Raymond Chandler
The Detections of Totality
Fredric Jameson

    She had a lot of face and chin. She had pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. - - - [The High Window]
We've been fond of Chandler for well over half-century, especially in love with the big four: The High Window (1942), The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1942), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). Jameson evidently shares this affection for the the author and his writings. This brief collection of essays reflects that spot we have found in that supposedly icy detective heart.

The critic makes clear here that part of our passion has to do with the character of Marlowe, one who, perched there among the effluvia of 1030s Los Angeles, found himself enveloped by those willing to do everything they could to get what they wanted: Revenge. Money. Power. Laid.

In these pursuits, we find Chandler playing a sly critic of the American soul, as well as being a master of a style so lean that all grows twisted, then turns to give the reader a kick in the pants.

    Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You're the second guy I've met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail. - - - [The High Window]
We slip around in pre-WWII Los Angeles easily, led by a man who we would, ultimately, follow to the end of the ends of the earth if we could. And our critic gives us a chance to rehearse some of our choice, favorite passages here. In his brief history of the writer, Jameson reminds us that Chandler didn't begin to write seriously until he was almost fifty, starting out with short stories in Black Mask magazine.

Up to then, he had been in the oil business . . . until the depression caught up with him.

He had been born in Nebraska, but his father was a drunk, like him, and he abandoned Raymond and his mother early on. The two of them moved to England in 1900 when he was twelve so that he could have the benefit of a gruelling education. When he finally got back to Los Angeles, he worked for the Dabney Oil Syndicate for years, but the national economic breakdown soon left him on his own.

    I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room. - - - [Farewell, My Lovely]
Jameson compares the Marlowe stories to earlier "picaresque" novels: Lazarillo de Tormes, The History of Tom Jones, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote. The key element is the raw outsider, usually lower class, getting by on his wits in loosely connected episodes. The language and dialogue are realistic, and all is presented with a touch of evil, an edge of despair.

Through these characters - - - the boy, the detective, the madman - - - we are able to see the society as a whole. These are people on the frontier, either out there in the boonies, in the lower depths of the city, or in places, Jameson writes, where the police are not necessarily there to prevent crime, but "to know and thus to control the varying elements of their administrative areas."

The murder and the consequent search give us alternative scenes, making a "kind of intricate Gestält pattern."

    Each serves to mask off the weaker, less convincing aspects of the other, each serves to arrest the blurring of the other out into the magical and the symbolic.

The murders themselves? He sees these invested with a "depressing fatality, a circle growing smaller and smaller; it becomes a purposeless accident, the endless breaking of a thread, of a trail."

I must confess that I am not overly fond of this kind of MA noodling that runs through this book and other like-minded "studies" of lw-life literature. These noodlings come to us courtesy of our graduate English programs, awash with students facing few placement opportunities when they graduate (if they ever do - - - many often spend æons edging their way towards a degree, holding back as long as they dare, living in the local bodegas and cheap student housing, going on as long as their families are willing to foot the bill).

§   §   §

Jameson actually comes up with some fertile ideas, although they are not all that necessary for a reader to enjoy Chandler. Here he is telling us about the rôle of the camera in The Little Sister, where "the momentary lightning of the flashbulb is both a homicidal and a sexual assault." He proposes that one character's glass eye is "the bookseller's own lens-and-flashbulb [which] has similarly flared, burning his life out along with the process."

    Her eyes receded and her chin followed them. She sniffed hard. "You been drinkin' liquor," she said coldly.
    "I just had a tooth out. The dentist gave it to me."
    "I don't hold to it."
    It's bad except for medicine," I said.
    "I don't hold with it for medicine neither."
    I think you are right," I said. "Did he leave her any money." "Her husband?"
    "I wouldn't know" Her mouth was the size of a prune and as smooth.
    I had lost out. - - - [Farewell, My Lovely]
In another aside, Jameson offers a riff on Chandler's use of brand names, a tool used to give a veracity, a you-are-there to the episodes. "I got a half-bottle of Old Taylor out of the deep drawer of the desk." "The sweetish smell of his Fatima poisoned the air for me." "I went past him into a dim pleasant room with an apricot Chinese rug that looked expensive, deep-sided chair, a number of white drum lamps, a big Capeheart in the corner." Those of us who may have grown up in LA in those opulent times remember, with affection, those gee-gaws in friends' houses, and the writer takes us back to that city when it was at its best. Jacobsen (and Chandler) are at their best in placing Los Angeles, so easily scorned, to its natural place, with its wonder of a decentralized semi-chaos of dozens of municipalities, often in rank competition to be the most seedy.

    I don't mind your showing me your legs. They're very swell legs and it's a pleasure to make their acquaintace. I don't mind if you don't like my manners. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights. - - - [The Big Sleep]
These touches make the book worth it, reminding us of the decentrality of the Los Angeles basin, all extensions vital to the story Chandler has to tell, the plots bing, uniformly, jumbled, irrational.

There's the famous story about the making a film of The Big Sleep. Howard Hawks called up Chandler because none of his screen play writers could figure out exactly how the story was supposed to end. As one critic wrote,

    Hawks even gathered his screenwriters, who included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, together to unpack the dense narrative web of Chandler's novel before finally just wiring the author to ask what finally happened, how did it all come together?

    The way Chandler tells it in his memoirs, the filmmakers asked him who exactly killed Owen Taylor, a chauffer whom audiences never met until he pops up as the second inexplicable murder victim in the last 10 minutes.

    "They sent me a wire," Chandler wrote. "Asking me, and dammit I didn't know either!"

As befits those university English Lit types, Jameson has to turn stolid, leaden half way through the book, coming up with that weighty lit-talk which manages to send the best of us into am doze, if not straight into Wolkenkuckucksheim.

In "the symbiosis" between character and place" he announces, "I would suggest that it can be accounted for by the hypotheses that the primitive or rudimentary form of the episode in Chandler is the interview itself, whose ur-form as in pre-Aeschylean drama involved no more than two actors at any given time. "

Or this McBurger whopper, introduced as to as Marlowe's "tourism [which] serves therefore in a quasi-metaphysical way to reconfirm the idea of 'reality' itself."

    What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. - - - [The High Window]

This book has, at any rate, the two-fold merit of grasping hermeneutic activity (whether that of the textual interpreter or that off Marlowe and other detectives) 1] as a ritual, as an activity whose connotative meaning confirms and secures an ideology which greatly transcends its immediate denotative intent (the immediate solution to the enigma or the problem); and 2] as a spatial form, that is, as an activity whose fundamental material organization is to be found in space (rather than in cognitive categeories.)

As my dear old Mum would intone, "Say who?"

Remember, always, when they start to wheel out the heavy guns - - - "hermeneutic activity" "connotative meaning" "denotative intent" and "fundamental material organization," it 's time to head for the shelters, what with the shells and all the flack, bombarding us with the biggest whizz-bangs they can roll in to battle, if not baffle, our possible understanding of what the fuck is supposed to be going on.

And when they haul in the the Freudian howitzers, it's time to run for the hills

    The Big Sleep has as its diegetic (!) center and pretext images; photographs which the verbal narrative cannot give us, and which show Carmen naked (a metonymic primal scene, since it supposedly documents her "nymphoania" and also show her as guilty of or linked to Geiger's murder (by displacement, murder itself becomes a heightened version of the sexual act).

    §   §   §

    "What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell."

      To say goodbye is to die a little." - - - [The High Window]
--- Matty Watters
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH