Saturday, June 25, 2005

Lethem on Chandler

Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem During internship, I gave all my Chandler paperbacks to an old black man dying of laryngeal cancer. He spent his time in an eight-bed ward, nothing to do but watch TV (one TV for the whole ward, forever tuned to the Spanish language channel), and when I found out he liked to read mysteries, I thought I'd do something nice. Parting with those paperbacks was like loaning out a stack of letters written to me by my best friend. I'm not usually the type to get sappy about my books, but -- The Big Sleep! Farewell, My Lovely! Take my left nut while you're at it. There's something almost painfully endearing about Chandler's protagonist, Philip Marlowe. I can't think of a more sympathetic fictional character. There's more to Marlowe than just smart-ass wisecracks (that's about all you get from most movie Marlowes -- even Bogie, God bless him). More than just his self-effacing humor, or his White Knight ethos. For me, it's the fact that Marlowe has a vision of how things should be, and he's inevitably dissapointed. He's a chivalrous character in a world that relegates its Knights to wax museums. The few SF-noir-hardboiled hybrids I've read usually don't get it. You can't do this on snarky smart-alecky patter alone. It's not enough that your protag, at least once in the novel, drinks hard, is sapped on the head, gets slipped a mickey, runs afoul of the police, and falls for the dangerous dame. You can't turn Chandler into a formula like that. The only way you can do Chandler is to do Marlowe. Halfway through Gun, with Occasional Music, I told Karen that Lethem got all the elements right, but didn't truly get Chandler. By two-thirds of the way through, I'd changed my mind. And if I had any remaining doubt that Lethem understands Chandler, it vanished after I read an interview he did with Trudy Wyss, for Borders. Here's a relevant excerpt: The Chandler detective is one who's self-aware to just a degree where he can see the absurdity of his own actions, and particularly of the urge to rescue other people. That's something Chandler was very tormented about: What does it mean to try to be a hero? To be a white knight in a kind of crumbling world?

And he's just also such a beautiful writer. The secret of Chandler is that he's really very romantic. Behind all that ennui there's this enormous yearning that causes him to reach, in this very precarious way, for all sorts of beautiful phrases and unlikely poetic comparisons. And then he's always making fun of himself for doing it at the same time. That's why writers obsess over Chandler--because he's found a way to have his lyricism and make fun of it at the same time.

So, yeah, he gets it, and in Gun, with Occasional Music, he's proven that he gets it.*

Conrad Metcalf is a private inquisitor in a world where questions have all the political correctness of the N-word. Here, Celeste Stanhunt, wife of the murder victim, is talking to Metcalf:

"I've answered enough questions today to last a lifetime. Let's see some identification, or I'm calling in the heat."

"The heat?" I smiled. "That's ugly talk."

"You're using a lot of ugly punctuation." She stuck out a hand. "Let's see it, tough boy."

It's an interesting world, not immediately recognizable as a dystopia. One of the beauties of the novel is the way it sneaks up on you like a revelation, exactly how dystopian this place is. The written word is all but extinct, and the spoken word is endangered. Morning news on the radio consists of mood music: the listener must intuit local and world events by the flavor of orchestration. Television news consists of clipped images -- politicians smiling, shaking hands, kissing babies. Nearly everyone uses drugs (with names like Forgettol, Regrettol, Addictol) and, guess what, this junk is free courtesy of the government. As time passes, what at first seemed quirky becomes, by turns, ominous, and then outright nightmarish.

That's why I had my doubts about Gun early on. At first it seemed that Lethem's approach to Chandler was a sort of novel-sized Mad Lib. For cops, substitute Public Inquisitors; for rye whiskey, substitute make (the individual's personal blend of drugs; Metcalf's is "skewed heavily towards Acceptol, with just a touch of Regrettol to provide that bittersweet edge, and enough addictol to keep me craving it even in my darkest moments.") For the lower class -- ubiquitous in Chandler's work -- substitute evolved animals. There's a kangaroo here you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.

But things change. The mystery unfolds as it deepens, time passes, caprice becomes meaning. The author has a plan, but I won't spoil it by telling you. Trust me, trust Lethem.

Gun was Lethem's first novel, so in fairness we should compare it to The Big Sleep. Like The Big Sleep, the mystery in Gun is, ultimately, a secondary concern. You could quibble over it, but you should bear in mind a much-repeated (and possibly apocryphal) story about Chandler. Humphrey Bogart (Marlowe in the first film version of The Big Sleep) and director Howard Hawks got into an argument over who killed the chauffeur -- or was it suicide? Chandler replied that he didn't know, either. (In another version of the story, it was Jack Warner who telegrammed Chandler with the question. When Chandler couldn't answer it, Warner billed him 75 cents for the telegram.) Point being, if you're here for the mystery, then you're no fun at all.

Post script: My patient didn't do well. Laryngectomy, fistula, recurrence, sepsis. "Piss-poor protoplasm" is how docs put it when we're around each other and have to wear our stony faces. He had no family, no friends. When he died in the 10th Floor step-down ICU, I was Intern On-Call, and I had to come to his bedside to pronounce him dead, and I was probably the only one in the hospital who gave a damn about him. Some of you might say, "He would have liked it that way," but I think he would have preferred not being dead. That would have been my choice.

D.

*Those of you who read this blog regularly may be wondering if I'm incapable of giving a bad review. That I leave all the snarkiness to my wife -- the classic good cop, bad cop. Maybe you're even wondering if I love everything I read, and that I would wax poetic over the ingredients list of Safeway's Very Maple cookies.

But I don't.

What's the point in trash-talking a book, no matter how elegant, logical, and/or humorous that trash-talk may be? Do you really need to know that I sped-read Chris Roberson's Here, There & Everywhere last night, and now I want my money back? Or that I gave up on Brin's Kiln People in less than one hundred pages because he can't control his damned exclamation points? No. You don't need to know that. And you won't find snark like that on these electronic pages.

3 Comments:

Blogger Jeff Huber said...

God bless Chandler. I think, more than any other author, he showed me what a man should be.

Jeff

6/26/2005 07:39:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Library of America has a two volume set which includes Chandler's short stories, all of his novels, and some letters. (Also his screenplay for Double Indemnity.) Among the letter, one to John Houseman, in which Chandler states, ". . .why does he [Marlowe] work for such a pittance? For the answer to that is the whole story, the story that is always being written by indirection and yet never is written completely or clearly. It is the struggle of all fundamentally honest men to make a decent living in a corrupt society. It is an impossible struggle; he can't win."

But you're absolutely right, Jeff. Marlowe is a mensch. Hemingway's protags are, IMO, caricatures of manhood written by a man who never escaped the pink frock his mom dressed him in.

6/26/2005 10:18:00 AM  
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