April 8, 2008

Tales From the Completist: "The Long Goodbye," by Raymond Chandler

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

The Long Goodbye (1953)
By Raymond Chandler

So are you familiar already with the One Book One Chicago (OBOC) program? We're not the first city to do it (in fact, we stole the idea from Seattle), but are definitely now the largest city in America to do so; basically, roughly three or four times twice a year the Mayor's Office and the public library system choose an important and popular book (usually a 20th-century novel), stock the various libraries around the city with thousands of extra copies, host a whole series of events around the city tied to the book itself (often co-sponsored by various creative and corporate organizations), and otherwise do as much as possible to convince the entire city of Chicago to read the book all at once, all in the same thirty-day period. And when it works, it really is quite the great little experience; imagine walking around a city of four million people and constantly running across others reading the same exact book you're reading, in cafes and on the train and at discussion clubs and while waiting in line at the supermarket, and all the fun little intelligent conversations such a thing inspires among complete strangers.

The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler

And the latest OBOC choice (their fourteenth) is a real doozy, too; it's The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, the last great novel by one of the most truly American writers our country has ever seen, a book both popular with the mainstream and historically important to the world of arts and letters. And indeed, Chandler is so distinctly an American artist precisely because he both helped invent and perfect a truly American form of the arts, so-called "detective" or "crime" or "pulp" fiction, a genre which first gained popularity in the rough-and-tumble first half of the 20th century and is by now an international phenomenon and multi-billion-dollar industry. It's the perfect genre for Americans to have latched onto, fans say, because crime fiction examines the exact dark side of the coin which pays for the American Dream as well; this idea of a truly market-driven, truly free society, whereby busting your hump and believing in yourself can legitimately get you ahead of all the other schmucks of the world, whether that's through noble activities or criminal ones. No one is better suited than an American, the theory goes, to see the complex symbiotic nature of both these options -- the hidden dangers of capitalism, the dark seductions of crime -- and thus it is that this style of fiction is one that Americans are distinctly known for.

Raymond Chandler

Now, that said, The Long Goodbye is also atypical of the usual type of work Chandler first got famous for; another detective tale to be sure, starring his usual standby antihero Philip Marlowe, but this time a wearier and more socially-conscious man than before, in a tale written late in Chandler's life (in fact, just six years before his premature death). Because that's an important thing to know about Chandler, especially to understand the mystique surrounding his work and enduring popularity, is that he was a bit of a rough-and-tumble fellow himself, although unusually so; a pipe-smoking, chess-studying, erudite nerd who was nonetheless a heavy boozer and womanizer, someone who not only managed to snag a lucrative corporate executive job in the middle of the Great Depression but also lose it because of showing up to work drunk too many times in a row. Chandler had never meant to be a full-time writer, sorta stumbled into it ass-backwards because of his vices, and was always very critical of the other things going on in his industry and the other people being published; it's because of all these things, fans claim, that Chandler writes in such a unique and distinctive style, and the fact that such stories got published at the exact moment in history they did that ended up making him so popular.

Because that's the other thing to understand about Chandler if you don't already, that along with a handful of other authors, he helped define the "smart pulp fiction" genre of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, the same genre that spawned gangster movies, film noirs and more; so in other words, not just spectacular stories of derring-do among criminal elements, tales of which had already been getting published regularly for the lower classes since Victorian times, but also bringing a slick, Modernist style to the stories, a clean minimalism to the prose inspired by such contemporary "authentic" peers as William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and more. Reading The Long Goodbye for the first time this week, in fact my first Chandler book ever, I can easily see why people have been going so nuts for his writing style for 75 years now and counting; because Chandler had a natural ability to get it exactly exactly right, to not underwrite his stories even a tiny bit and not overwrite them either, to bump up nearly to the edge of cheesiness at all times but to rarely ever step over. That after all is why literally thousands of pulp-fiction projects have rightly faded into obscurity now over the last half-century, but with writers like Chandler still being chosen for programs like OBOC; because Chandler had a born mastery over the subtleties of it all that most other writers before and after him have lacked.

For those who don't know, as mentioned The Long Goodbye concerns a recurring character of Chandler's named Philip Marlowe, a private investigator from whom we now derive many of our stereotypes concerning the subject -- the shabby urban office with the frosted-glass window, the sudden appearance of dangerous dames with gams that just won't quit, the tough-as-nails sad-sack private dick who don't take no guff from nobody no how. Ugh, see how easy it is to fall into cheesy Chandleresque mannerisms? And this is the flipside of reading Chandler anymore, of course, something you need to actively work against while reading his books if you want any chance of deeply enjoying them; it's imperative that you forget all the cultural stereotypes and cliches that have come from the world of pulp fiction, that you not immediately think of a tough-talking Humphrey Bogart while reading this but rather approach it as a contemporary reader in the 1950s would, one who has no preconceptions about what they're getting into. Because in many ways, a trench-coated tough-talking Bogart type is bad casting when it came to the Marlowe that Chandler originally presented to the public; his Marlowe is a lot more like the author himself, a quiet intellectual who mostly enjoyed staying at home, who talked in the clipped and gruff way he did merely because he was a borderline sociopath and nihilist, who wanted as little to do with the rest of humanity as possible.

Because man, the world that Chandler paints in The Long Goodbye is certainly not the most pleasant or optimistic one you'll ever come across; a world full of spoiled, weak little hairless apes, running around flinging their own excrement at each other and succumbing to their basest vices at the slightest provocation. And indeed, this is one of the other things this particular novel is known for, much more so than any of the other novels of Chandler's career, as being one of the first truly complex and brutally honest looks at the entire subject of alcoholism, a tortured look at the subject from an active addict who bitterly blames the moral weakness of the alcoholics as much as the disease itself. In Chandler's world, the majority of bad things that happen to people happen because of those people's own actions and attitudes; because they are petty, because they are weak, because they are greedy, because they are spineless. Sure, occasionally a person might get framed for a murder they didn't actually commit, or other such unfair crime; but ultimately that person has been guilty of countless other sins in the past for which they were never caught, making it impossible to exactly feel bad for them when it comes to the one particular trumped-up charge.

It's a delicious milieu that Chandler creates, but for sure a bleak one, a remorseless universe that like I said is punctuated by this sparkling dialogue that at all times shines; it's very easy to see after reading this why his work caught on so dramatically in the first place, and why organizations like the Chicago Public Library are still finding it so important to bring him to people's attention. And unlike a lot of other so-called "Important Historical Work," actually reading through The Long Goodbye never feels like some dated chore; I mean, yes, as mentioned, the dialogue has a tendency to border on cheesy, but usually stays on the good side of that line as long as you're not reading along out loud in a wiseguy New York accent. (And by the way, to see an excellent example of how to present Chandleresque dialogue in a non-cheesy way, please see my review of the truly brilliant 2005 Rian Johnson contemporary high-school noir Brick.) It's a book that not only delivers a simple lurid entertainment, but also gets you thinking about a whole variety of deeper topics for days and weeks afterwards; I'm glad the OBOC people picked it for the program, and I'm looking forward to attending the various Chandler-related events going on around the city throughout the rest of April. I encourage you to pick up a copy as well, if you haven't already.

Read even more about The Long Goodbye: One Book One Chicago | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:46 PM, April 8, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |