Light reading

At a recent meeting of a secret society to which I belong, the name “Raymond Chandler” came up. Gentle reader may know him for one of those detective novelists. I gather he’s been dead since 1959. But oddly enough his works, in the Library of America edition (two volumes), were then found lying in a flea market, like a pair of unclaimed bodies in a morgue. Although I have never been much of a hoo-dunnit fan, I remembered being quite entertained by Chandler in my youth; that Auden had good words for him; and that Oscar Wilde once provided an excuse for low behaviour. (“I can resist anything except temptation.”)

I was slanging “conventional” novels just last week, but will admit they have some historical uses. In this case, the books evoke an earlier generation of greater Los Angeles, and Chandler’s sharp eye for objects and interior decoration, for clothing and mannerisms of speech and gesture, beat anything that might whip by in a televised period drama. Indeed, one must read about these things today, because it is beyond the acting abilities of a later generation to capture what adulthood was like, before it began to phase out in the ’sixties. Old photographs are useful, too, in presenting faces one does not see today. This was a time when, even in Hollywood, a girl in her early twenties could have elegance and charm, and it was possible to imagine a virgin.

There are a lot of evil people in Chandler, as there always are in every generation, and the hoo-dunnit writer must, by trade, contrive a few murders. Gangsters, too, are a commonplace of society at all times, and seem meaner when they can provide a more vivid contrast with everyday life. The background dullness of the older and much smaller (but already sprawling) Los Angeles conurbation stands in for the dullness of all North American cities, or all parts built in the automotive age. The emptiness of all attempts at glitz was more striking against a greyer background, before glitz was normalized. By now it is enchanting, and for those of a certain age (moi, for instance) there are nostalgic pleasures. There was much of quiet, timeless beauty still in the countryside; the cities were aesthetic hell-holes already; but the ugliness did not yet scream.

Conversely, some things haven’t changed, and there is a certain immortal likeness in all human society prior to, or functioning outside, the Internet globalization. Let me call this “the universality of the local.” From my own memory, which now compasses a third generation, three stages can be discerned. In nice quarter-century increments, there is a post-War ending about 1970; a middling stage from then until about 1995; and now the “millennial” stage. The first and second have much more in common than either with this latest, in which those once accustomed to mere telephones and letters are necessarily rather lost. “Change” was accelerating all through, but speeds have been reached to which the human psyche was never in all history adapted, so that the very notion of “future” is slurred. Nothing holds still any more, for anyone to begin to understand it.

Chandler’s plots are entirely unbelievable; his characters, too. The “tough guys” he takes such delight in depicting aren’t scary any more, and probably weren’t when they first saw print. His women are unnecessarily gorgeous and sly; there is no relief from Hollywood cliché. The blondes are too blonde, though I must say there is a fine Aristotelian inventory of the species of blonde, early in The Long Goodbye, and other delicious attempts at cataloguing stereotypes. Philip Marlowe himself, our hard-boiled fictional private detective, could not in real life have survived all his beatings, though possibly his alcohol consumption, matched, I’m informed, by the author’s own. His much-celebrated moral code would not stand up to candid analysis, but then, it was not meant to. Entertainment only was proposed, and the literary flourishes are aimed at the first generation to absorb mass post-secondary education. In this sense Chandler’s novels are cloyingly pretentious, though relief comes from the occasional poetical image or simile that is thrilling in a comical way.

He is pulp fiction from beginning to end, where the attraction is in the props, and a “camp” effect is sought that might be as addictive as Sherlock Holmes. There is tension enough to keep us idly turning pages, but in the end a very modern reduction of human life to the condition of the movie or cartoon.