnished by the nineteenth-century Parisian apartment house (dramatized in Zola’s Pot-Bouille) with its shop on the ground floor, its wealthy inhabitants on the second and third, petty bourgeoisie further up, and workers’ rooms on top along with the maids and servants, then Los Angeles is the opposite, a spreading out horizontally, a flowing apart of the elements of the social structure.
Since there is no longer any privileged experience in which the whole of the social structure can be grasped, a figure must be invented who can be superimposed on the society as a whole, whose routine and life-pattern serve somehow to tie its separate and isolated parts together. The equivalent is the picaresque novel, where a single character moves from one background to another, linking “picturesque” but not intrinsically related episodes together. In doing this the detective in a sense once again fulfills the demands of the function of knowledge rather than that of lived experience: through him we are able to see, to know, the society as a whole, but he does not really stand for any genuine experience of it. Of course the origin of the literary detective lies in the creation of the professional police, whose organization can be attributed not so much to a desire to prevent crime in general as to the will on the part of modern governments to know and thus to control the varying elements of their administrative areas. The great continental detectives (Lecoq, Maigret) are generally policemen, but in the Anglo-Saxon countries where governmental control sits far more lightly on the citizens, the private detective, from Holmes to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, took the place of the government functionary, until the postwar return of the police procedural.
As an involuntary explorer of the society, Marlowe visits either those places you don’t look at or those you can’t: the anonymous or the wealthy and secretive. Both have something of the strangeness with which Chandler characterizes the police station: “A New York police reporter wrote once that when you pass in beyond the green lights of the precinct station you pass clear out of this world into a place beyond the law” (Lady in the Lake). On the one hand those parts of the American scene which are as impersonal and seedy as public waiting rooms: run-down office buildings, the elevator with the spittoon and the elevator man sitting on a stool beside it; dingy office interiors, Marlowe’s own in particular, seen at all hours of the clock, at those times when we have forgotten that offices exist, in the late evening, when the other offices are dark, in the early morning before the traffic begins; police stations; hotel rooms and lobbies, with the then characteristic potted palms and overstuffed armchairs; rooming houses with managers who work illegal lines of business on the side. All these places are characterized by belonging to the mass, collective side of our society: places occupied by faceless people, who leave no stamp of their personality behind them, in short, the dimension of the interchangeable, the inauthentic:
Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them. (The High Window)
The presentation of this kind of social material is far more frequent in European art than in our own: as if somehow we were willing to know anything about ourselves, the worst kind of secret, just as long as it was not this nameless, faceless anonymity. But it suffices to compare the faces of actors and participants in almost any European movie with those in American ones to note the absence in ours of the whole-grain lens and the dissimilarity between the visual representation and the features of people around us in the street. What makes this somewhat more difficult to observe is that of course our view of life is conditioned by the art we know, which has trained us not to see what the texture of ordinary people’s faces is, but rather to invest them with photographic glamour.
The other side of American life with which Marlowe comes into contact is the reverse of the above: the great estate, with its retinue of servants, chauffeurs, and secretaries; and around it, the various institutions which cater to wealth and preserve its secrecy: the private clubs, set back on private roads in the mountains, patrolled by a private police which admits members only; the clinics in which drugs are available; the private religious cults; the luxury hotels with their security personnel; the private gambling ships, anchored out beyond the three-mile limit; and a little further away, the corrupt local police who rule a municipality in the name of a single man or family, and protect the various kinds of illegal activity which spring up to satisfy money and its wants.
But Chandler’s picture of America has an intellectual content as well: it is the converse, the darker concrete reality, of an abstract intellectual illusion about the United States. The federal system and the archaic federal Constitution developed in Americans a double image of their country’s political reality, a dual system of political thoughts which never intersect with each other. On the one hand, a glamorous national politics whose distant leading figures are invested with charisma, an unreal, distinguished quality adhering to their foreign policy activities, their economic programs given the appearance of substance by the appropriate ideologies of liberalism or conservatism. On the other hand, local politics, with its odium, its ever-present corruption, its deals and perpetual preoccupation with undramatic, materialistic questions such as sewage disposal, zoning regulations, property taxes, and so forth. Governors are halfway between the two worlds, but for a mayor, for example, to become a senator involves a thoroughgoing metamorphosis, a transformation from one species into another. Indeed, the qualities perceived in the political macro- cosm are only illusory, the projection of the dialectical opposite of the real qualities of the microcosm: everyone is convinced of the dirtiness of politics and politicians on the local level, and when everything is seen in terms of interest, the absence of greed becomes the feature which dazzles. Like the father whose defects are invisible to his own children, the national politicians (with occasional stunning exceptions) seem to be beyond personal self-interest, and this lends an automatic prestige to their professional affairs, lifts them onto a different rhetorical level entirely.
On the level of abstract thought, the effect of the preordained permanency of the Constitution is to hinder the development of any speculative political theorizing and replace it with pragmatism within the system, the calculation of counter-influences and possibilities of compromise. A kind of reverence attaches to the abstract, a disabused cynicism to the concrete. As in certain types of mental obsession and dissociation, Americans are able to observe local injustice, racism, corruption, educational incompetence with a practiced eye, while they continue to entertain boundless optimism as to the greatness of the country, taken as a whole.
The action of Chandler’s books takes place inside the microcosm, in the darkness of a local world without the benefit of the federal Constitution, as in a world without God. The literary shock is dependent on the habit of the political double standard in the mind of the reader: it is only because we are used to thinking of the nation as a whole in terms of justice that we are struck by these images of people caught in the power of a local county authority as absolutely as though they were in a foreign country. The local power apparatus is beyond appeal, in this other face of federalism; the rule of naked force and money is complete and undisguised by any embellishments of theory. In an eerie optical illusion, the jungle reappears in the suburbs.
In this sense the honesty of the detective can be understood as an organ of perception, a membrane which, irritated, serves to indicate in its sensitivity the nature of the world around it. For if the detective is dishonest, his job boils down to the technical problem of how to succeed on a given paid assignment. If he is honest, he is able to feel the resistance of things, to permit an intellectual vision of what he goes through on the level of action. And Chandler’s sentimentalism, which attaches to occasional honest characters in the earlier books, but which is perhaps strongest in The Long Goodbye, is the reverse and complement of this vision, a momentary relief from it, a compensation for its hopeless bleakness.
The detective’s journey is episodic because of the fragmentary, atomistic nature of the society he moves through. In European countries, people no matter how solitary are still somehow engaged in the social substance; their very solitude is social; their identity is inextricably entangled with that of all the others by a clear system of classes, by a national language, in what Heidegger describes as the Mitsein, the being-together-with-others.
But the form of Chandler’s books reflects an initial American separation of people from each other, their need to be linked by some external force (in this case the detective) if they are ever to be fitted together as parts of the same picture puzzle. And this separation is projected out onto space itself: no matter how crowded the street in question, the various solitudes never really merge into a collective experience, there is always distance between them. Each dingy office is separated from the next; each room in the rooming house from the one next to it; each dwelling from the pavement beyond it. This is why the most characteristic leitmotif of Chandler’s books is the figure standing, looking out of one world, peering vaguely or attentively across into another:
Across the street was an Italian funeral home, neat and quiet and reticent, white painted brick, flush with the side-walk. Pietro Palermo Funeral Parlors. The thin green script of neon sign lay across its facade, with a chaste air. A tall man in dark clothes came out of the front door and leaned against the white wall. He looked very handsome. He had dark skin and a handsome head of iron-grey hair brushed back from his forehead. He got out what looked at that distance to be a silver or platinum and black enamel cigarette case, opened it languidly with two long brown fingers and selected a gold-tipped cigarette. He put the case away and lit the cigarette with a pocket lighter that seemed to match the case. He put that away and folded his arms and stared at nothing with half-closed eyes. From the tip of his motionless cigarette a thin wisp of smoke rose straight up past his face, as thin and straight as the smoke of a dying campfire at dawn. (The High Window)
In psychological or allegorical terms, this figure on the doorstep represents Suspicion, and suspicion is everywhere in this world, peering from behind a curtain, barring entry, refusing to answer, preserving the privacy of the monad against snoopers and trespassers. Its characteristic manifestations are the servant coming back out into the hallway, the man in the car lot hearing a noise, the custodian of a deserted farm looking outside, the manager of the rooming house taking another look upstairs, the bodyguard appearing in the doorway.
Hence the detective’s principal contact with the people he meets is a rather external one; they are seen briefly in their own doorways, for a purpose, and their personalities come out against the grain, hesitant, hostile, stubborn, as they react to the various questions and drag their feet on the answers. But seen another way the very superficiality of these meetings with the characters is artistically motivated: for the characters themselves are pretexts for their speech, and the specialized nature of this speech is that it is somehow external, indicative of types, formulaic remarks bounced across to strangers:
Her eyes receded and her chin followed them. She sniffed hard. “You been drinkin’ liquor,” she said coldly.
“I just had a tooth out. The dentist gave it to me.” “I don’t hold to it.” “It’s bad stuff except for medicine,” I said. “I don’t hold with it for medicine neither.” “I think you’re right,” I said. “Did he leave her any money? Her husband?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Her mouth was the size of a prune and as smooth. I had lost out. (The High Window)
This kind of dialogue is also characteristic of the early Faulkner; it is quite different from that of Hemingway, which is much more personal and fluid, created from the inside, somehow re-enacted and personally re-experienced by the author. Here clichés and stereotyped speech patterns are heated into life by the presence behind them of a certain form of protective emotion you would feel in your dealings with strangers: a kind of outgoing belligerence, or hostility, or the amusement of the native, or bantering, helpful indifference: a communicativeness always nuanced or colored by an attitude. And whenever Chandler’s dialogue, which in the early books is very good, strays from this particular level to something more intimate and more expressive, it begins to falter; for his forte is the speech pattern of inauthenticity, of externality, and derives immediately from the inner organic logic of his material itself.
In the art of the twenties and thirties, however, such dialogue had the value of social schematism. A set of fixed social types and categories underlay it, and the dialogue was itself a way of demonstrating the coherence and peculiar organization the society possessed, of apprehending it in miniature. Anyone who has watched New York movies of the thirties is aware of how linguistic characterization feeds into a picture of the city as a whole: the stock ethnic and professional types, the cabbie, the reporter, the flatfoot, the high society playboy, the flapper, and so forth. Needless to say, the decay of this kind of movie results from the disintegration of such a picture of the city, such an organization of reality. But already the Los Angeles of Chandler was an unstructured city, and the social types are here nowhere near as pronounced. By the chance of a historical accident, Chandler was able to benefit from the survival of a purely linguistic, typological way of creating his characters after the system of types that had supported it was already disappearing. A last hold, before the dissolving contours of the society made these linguistic markers disappear also, leaving the novelist faced with the problem of the absence of any standard by which dialogue can be judged realistic or lifelike.
In Chandler the presentation of social reality is thus immediately and directly problematized by language itself. There can be no doubt that he invented a distinctive style, with its own humor and imagery, its own special movement. But the most striking feature of that language its use of slang, and here Chandler’s own remarks are instructive:
I had to learn American just like a foreign language. To use it I had to study it and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself. I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language, and slang that you make up yourself. Everything else is apt to be passé before it gets into print...
And Chandler comments on O’Neill’s use in The Iceman Cometh of the expression “the big sleep,” “in the belief that it was an accepted underworld expression. If so, I’d like to see whence it comes, because I invented the expression.”
But slang is eminently serial and impersonal in its nature: it exists as objectively as a joke, passed from hand to hand, always elsewhere, never fully the property of its user. In this, the literary problem of slang forms a parallel in the microcosm of style to the problem of the presentation of the serial society itself, never present fully in any of its manifestations, without a privileged center, offering the impossible alternative between an objective and abstract lexical knowledge of it as a whole and a lived concrete experience of its worthless components.
Raymond Chandler: Detections of the Totality is out now.