Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Arthur Conan Doyle, who begins The Sign of Four with Sherlock Holmes in an opium trance, Dashiell Hammett can’t get his detective novel started without an infusion of aestheticism. The Maltese Falcon, named as it is for an objet d’art, opens with two descriptions that strike several notes of the art for art’s sake and decadent movements of fin-de-siècle England and France, even though Hammett was writing almost two generations later, in 1930, in America, on the cusp of a hard-boiled decade:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

He said to Effie Perine: “Yes, sweetheart?”

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face.

We have the transvaluation of values that gives us Satan as hero, we have the artistic formalism that describes a human face as a geometric phenomenon, we have the queer overtones of a sexily boyish heroine, and above all we have the bored, jaded irony in the narrator’s tone, his blasé patience in physical description, as if he had all the luxe, calme, et volupté in the world.

The Maltese Falcon is, moreover, an artistic experiment—which should perhaps come as no surprise since it was written in the modernist moment, when those other legatees of aestheticism, such as Joyce, Woolf, Stein, and Hemingway, were reinventing the shape of narrative prose. Like the last-named modernist, Hammett strips his novel of anything but description and dialogue. At no time do we enter a character’s consciousness or see through one’s eyes. The narrator is a camera, not metaphorically, as with Isherwood’s contemporaneous experiment in objective (albeit first-person) narration, but literally in that Hammett only reports surfaces and actions; we are left to infer what anyone is thinking or what any of it means.

The complicated plot of this pioneering noir novel is hardly worth recording in any detail. It is a shaggy-dog story about P.I. Sam Spade’s recruitment by the faithless femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy to help her recover the title bird—a treasure that once belonged to a Templar-esque order of former Crusaders, and which is now being hunted around the globe by a rivalrous group of high-end thieves. Three murders and a lot of trouble with the police later, Spade ends up in an almost ritually slow stand-off with the criminals until the falcon proves elusive and Spade proves even colder than frigid Brigid.

Our assembled antagonists include not only the sexy villainess but also a pederastic Levantine named Joel Cairo and an elaborately fat man named Gutman. But the real moral of the story, fired home at the conclusion by the recoil of Effie Perine, the novel’s only decent character, is that the inscrutable, loveless Spade is perhaps the most chilling denizen of his corrupt world. Hammett concludes with a hint of his Satanic hero’s permanent damnation:

[Effie’s] voice was queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”

He nodded. “Your Sam’s a detective.” He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.

She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know—I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.”

Spade’s face became pale as his collar.

I wish I had read this novel earlier, if only to appreciate how much Pynchon borrows from it for my beloved Crying of Lot 49: the early modern secret society, the absent quest object, the California paranoia, even the aestheticism and modernism (as when Pynchon alludes to Pater and Varo). Yet Pynchon also almost certainly rebukes Hammett when he has Oedipa Maas, a kind of older and wiser Effie Perine, experience a moral epiphany rather than an immoralist betrayal on the nighttime streets of San Francisco. Postmodern literature rises in humanist rebellion against the pop fiction it was supposed to have uncritically incorporated with the late-20th-century collapse of cultural hierarchies.

But how did pop fiction get so decadent in the first place? Didn’t learned literary sociologists assure us that the art for art’s sake or immoralist attitude was the response of elite cultural producers to the popular market’s indifference to their wares? Isn’t aestheticism an elitist last-stand of high literature before its overwhelming by mass literacy and mass media? Didn’t Baudelaire and Flaubert invent decadence to invert the moralistic judgments and easy aesthetics of the mass market? Didn’t they (per Pierre Bourdieu) construct modern art as “the economic world reversed”?

If all that sociology is true, then why do we find such foundational detective fictions as Doyle’s and Hammett’s (and Chandler’s) drawing on tones and tropes of l’art pour l’art? (Note, by the way, that the French intelligentsia got the message, or, more aptly, caught the boomerang, when they argued in the mid-20th-century for the artistic greatness of American detective fiction and film.)

The answer, which I’ve written about before, is one of those observations so simple you can’t make it unless you forget much of what you learned—or unless you never even bother to learn it in the first place, which is my recommendation re: literary sociology. The answer is this: when you subtract external spiritual, ethical, or political determinants from art, you get two precipitates, which themselves can be combined or separated. They are formalism and entertainment: art that obeys only its own inner logic and communes only with itself, or art that exists only to provoke sensation of whatever sort in its audience. The first person to understand this, Edgar Allan Poe, single-handedly invented both avant-garde poetry and popular genre fiction.

Since Poe created modern detective fiction, Hammett is his legatee. And he knows it: the strenuous queer-bashing and Orientalism of his narrative is an unmistakable case of misdirection and disavowal: he’s well aware of his sources. For Hammett, modern literature is, like the object for which his novel is named, a glittering treasure from another century painted black and thrown into the pitiless jostle for wealth and power.

But Hammett’s irony does not stop at such a conservative lament. Gutman explains to Spade that the Crusaders who built the bird themselves wanted only wealth and power; the reputed faith or humanism of the past was a charade, while noir cynicism was always the truth, even in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Furthermore, the only Maltese Falcon we ever see in the novel is a forgery: when Gutman scrapes off the black enamel, he uncovers only lead. In this respect, the object is like the novel is like the hero. The book is a formalist experiment with no philosophical depth. And for most of the novel’s length, we suspect Spade’s Satanic exterior to hide a heart of gold, but no: as Brigid and Effie discover, he’s cold to the coeur.

Plato thought poetry was divine madness, Aristotle thought it was moral mimesis, but Hammett asks a question that provokes even a postmodern pasticheur like Pynchon to blanch: what if art is all surface, a worthless artifice that inspires only mindless greed (when it comes in the guise of entertainment) or false devotion (when it presents itself as formalism)? In which case, why not popular fiction, the worse the better? Not because, as the clown lisps in Dickens, “People mutht be amuthed,” but because trashy bestsellers reveal that the whole enterprise was rotten from the start.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo, Alack Sinner

[This post combines my Goodreads reviews of both volumes of Alack Sinner, The Age of Innocence and The Age of Disenchantment.]

Alack Sinner: The Age of InnocenceAlack Sinner: The Age of Innocence by Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Age of Innocence is the first of two American omnibus collections of the noir graphic novels by Argentine writer Sampayo and artist Muñoz, originally published in Europe from 1975 to 1982.

Set in a phantasmagorically corrupt New York City, its grotesquery somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Chester Gould, and focused on the titular hard-drinking but fundamentally decent ex-cop P.I., Alack Sinner is an outsider’s jaded perspective on American society, pictured as a fever dream of rape, murder, police corruption, racism, right-wing fanaticism, and greed at every level. In a wittily metafictional chapter, Sampayo and Muñoz themselves inform Sinner that even good white yanqui liberals like him will not be spared on the day of red revolution.

Aside from the metafiction and the hard-edged Marxism, though, Sampayo adds little, literarily, to the likes of Chandler. It is Muñoz’s art that earned this series its fame, justly so, a style that has influenced a very wide range of Anglo-American comics artists from Miller to McKean. The globular black shapes and shadows that are Muñoz’s medium seem viscous and mobile, ink flowing from page to page and panel to panel. His distorting perspective works against the narrative’s humanism: it reduces all to nightmare caricature.

The most successful synthesis of literary and artistic vision comes in my favorite episode, about a Spanish boxer caught in a scheme by a promoter and his murderous right-wing henchmen. The boxer’s grandfather, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, takes protective measures, dealing anti-fascist death under a Guernica montage: Muñoz meets Picasso.


Alack Sinner: The Age of DiscontentmentAlack Sinner: The Age of Disenchantment by Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Age of Disenchantment collects the Alack Sinner stories published from the 1980s through the early 2000s. In the narrative the authors, politically radical Argentines exiled to Europe by their country’s 1970s right-wing dictatorship, keep time politically.

The first Sinner story in this volume of avowed disenchantment is set against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua as the titular detective tries to keep visiting Nicaraguan leftists safe in the atmosphere of the Reagan ’80s, all the while falling in unrequited love with one of them, a woman named Delia. As the series progresses, Muñoz and Sampayo’s storytelling style, never very linear to begin with, becomes even more dream-like and uncertain: the centerpiece of “Nicaragua” is a hallucinatory puppet show the white Sinner attends with his young black daughter, Cheryl, a horrifying pageant that displays the history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. “My mom said that Nicaragua is like…black people…” Cheryl hesitantly muses on the spectacle, a phrase that compresses a unified theory of white western dominance.

Sinner’s relationship with Cheryl and the other women in his life, including Cheryl’s mother Enfer, his on-again-off-again lover Sophie, and his sister Toni dominate the middle stories in the book, one of which is aptly titled “Private Stories.” While Sinner’s inner monologue refers to “my women,” the series begins to dwell more consciously on gender, especially in the long story where Sinner struggles to save first his daughter and then his sister from various forms of imprisonment. Politics-with-a-capital-P is also touched on here, as the “private story” of Cheryl’s false accusation of murder involves her extrication in Haiti’s long oppression by the west.

The politics return in full in the final story, titled “The U.S.A. Case,” as if to signal Muñoz and Sampayo’s own object of criminal investigation: a country they do not live in but whose global dominance has shaped their lives nevertheless. “The U.S.A. Case” takes place a month before September 11, 2001, a month in which Cheryl, now pregnant, is threatened again, this time by a shady arms deal whose implication is U.S. intelligence services’ foreknowledge of the coming terrorist attacks. As one ghoulish old agency man puts it on the book’s final page, “Security? […] That’s the investment of the future, as long as the Bin Ladens and company are around.” Too paranoid? Alack Sinner is about nothing other than the corruptions of power, global, economic, racial, and otherwise; in this world, as in its noir forerunners, you can’t be too paranoid.

The passage of time makes these stories more affecting than those in the first volume, as we watch Sinner and his friends and lovers go from middle age to the brink of old age, and as we watch his daughter grow from child to mother. Muñoz’s inkily fluid, shadow-laden pages remain the best thing about the work, even if his style ages, along with its hero, into sometimes illegible forms of looseness and abstraction. I don’t know if Alack Sinner is one of the best comics I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly among the best I’ve ever seen.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!


William Faulkner, Sanctuary

SanctuarySanctuary by William Faulkner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As everyone knows, Faulkner claimed he wrote this brutal 1931 novel as a potboiler. Superficially, this is plausible: a lurid and violent criminal melodrama free of the overt modernist experimentation of the author’s other works of the period, The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary could well be nothing more than a serious writer’s sell-out book of American literature’s “hard-boiled” era. Moreover, the tactic worked: this novel won Faulkner more fame and money than he had yet received. Even the mitigating quality of the novel’s social seriousness as a thorough critique of southern mores could be explained as giving readers what they want, since the metropolitan readers who have always controlled American publishing are ever in want of gritty exposés from backward regions or submerged classes, all the better to allow them, or us, to enjoy with a clean conscience vicious spectacles of rape and murder, as if our attention were a form of charity.

The novel’s complex, braided plot begins with lawyer Horace Benbow fleeing his wife and moreover his stepdaughter, with whose budding sexuality he is obsessed. On the way to his sister’s house, he encounters a decaying plantation being run as a bootlegging site by Lee Goodwin. Goodwin lives with his long-suffering paramour, Ruby Lamar, and their baby, who sleeps in a box behind the stove, along with a mentally challenged man named Tommy. Finally, there is the menacing, mysterious, and almost inhuman Popeye, whom Benbow meets and with whom he has a two-hour staring contest at the novel’s opening:

He saw, facing him across the spring, a man of under size, his hands in his coat pockets, a cigarette slanted from his chin. His suit was black, with a tight, high-waisted coat. His trousers were rolled once and caked with mud above mud-caked shoes. His face had a queer, bloodless color, as though seen by electric light; against the sunny silence, in his slanted straw hat and his slightly akimbo arms, he had that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin.

As the novel develops, one of Benbow’s sister’s suitors, the alcoholic Gowan Stevens, takes Ole Miss coed and debutante Temple Drake to the plantation to get booze; Stevens promptly wrecks his car, and the couple is forced to stay among the bootleggers. Temple’s captivity takes up most of the novel’s first third, an eerie, slow-paced, ritual-like process of obsessiveness, as the predatory criminals circle the young woman and Ruby attempts to help her despite her class-based contempt for the haughty Temple. Finally, in the moment for which the novel has been notorious since its publication—even though the event is never actually described—Popeye shoots Tommy, who has been attempting to protect Temple, and then rapes her with a corncob. The remainder of the novel, which has not lingered in popular memory, is a double plot with two foci: Benbow’s attempt to exonerate Goodwin, who has been charged with Tommy’s murder; and Temple’s travails in the Memphis brothel where Popeye has imprisoned her.

Sanctuary has a reputation for misogyny that I think is unearned. It is a ruthless, unsparing description of a society organized around the rigorous control, at every level from the criminal underworld to the judiciary and by every agency from male judges to female bawds, of young women’s sexuality. The novel’s elliptical narrative method, about which more below, means that it is never titillating or exploitative in its descriptions of sexual violence. Its portrayal of Temple herself and of what is implied to be her complicity in her own exploitation is understandably disturbing, and critics point to the animal imagery that surrounds Temple—including her masculinized animal surname—as evidence of Faulkner’s conviction of female sexual corruption and natural evil. On the other hand, Temple is also described over and over again as a child or child-like, while her father’s reclamation of her at the novel’s conclusion evokes her kidnapping by Popeye. Even the novel’s ostensible hero, Benbow, is inspired to help Temple because of his own sexual obsession with his stepdaughter, whom he imagines as Temple in a vision of violating sexual congress accompanied by an ambiguous organic response of his own, either ejaculation or vomiting, with the confusion between the two signifying less Faulkner’s misogynistic disgust than his attempt to analyze that very malady in the person of his protagonist.

If Temple’s and Benbow’s behavior are at least partially explained by their social conditioning, so too is Popeye’s, when a concluding chapter flashes back to his troubled childhood. While his actions are not excused, the suggestion is that he, like Temple, had very little chance to become anything other than what he became. While Popeye is an ancestor of the inexplicably malignant murderer who will reappear in the works of Faulkner’s literary legatees—e.g., O’Connor’s Misfit, McCarthy’s Chigurh—as well as being replicated by any number of movie psychos, Faulkner furnishes social and psychological testimony in his vicious antagonists’ favor. Evil for Faulkner may be metaphysical, but it is articulated socially, not as an essential property of the individual. The social order is fate: hence André Malraux’s famous claim that Sanctuary introduces Greek tragedy into detective fiction.

All the same, let me not oversell Sanctuary as a reformist tract. If fate is fate, then there may be no reform possible. Faulkner borrows a caricatural energy from the sentimental reformer Dickens—particularly in the brothel scenes, where the obscenely vital madame Miss Reba and her dogs steal the show—but the novel’s master is the amoral and apolitical realist-aesthete Flaubert:

[Popeye] smells black, Benbow thought; he smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth and down upon her bridal veil when they raised her head.

The whole novel is contained in this small allusion. The blackness signifying sexual abjection is moved by Faulkner from the interior of the female body to the person of a male rapist, certifying the novel as a critique of its society’s gender politics. But the reader has to work to unravel this meaning, which remains immanent to its dramatization and which may even have been beneath the author’s own conscious notice; there is no Harriet Beecher Stowe jeremiad summoning us to redemption, and in fact Christian moralism is contemptuously satirized in the novel.

The whole novel functions in this dramatic rather than didactic way: chapters begin in media res with scenes the relevance of which to what has gone before it is up to us to decipher. The tone, too, is wildly various, from the nightmare-slowness of the early chapters focused on Temple’s captivity to the venerable bawdy comedy of misapprehension, a tradition stretching from Greek pastoral to Beavis and Butt-Head, of the two bumpkins lodged in Miss Reba’s brothel, which they take for a hotel. Much crucial action occurs off-stage or is reported in vague dialogue. The reader becomes, like Benbow, a searcher for truth, and like Temple, a baffled navigator in a corrupt, complicated world.

Sanctuary certainly lacks the hortatory sanctimony of Victorian realism, which many readers also enjoy today; it proceeds rather by defamiliarization or estrangement, as theorized almost contemporaneously by the Russian Formalist critics, themselves inspired by Tolstoy’s strategy of criticizing his society by literarily refusing to use its own customary names for its forms and objects but instead describing them as if seen for the first time. There is no guarantee in this strategy: it provokes the reader to think without telling the reader what to think. On the other hand, in giving the reader an object to contemplate—i.e., the novel—that aspires to the complexity of life itself, it may make readers much more supple and subtle thinkers than we would have been had we remained the proverbial choir addressed by the preachers of sentimentalism.

In this way, Sanctuary, a novel that envisions and offers no sanctuary whatever, is what Faulkner hoped it would turn out to be aside from a money-maker, as he wrote in a 1932 preface to the novel: “something which would not shame The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying too much.”


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

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 is wealthy from oil, 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, remember, 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.” All the other 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. Less than twenty pages later, he is being frisked by a tough and “turned around for him like a bored beauty modeling an evening gown.” A hundred 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 super-hero 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.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The way literary people talk about empathy nowadays, you would think it was an ethical term borrowed by aesthetic thinkers to promote the value of art. But in fact this relatively recent word began as an aesthetic concept—to account for the phenomenon of aesthetic absorption, it was coined to describe viewers’ projection of themselves into a work of art. From there the term seems to have migrated into discussions of morality, ethics, and politics as a synonym for putting oneself in the place not of a work of art but of another person, better to understand and to remedy the hardships of one’s fellows. Finally, the word returned to aesthetics via popular literary theories that claim our identification with literary characters—and not with the aesthetic object as a whole—enhances our ability to identify with real people, thus making literature (of a certain kind: that which invites identification) the cultural supplement of a liberal politics.

I begin a review of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 science fiction classic and later the basis for Blade Runner, with the above information because “empathy” is the novel’s key term and the following its most radical suggestion, even though it is said by the villain Roy Baty: “‘The whole experience of empathy is a swindle.'” The novel is a kind of crypto-dystopia, parodying the more avowedly “humanitarian” forms of modern mass violence (liberal imperialism, socialist totalitarianism), in which a future society’s ruling elite judges who is in and who is out, and indeed who gets to live and who must die, by testing its subjects on their capacity for empathy.

Set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, the novel is the story of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter working for the police force whose job is to discover and eliminate renegade androids. Most humans have left the despoiled and dying earth for other planets, where they are served by an increasingly sophisticated slave class of organic robots who are indistinguishable, to all appearances, from people. The main way to discern human from android is through an empathy test, though, as the novel shows, this is not quite reliable. On earth, human beings are subject to degeneration by exposure to radioactive dust, which may leave them “special,” i.e., cognitively or otherwise impaired, like the novel’s secondary protagonist, John Isidore. Non-impaired (“regular”) humans like Deckard and his wife are expected to keep and rear the few animals that remain on the earth, to the extent that if they cannot get a real animal they use a robotic decoy to fool their neighbors (the “electric sheep” of the bizarre title). Finally, in a nod to Huxley, they self-medicate with a wide array of mood-enhancing drugs (my favorite: one that stimulates “[t]he desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it”) and practice the religion of Mercerism by using an “empathy box” to experience a virtual-reality simulation of the religious martyr Mercer’s doomed attempt to scale a mountain.

The novel’s plot, given these parameters, is as follows: Deckard wants to earn enough money to buy a real animal instead of an electric sheep, and he is in luck because his superior in bounty hunting has been injured while attempting to bag eight androids escaped from Mars and hiding in the Bay Area. The case falls to Deckard, but in the course of his 24-hour hunt for the androids (allied to modernism, this is a one-day novel, like Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway or A Single Man), all of his certainties about the boundaries that structure his society collapse as it becomes progressively more difficult, even with the empathy test, to tell android from human, “normal” human from “special” human—and even real animal from electric animal. The novel raises and never fully dispels the suggestion that Deckard himself is an android, even though he is unusually empathetic, and it is careful to show other “regular” human characters as devoid of humane feeling. I suspect Dick was well aware of the etymology of “empathy,” because Deckard begins to have doubts about killing androids when he is forced to kill one in a museum even after he clearly perceives her empathy with a work of art, Edvard Munch’s Puberty:

Holding a printed catalogue, Luba Luft, wearing shiny tapered pants and an illuminated gold vestlike top, stood absorbed in the picture before her: a drawing of a young girl, hands clasped together, seated on the edge of a bed, an expression of bewildered wonder and new, groping awe imprinted on the face.

Other androids, however, such as the rebel leader Roy Baty and his wife Irmgard, are devoted to quashing the concept of empathy and the empathic religion of Mercerism because they are the ideological means by which the android class is kept powerless:

“No, it’s that empathy,” Irmgard said vigorously. Fists clenched, she roved into the kitchen, up to Isidore. “Isn’t it a way of proving that humans can do something we can’t do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared, group thing.”

As she says this, she and the other androids are torturing a spider—a rare animal on the post-apocalyptic earth—as if to elaborately demonstrate their lack of fellow-feeling with other creatures. Obviously, this is a science-fictional refraction of the liberal vs. radical debate about how oppressed classes should resist the cultural element of their oppression: should they claim their share in the universal (“we androids empathize as well as any human”) or should they elevate the particular terms of their abjection to a point of pride (“empathy is a tool of the oppressor and we are better for not having it”)?

The novel seems in the end to leave empathy standing as an ideal, even as it denies that some classes of living thing have it and not others. Its counsel, presumably, is to widen our capacity to empathize beyond the circle of those our society already instructs us to feel with. Dick, despite his radical reputation, seems to side with the liberals; on this reading, Dick becomes Dickens. Nevertheless, the novel has a radical implication beyond this: in extending empathy to animals, robots, and even humans considered subhuman by the dominant culture because of something like disability or cognitive impairment, we decouple the capacity to feel from any normative definition of the human at all. But this was implied in the concept of empathy from the start of its career: originally, it meant precisely projecting oneself into an inorganic, non-human, non-sentient object—the work of art. Dick is more faithful to the idea of empathy, then, than are its literary promoters today, who apply it mainly to readerly identification with the protagonists of realist novels.

All the same, Dick is not a careful writer—as I understand it, he often wrote not only at speed but also on speed—and the novel never coherently stages the above debate or makes the above argument. He throws a lot of ideas into the air, which readers then have to gather and put in order as they will. Dick is not a philosophical novelist; he gets a lot of credit, probably too much, for vividly raising philosophical issues via speculative metaphors, but his chosen form restricts his ability to address them in all their complexity as writers who were not so shackled to generic (and economic) constraints might. In this novel, for instance, he forces his visionary ideas into a reductive detective/noir plot complete with an android femme fatale, which tends to drain his original concepts of their force and individuality by allying them to hackneyed genre tropes. I am even tempted to suggest that the situation of the novel’s androids, restricted in their capacity to feel by their programming, might be an ironic authorial reflection on the situation of the genre writer. Someone must have written that paper by now!

Nevertheless, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is redemptively strange in summary and is no less strange in the actual reading, even in Dick’s rather bland and pulpy anti-style. While I think Dick can be overpraised, as when Fredric Jameson called him “the Shakespeare of science fiction,” the singularity of his affectless tone when describing marvels, and the dream-like haze of surreality that hangs over what should be straightforward genre entertainments, as if Heinlein had somehow been spliced to Kafka, is probably enough to account for his eminence today. The plot and the concept are a bit blurred and confused, but the weary wistful sadness of this novel, with which I found it all too easy to empathize, will almost certainly stay with me.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the BaskervillesThe Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Today, in honor of Halloween, the Paris Review is running an 1872 epistolary exchange between Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman. Sympathy between the authors of Leaves of Grass and Dracula is not as incongruous as it seems, given certain obvious sociopolitical realities—it makes sense for a budding Irish author to look up to a bard of national freedom, and students of the homoerotic and the onanistic will find much to ponder in Stoker’s letter (“I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea”)—but there is also more of a literary connection than meets the eye.

Stoker affirms Whitman’s values in the letter:

One thought struck me and I pondered over it for several hours—“the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports,” you who wrote the words know them better than I do: and to you who sing of your land of progress the words have a meaning that I can only imagine. But be assured of this Walt Whitman—that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts.

But doesn’t he affirm them still more decisively in 1897’s Dracula? This novel’s Victorian heterosexual marriage plot is derailed by the archaic threat of an aristocratic despot who comes out of the mists of the East to menace the metropolis, and who indeed enters the “new port” of modern England on the “weather-beaten”—also vampire-beaten—and eventually shipwrecked Demeter on a journey to the underworld in reverse. But Dracula eventually narrates the defeat of the Old World by a not un-Whitmanian combination of modern science, modern communications, and modernized gender and sexual roles: the New Woman represented by Mina Harker and the cosmopolitan Männerbund of vampire-hunters evoking Whitman’s homophiliac democracy.

I use the Stoker/Whitman connection to introduce my review of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a 1902 Sherlock Holmes mystery by Stoker’s distant relative, Arthur Conan Doyle, because The Hound‘s narrative is superficially similar to Dracula‘s in its effects. In fact, Doyle goes even further than Stoker in that he not only shows the defeat of the supernatural by the powers of reason and progress but also tells us that these powers can expose the supernatural itself as the criminal imposture and sham that it really is. For Stoker, the old mysteries can be beaten by the typewriter, the telegraph, modern medicine, feminism, and the city; for Doyle, ratiocination proves the mystery never to have been a mystery at all, just the self-serving myth of a justly dying social order.

You probably already know the novel’s story: Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead at his estate on the moors of southwest England. His physician worries that he was frightened to death by a supernatural hound, which has supposedly menaced his family since the seventeenth century, when local lore tells of the spectral canine’s dispatch of the rapist Cavalier Hugo Baskerville (“a most wild, profane, and godless man”) after he traded “his body and soul to the Powers of Evil” so that he could kidnap a young female neighbor. The famous detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Watson are enlisted to solve the mystery, which brings Watson (our narrator, as is usual with the Holmes stories) from London to the moor to watch over the new heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry, a man reared in North America who plans to modernize his inheritance with electric light and more. Holmes has ostensibly sent Watson to manage the case in his stead, but in the course of time we learn that he has been watching the proceedings from the neolithic huts on the moor; by the novel’s final third he joins the fight to save Sir Henry from whatever menaces him. I will not go into the complicated and red-herring-laden plot (which features an escaped convict, bathetic servants, a Dickensian grotesque obsessed with lawsuits, a scandalous love affair, domestic violence, lepidoptery, and more), but the novel’s upshot is that there is no supernatural hound, only a dog painted with phosphorous by a brilliant but decidedly material criminal intent on having the Baskerville property to himself.

Detective fiction invokes the Gothic only to usurp it here at the turn of the twentieth century; we have nothing to fear but human evil, and this can be contained and controlled by human intelligence (in the person of Holmes) and action (in the person of Watson). Even more than Dracula, with its triumphant modernity, The Hound of the Baskervilles is an anti-horror horror novel.[1]

The rational moral of the story does not prevent the novel from indulging in the atmospheric, however. Watson as narrator is usually only serviceable in his prose, often just conveying informative dialogue in the true anti-aesthetic spirit of genre fiction, but the moor and environs, which include jutting crags and a fatal bog, bring out a strain of lyricism that makes the novel more memorable for its haunted pathos than for its exorcising logos:

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but on the other hand you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of the prehistoric people. On all sides of you as you walk are the houses of these forgotten folk, with their graves and the huge monoliths which are supposed to have marked their temples. As you look at their gray stone huts against the scarred hill-sides you leave your own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that his presence there was more natural than your own.

And how seriously do we need to take Doyle/Holmes’s thesis against superstition anyway? When I say that detective fiction usurps the Gothic, I am saying that we replace one myth with another (unavoidably, as humanity lives on and by myth). The novel is somewhat overt about this fact. Why else is Holmes hiding out among the shades of neolithic man if not to associate his own quasi-mystical powers with the archaic? Holmes’s powers are indeed mystical, because though he claims them to be “deductive,” most commentators observe that he rather works, poet-wise, by flying inductive leaps, like the characteristic fin-de-siècle genius that he is.

Holmes is a kind of white magician[2], dispelling the hound’s dark evil through a primal power of good incarnated in a city detective with a revolver and smoking habit. When Holmes moves in disguise around the moor, like Henry V on the eve of Agincourt or Odysseus on his homecoming to Ithaca, we are in the realm of lordly myth, renovated for serialization and democratic dissemination to the newly literate masses. Holmes is all spirit, Watson all matter, and together they fuse in an alchemical wedding to form the complete man, a new figure for a new age, which I imagine Walt Whitman, had he lived long enough, would have hailed as the fulfillment of his progressive prophecy.

[1] In his sometimes rather Kinbotean notes to this edition (as if I’m one to talk!), Christopher Frayling observes that Watson’s mixed narration—which includes straightforwardly retrospective narration, epistolary narrative when he writes to Holmes, and excerpts from his diary—is a nod to “the convention of presenting horror stories in the form of collections of documents such as letters, diaries and reports—Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, most recently Dracula” which was “a way of dividing the authorial voice into different registers.” It was also a way of containing the horror—or, more broadly, the unconscious and repressed—with rational discourse. By the time of modernism, the repressed returns via textuality itself—comically, not horrifically, in Ulysses—and horror will pick up the hint by the end of the twentieth century, so that recent horror fiction and film, such as House of Leaves and The Ring, show supernatural evil to be transmitted through the texts that were supposed to contain them.

[2] Though the late-Victorian aesthete’s amorality in which Holmes dabbles may trouble my argument a bit; he allows that he endangers Sir Henry to solve the mystery, caring less for lives than for his successful rearrangement of life patterns known as detection. But his benevolent magic’s having something of the inhuman about it also reinforces my claim for its otherworldliness. Of the racial, rather than occult, connotation of “white,” see my review of The Sign of Four, an imperial romance inside a detective novel.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four

The Sign of FourThe Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few years ago, while studying the fin de siècle, I figured I should read some Sherlock Holmes, beyond whatever redacted-for-children versions I’d read when my age was in the single digits (remember Illustrated Classic Editions? I absolutely loved them—they used to sell them in the grocery store!). So I began at the beginning, with A Study in Scarlet, which has the merit of introducing the perfectly-conceived Holmes and Watson, but which alas divagates into a story about the Mormon settlement of the American West, the meaning or relevance of which I no longer recall. Nevertheless, for various reasons—one of which is the death of the Sherlockian Umberto Eco and my consequent desire to read his fiction (I have already read some of his nonfiction)—I wanted to read more Holmes, so I picked up this, the second book in the series.

Halfway through The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle steals the literary critic’s thunder by aptly “theorizing,” as we used to say in grad school, the novel’s own genre through two minor characters:

“It is a romance!” cried Mrs. Forrester. “An injured lady, half a million in treasure, a black cannibal, and a wooden-legged ruffian. They take the place of the conventional dragon or wicked earl.”

“And two knight-errants to the rescue,” added Miss Morstan, with a bright glance at me.

The late Victorian period saw a general revival of romance in Britain, for a variety of reasons: the ideological and commercial collapse of the three-volume realist novel; the increasingly martial cultural tone of an expanding empire; the reaction against the previous dominance of female authors and female modes (domestic realism, sentimentalism) in fiction; and the rise of a newly literate, non-classically educated audience seeking more adventurous fare. (I derive my information from such useful literary histories as Elaine Showalter’s Sexual Anarchy and Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island.)

Doyle’s myth-making imagination scored an undeniable triumph with the invention of the maven of deduction, Sherlock Holmes, and his more practical partner, Watson. But aside from this, he lacked the virtues of his fellow romancers. He could not write the perfect prose of Stevenson or Kipling, nor philosophize over his own phantasmagoria as Wilde could, nor embody in vividly imagined tales whole new concepts of time and nature like Wells; even Stoker’s Dracula, while a bit schlocky, is prodigiously imagined and intricately composed. I find Doyle’s narrative gifts and his style weaker—at least in the first two Holmes novels—and cannot bring myself to care much about the story or characters.

The Sign of Four, a complicated mystery involving the schemes of various parties to acquire treasure that a British army officer mysteriously won in India, is mainly interesting today for what I might call “cultural studies” reasons. That is, it fascinates readers for what it suggests about late-nineteenth-century British attitudes toward drugs, race, empire, law enforcement, homosocial relations between men, statistics, etc. I imagine the scene where Holmes deduces a killer’s identity from his footprint, complete with a lengthy pseudo-scientific racialist disquisition on the characteristics of various non-Western people’s feet (“The Hindoo proper has long and thin feet”—who knew?) has launched a dissertation or two.

But even I am not immune! As a student of aestheticism, I was interested in Doyle’s portrayal of Thaddeus Sholto, son of the major who brought the jewels back from India. In Sholto, Doyle provides an amusing caricature of the aesthete, an ineffectual and hypochondriacal lovers of the beautiful; and Doyle, in his bluff way, communicates directly what Pater and Wilde never quite get around to telling us, namely, that the aesthete is able to enjoy his refined pleasures only because he sits at the pinnacle of an imperial hierarchy (I think I learned somewhere or other that Edward Said, whom I have had cause to mention here before, re-read the Holmes stories on his deathbed).

But Holmes’s disinterested gaze knits the seeming chaos of crime into patterns that are pleasurable for the reader to behold: he is only another kind of aesthete (he is called in this novel a “connoisseur of crime”), which is no doubt why we find him, on this novel’s famous first page, in the languid Huysmans-esque pursuit of intoxication:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

And there is also some fine atmospheric writing about London here; not as good as Dickens, but moody and dream-like:

It was a September evening, and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-colored clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light,—sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more.

The novel ends with a long narrative from the main villain explaining the background to the crime. His narrative is an imperial romance within the detective romance, a tale of desperation, greed, and betrayal amid the upheavals of the Sepoy rebellion. The villain’s strong will and loyalty—he is the only non-racist character in the novel, being bound in solidarity with his Sikh collaborators in crime and his Andaman islander confederate—make him a good foil for Holmes, a man of equally strong drive but also of total abstraction and misanthropy. Here is Holmes watching a shipyard empty at quitting-time:

“Dirty-looking rascals, but I suppose every one has some little immortal spark concealed about him. You would not think it, to look at them. There is no a priori probability about it. A strange enigma is man!”

“Some one calls him a soul concealed in an animal,” I suggested.

“Winwood Reade is good upon the subject,” said Holmes. “He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.”

Holmes’s utterly detached aestheticism is necessarily his readers’, since we too are reading rather than acting (on the other hand, the active villain says, “reading is not in my line”); we contemplate the abstract that is literature rather than the individuality of life. But the passion of those who have to fight or work for their lives, even at the price of their souls, is the material from which Holmes shapes his narrative designs—communicated to us by Watson, who is the author of all Holmes’s adventures. Like those heralds of modernity, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Holmes and Watson have already read of their earlier exploits by the time this book opens. We readers and writers are detectives all in the ghostly city, looking with mastery but also longing (“imperial nostalgia,” it has been called) on those—poor Englishman and colonized Indian alike—whom we leave no choice but to live.

View all my reviews

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Inherent ViceInherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[Fair warning: the following is, deliberately, about as aleatory as the novel itself.]

Well, I am not this novel’s target demographic, to put it in the language of commerce that routed the hippie dream from within. It’s only the second Pynchon novel I’ve ever read. You can surely guess the first; I’ve read that one three times, if it counts for anything, and come to think of it, I have also read the first 100 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow three times. Furthermore, I can’t even follow the plots of straight thrillers, let alone thrillers deliberately detourned from coherence. I am neither stoner nor beach bum; the month and a half I once spent in L.A. did not exactly delight me. I am East Coast and no hippie nostalgic. (I didn’t have a high school subculture per se—I think I invented normcore, mostly so that I could stay on the good side of all, jocks, cheerleaders, punks, hippies, nerds, brains, ravers [and the nastiest of these groups by far was the hippies, I found]—though I was mostly identified with the goths, trying to turn the non-comics-reading girls onto Sandman back when Gaiman was, like, a fringe thing, man, and not the embarrassing sellout thing he became.)

Pynchon’s complexly plotted beach novel is narrated beautifully as a stoner-Chandler pastiche; my hardly original verdict on Raymond Chandler, after the novella and half-a-novel of his I managed to read, was, “Prose: delightful. Plots: inscrutable.” Due to Pynchon’s delightful prose, I was in love with Inherent Vice for about 50 pages, to the extent of wishing I had combed the California beaches a bit more when I’d had the chance. The narrative voice, third-person limited with free indirect discourse from the P.O.V. of the novel’s hero, Gordita Beach hippie P.I. (“gumsandal”) Doc Sportello, is alluringly mobile, afloat on a wave of poetic eloquence and period argot that can go anywhere, and is at its best washing over landscapes and through interiors:

In the little apartment complexes the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of course there’d only be the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight.

Whereas with people Pynchon mostly gives us caricatures and silliness, which eventually tries the patience—my patience anyway; you might think this is really hilarious:

“Excuse me,” wondered Xandra, who’d been staring at Denis, “is that a slice of pizza on your hat?”

“Oh wow, thanks, man, I’ve been lookin all over for that…”

All in all, though, a pretty traditionally narrated novel; not exactly what Henry James had in mind, but playing by The Master’s rules nevertheless. And its picaresque structure, the detective novel’s inheritance from courtly romance’s grail quest, complete with distant lover, mysterious landscape, grotesque interlocutors, corrupt world, and lost paradise, is as traditional as traditional gets, if the occult grail counter-tradition and its gnostic cosmos of redemptive desire can count as a tradition. I think of old Tom Eliot, who called up this whole grail narrative largely to contain it within the larger frame of his intelligence, which he in short order devoted to what Chesterton called “the romance of orthodoxy.” I was talking about Cynthia Ozick last week; she once somewhere captioned the problem of desire against order, borrowing from a philosopher or rabbi whose name escapes me, as the conflict between romanticism and religion, terms I silently stole for a scene where a Catholic priest chides my heroine in the obviously Lot 49-influenced Ecstasy of Michaela.

Pynchon, as I said, plays by enough of The Master’s rules to make his novel intelligible, but there can be no question that he is on the side of romanticism. This novel’s resident fortune-teller, named Sortilège with amusing literalism, is no Madame Sosostris; her fantasia of the sunken Lemuria, the lost Pacific Atlantis of which counter-cultural California is but the threatened remnant, is an authentically utopian vision that guides Doc Sportello on his way through the maze of authority and deceptive authority-serving “counter-subversives” that are corrupting the ’60s into the ’70s, of which process Charles Manson serves, here as elsewhere, as the master signifier:

Was it possible, that at every gathering—concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back east, wherever—those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?

The novel also trades in dramatic irony of a historical sort, offering a glimpse of the early Internet and allowing a character to say what it will balefully become:

“…and someday everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape. Skips won’t be able to skip no more, maybe by then there’ll be no place to skip to.”

More obliquely, in a motel that gets all the available TV channels and has consequently become a tourist destination for connoisseurs of film and television, we see the media surround in nuce which has grown up like a prison-wilderness around us:

Out there, all around them to the last fringes of occupancy, were Toobfreex at play in the video universe, the tropic isle, the Long Branch Saloon, the Starship Enterprise, Hawaiian crime fantasies, cute kids in make-believe living rooms with invisible audiences to laugh at whatever they did, baseball highlights, Vietnam footage, helicopter gunships and firefights, and midnight jokes, and talking celebrities, and a slave girl in a bottle, and Arnold the pig, and here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness…how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.

I am capable of feeling some of the pull of this ’60s longing, though not all of it. The ease of taking the doper’s joint bespeaks the flaw at the heart of psychedelia as a way of life, and I am basically convinced that our evilly inescapable media surround is the material correlate of the doper’s phantasmagoria anyway. The novel’s title, with its allusion to a category in insurance referring to unavoidable misfortune, is something to take seriously. But if vice is inherent (the phrase lying behind “inherent vice” is “original sin,” as Doc himself points out), then a revolutionary is a silly thing to be. But a knight-errant? Well, I would rather be a knight-errant than a mere cop; but then I am not really anything, just a scribbler. A scribbler, I guess, is a grail quester today, at least since Baudelaire or even, what, Chatterton. I am supposed to think that this is romantic, but I am coming to think that it actually pretty well sucks.

As I said, the novel’s prose and its imagery aesthetically delighted me for about 50 pages, and then it became like too much ice cream (a deliberate effect? a comment on the surfeit of pleasures that killed the ’60s?), and I had to struggle to the end. In said end, I found the plot both incomprehensible and unmemorable, the theme a bit too easy, and the language utterly enviable (from a writerly perspective). “Pynchon Lite,” Kakutani said—I hope so, if I am ever to get past page 100 of Gravity’s Rainbow. But let me end on a good moment, when Doc looks from the sea to the beach and sees the vision—maybe too simple, but as unforgettable as are all simple and true visions, even if other visions are equally true—of weighty authority in pursuit of light anarchy:

Through Sauncho’s old binoculars he observed a CHP motorcycle cop chasing a longhaired kid along the beach, in and out of folks trying to catch some midday rays. The cop was in full motorcycle gear—boots, helmet, uniform—and carrying assorted weaponry, and the kid was barefoot and lightly dressed, and in his element. He fled like a gazelle, while the cop lumbered behind, struggling through the sand.

Now I will say a few words about the film, which I also recently viewed. Unless I am sadly mistaken, Paul Thomas Anderson has rendered a far severer judgment on Pynchon than I just did. In his adaptation, he strips the novel of its visionary dimension—he shows us no lost islands and even rations our view of the ocean—training the camera eye remorselessly on grubby and stoned interactions. Even the zany comedy—e.g., the aforementioned pizza on Denis’s hat—is muted. Anderson turns Sportello’s sex with Shasta after her return especially ugly, rape-like, when it had read as playful in the novel. The whole thing struck me as clinical, and perchance therapeutic for those in the audience who might be sympathetic to Pynchon’s vision: Look in the mirror, dirty hippie!

I’ve always thought Anderson was an instinctive conservative. Take Magnolia, a film that portrays the chaos left behind by absent or irresponsible fathers. (It was released in the same year as American Beauty and Fight Club, also elegies to patriarchy, artifacts of the backlash against ’90s PC culture; we should be thinking about these films, because we are due for another backlash.) Magnolia does not condemn patriarchy, but only calls the patriarchs to strength and responsibility, so that their sons and daughters are not prey to drugs or madness, so that they are not made vulnerable to the interrogation of menacing Others (Gwenovier, the black woman reporter who interviews Mackey; Thurston Howell, the cynical old queen in the bar who torments Quiz Kid Donnie Smith). The film’s hero is not a counterculture P.I. but a good cop, not a knight-errant but J.C. himself (well, okay, J.K., but close enough), the merciful son who will broker us a new deal with the father (i.e., with masculine authority, which triumphs at the film’s conclusion). A fitting film to end the century of The Waste Land. And then there are Lancaster Dodd’s resonant lines from The Master:

If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.

Anderson’s Inherent Vice is, in my view, punitively joyless, but the director is to be commended for the ingenious idea of making Sortilège the narrator and casting Joanna Newsom as Sortilège. This gives us a higher perspective on the narrative than Sortello’s own, which the novel does not provide, and suggests the limitation of his viewpoint. Less Madame Sosostris than Tiresias, Anderson’s Sortilège, in beholding the tawdry appetites and tawdrier relations of our modern world, has

foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.

Newsom, too, has always seemed to me to temper her evident romanticism pretty severely; I think of her great song, “Go Long,” which gathers into one lyric the whole earthly catalogue of male misdeeds, from Bluebeard to Vietnam to rape to literature to football to rock and roll, seeing all as a consequence of the struggle between men for primacy:

But you don’t even own
your own violence
Run away from home—
your beard is still blue
with the loneliness of you mighty men,
with your jaws, and fists, and guitars
and pens, and your sugarlip,
but I’ve never been to the firepits with you mighty men

To this, there is no ultimate antidote, only gendered coping strategies. Women can transgress the boundaries men create:

When you leave me alone
in this old palace of yours,
it starts to get to me. I take to walking,
What a woman does is open doors.
And it is not a question of locking
or unlocking.

And men might develop strategies of indirection to discipline themselves out of the taste for violence:

There’s a man
who only will speak in code,
backing slowly, slowly down the road.
May he master everything
that such men may know
about loving, and then letting go.

Something of Pynchon’s aesthetic is captured here, but little of Sportello’s life. It is probably ill-advised to be really fucking high when trying to talk in code or to walk backward—or indeed forward.

View all my reviews