My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“They pay brisk money for this crap?” Raymond Chandler asked of the science fiction genre. His rhetorical question followed his lively parody of the genre’s trappings (“I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop”), but can Chandler’s own hard-boiled revision of the detective genre, as in the landmark 1939 novel The Big Sleep, not be parodied with similar ease?—the gender archetypes or stereotypes, the air of sexy seediness, the sudden violence, the impossibly convoluted plot that comes to you as a blizzard of forgettable names and relations, the verging-on-silly metaphors (“She brought the glass over. Bubbles rose in it like false hopes.”), the tough-talk dialogue (“‘You ought to wean her. She looks old enough.'”) and period slang (“‘A Chicago overcoat is what it would get you, little man.'”), the paradoxically showboating understatement (“She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. […] She wasn’t wearing anything else.”). They call this crap literature?
These days, they do. They are not quite wrong. For one thing, the English-educated and well-read Chandler was a conscious aesthete. In giving a jolt to the polite detective novel with the hard-boiled attitude that had characterized so much 1920s and ’30s fiction—and not just in pulps but also in Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, and West, among other now-canonical writers—Chandler was deliberately undertaking an exercise in style. He was no naif about the effects of popular culture or the impossibility of originality, either; at one meta-moment in The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe observes that a criminal he’s dealing with, like all the other young criminals, has been inspired in his demeanor by the movies: “His voice was the elaborately casual voice of the tough guy in pictures. Pictures have made them all like that.” While the style Chandler crafted, like Hemingway’s, is easily imitated and parodied, it did prove influential and unforgettable. Not only did it become the signature literary evocation of Los Angeles, it became a global aesthetic means of experiencing the modern city. Even people who have never read Chandler walk down rainy urban streets with a Chandler monologue in their heads.
At seven the rain had stopped for a breathing spell, but the gutters were still flooded. On Santa Monica the water was level with the sidewalk and a thin film of it washed over the top of the curbing. A traffic cop in shining black rubber from boots to cap sloshed through the flood on his way from the shelter of a sodden awning. My rubber heels slithered on the sidewalk as I turned into the narrow lobby of the Fulwider Building. A single drop light burned far back, beyond an open, once gilt elevator. There was a tarnished and well-missed spittoon on a gnawed rubber mat. A case of false teeth hung on the mustard-colored wall like a fuse box in a screen porch. I shook the rain off my hat and looked at the building directory beside the case of teeth. Numbers with names and numbers without names. Plenty of vacancies or plenty of tenants who wished to remain anonymous. Painless dentists, shyster detective agencies, small sick businesses that had crawled there to die, mail order schools that would teach you how to become a railroad clerk or a radio technician or a screen writer—if the postal inspectors didn’t catch up with them first. A nasty building. A building in which the smell of stale cigar butts would be the cleanest odor.
But The Big Sleep—the title refers to death—offers more than just the city. From the early passages set in the General’s greenhouse to later episodes where we leave L.A., there is a beautiful nature idiom, a sense of immensity and overgrowth, associated with the novel’s depictions of femininity and sensuality, that I was not expecting:
We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.
All the same, I cannot for the life of me tell you the plot of The Big Sleep. I read the novel with the Wikipedia synopsis at my side and was still barely hanging on. In short, the elderly General Sternwood, whose family has oil wealth, has hired the P. I. Philip Marlowe to investigate some matters related to his wild young daughters, Vivian and Carmen. The thematic upshot of Marlowe’s long and confusing consequent misadventures is the following: squalidness and corruption are the underside of wealth and glamor, money is always marked by the dirt of its origins in earth and labor, the modern breakdown of social norms has set young women morally adrift and left decadents and degenerates in charge of the city. Against these ugly realities, such rumpled men of honor as Marlowe might—like the knights and generals of yore—remediate this corrupt world by acting with as much selflessness and rectitude as possible. This summary of the novel’s moral thesis is accurate as far as it goes; Chandler makes sure we are thinking of courtly knights on the book’s first page through his description of some faux-medieval decor in the General’s house, and the association of the modern detective with the knight-errant of romance goes back to Sherlock Holmes.
But Chandler—a stylist, an aesthete—uses this moralism as a basis or pretext for his real narrative interest, which is precisely the glamorous description of “decadence” and “degeneracy.” Goodreads reviewers are right in observing the novel’s overt sexism and homophobia, but to leave it at that is to miss the novel’s—and the genre’s—real affective force: Marlowe may be our Virgil in the underworld, the one righteous man in a stew of filth, but Chandler is behind him making the filth sound fun. The pleasure of being in Marlowe’s righteous company is the experience of spending time or identifying with vamps, queers, gamblers, and smut-peddlers. Ostensibly a conservative tract, The Big Sleep is really a bohemian tourist brochure: Visit scenic Babylon! I think noir is always a hymn to Babylon hidden in a denunciation of it (this may even be true of medieval romance itself: what if the quest is the true grail?). Here is an exchange between Marlowe and Vivian:
“I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust.”
“Who’s he?” I put a cigarette in my mouth and stared at her. She looked a little pale and strained, but she looked like a girl who could function under a strain.
“A French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn’t know him.”
Sure he would. About 20 pages later, he is being frisked by a tough and “turned around for him like a bored beauty modeling an evening gown.” 100 pages after that, we find him telling another woman, who might be going to kill him, “‘[D]on’t scatter my ashes over the blue Pacific. I like the worms better. Did you know that worms are of both sexes and that any worm can love any other worm?'” If Marlowe—and Chandler—aren’t connoisseurs in degenerates, what are they doing here? And if we aren’t, why are we reading this book? The novel’s moralism, its sexism and homophobia, are the regrettable feints of a showman trying to pass off as respectable the downright queerness of his entertainments.
Having said all that, I did not find reading The Big Sleep an unmixed pleasure. Fictional prose is best at giving us the human interior, but Chandler just gives us exteriors—impressive though they may be. I am partial to this genre in pictorial form, with its images, its projections from the unconscious, standing free of the language that would circumscribe and censor them. Going even further, I like the extremity and grotesquery of such romantic narratives to be loosed from the real world entirely; not only do I prefer my hard-boiled tales, my noir narratives, in pictures, but I prefer them in science-fictional or fantastical settings too. I like Alphaville, The Long Tomorrow, Blade Runner, The Dark Knight Returns, Transmetropolitan, Strange Days, et al.—if it has to be non-fantastical, let it be Chinatown; if it has to be in prose, let it be Neuromancer.
Finally, the ramifying structure of such romance narratives—with their knights/detectives sallying forth to encounter a succession of weird people and places—can be a wearisome bad infinity as compared to the forms of complex closure promised by more traditional literary genres (tragedy, comedy, bildungsroman, etc.). It is this infinite openness, demanded by the prospect of further profit, that marks the detective genre as a commercial form. At the end of the novel, after it has already ended and re-begun several times as the case seemed to be closed but then re-opened, Marlowe has a nightmare that may indicate his awareness of his aesthetic predicament:
My mind drifted through waves of false memory, in which I seemed to do the same thing over and over again, go to the same places, meet the same people, say the same words to them, over and over again, and yet each time it seemed real, like something actually happening, and for the first time.
What successful fictional P.I. or detective (or superhero or soap heroine) could not have the same nightmare? This novel about the grim underbelly of wealth and commerce also is the grim underbelly of wealth and commerce, the porn front or gambling den where art transacts with the underworld. Here may be the secret of Chandler’s nostalgia for older forms of order—it has nothing to do with a censorious attitude toward sex and everything to do with a wish for the kind of artistic integrity that the pursuit of “brisk money” cannot help but violate.