Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Raymond Chandler - The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye is the sixth of Raymond Chandler's seven classic novels starring Philip Marlowe. In the broad outlines of its plot and genre, it fits neatly into the progression established by the rest, but differences soon become apparent. This is the longest of Chandler's novels by far, and it's also the slowest in pace. Here, Chandler focuses more than ever before on not only Marlowe's voice, but his observations about society, his sketches of characters and flaws, on not only combating the corrupt world but understanding it and coming to terms with it.

Of course, The Long Goodbye is still a crime novel. It's practically the calling card of noir, the very pinnacle of the genre. And yet the actual crime is never the point. Chandler writes about crime because Marlowe's (our) life is made of corruption and pain, but the mystery itself is just the lense with which we see the brutal world. Chandler's Marlowe is worlds away from Doyle's Holmes or Poe's Dupin. These are not puzzles. The goal is not some abstract solution. There are lives at stake here; we have left the realms of impersonal deductions and clues far behind. In the absence of that intellectual game, we're just left with the violence and the pain, but, in marked contrasts to so many that had already come and that would come later, Chandler does not revel in the violence. This is not a novel about odds or gunplay, about fistfights and triumphs, though it does have all of those things. Believe me, pal, there is nothing elevating or dramatic about it, one character writes, with the "it" in question being death, or maybe suicide, crime, struggle, flight, sacrifice, or even maybe heroism. It is just plain nasty and sordid and gray and grim. (p. 84)

The Long Goodbye is a novel about why we act and why we don't. About heroism in the modern world and that world itself. The way the competition is nowadays a guy has to save his strength to protect hisself in the clinche, (p. 6) a character says early in the novel. Smart men know to stay out of people's troubles. (p. 280) Nobody cares, and nobody can afford to care. Those that do seem to enforce the law do it for all the wrong reasons, for power, money, or pride. They know that the law "isn't justice" (p. 56) and that they can "always find a way to do what they want." (p. 55)

Philip Marlowe is an exception. He acts for an idea of justice that's not what's found in the law books or on the streets, not encased in popular opinion or built on misery. As we see time and time again, Marlowe will never back down from what he thinks is doing the right thing. But while toughness might be enough to keep you alive, it's not enough to let you prosper. Marlowe can never win, and he is all too aware of that fact. As he learns so many times, there's "no percentage" in being a hero (p. 236), and, if Marlowe manages to survive, he does it by the skin of his teeth and with nothing at all to show for it but justice.

Crucially, The Long Goodbye is not the story of a crusade. This is not a book of the White Knight Marlowe against a world of immoral Black. No, the Los Angeles of the novel is one where culpability is only matched by inevitability and where all is painted shades of struggling gray. The early realization is that crime isn't responsible for all this alone; it's power that's torn us so asunder, and, as Marlowe says, the "only difference" between business and crime is that, "for business you gotta have capital." (p. 188) The world is anything but equal, and the average man seems powerless against the rich giants all about him. He is tired and sacred, we're told, and a tired, scared man can't afford ideals. (p. 234) But the ultimate realization, the novel's killing blow, is that Crime isn't a disease. It's not something that Marlowe can defeat, no matter how hard he hits or how clever he is. No, crime is a symptom. Cops are like a doctor that gives you aspirin for a brain tumor, except that the cop would rather cure it with a blackjack. We're a big rough rich wild people and crime is the price we pay for it, and organized crime is the price we pay for organization. We'll have it with us for a long time. Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar. (p. 352)

Every step of the way, Chandler writes with a splatter-painting style of figurative language, a barrage of similes that range from hilarious to profound, and all of it's charging forward with the strength of some of the most muscular, powerfully direct prose imaginable. Brute declarative statements meet metaphors, here, and it's all aided by one of the most prevalent and cutting wits I've had the pleasure of reading, every page peppered with delightful phrases like: he looked at me like a horse looking over a fence (p. 250) and they put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs. (p. 88) More than that, though, Marlowe's observations cut beyond the realm of double-dealings and rich adulterers and strike into the timeless, both in the already discussed area of morality and in a thousand small facets of life, with the intervening decades between us and him just serving to cement his claims: There is something compulsive about a telephone, he says. The gadget-ridden man of our age loves it. Loathes it, and is afraid of it. But he always treats it with respect, even when he is drunk. The telephone is a fetish. (p. 200) And, of course, you know you can trust the judgments of a man who swears he will never again use an electronic razor. (p. 153)

Despite all that, and despite its first person narration, and despite the fact that Marlowe is one of the most characteristic and opinionated narrators I can think of, the detective's actual thoughts, plans, and emotions are kept far away from us. In fact, the combination of Marlowe's perceptive eye and recalcitrant mind have the odd effect of giving us far more of just about every other character's emotional state than we get of the narrator's. As a result, it can be hard to tell just who Marlowe is. We can primarily know him by what he is not, which is to say by the depravities and corruptions that he turns away from. But exactly why Marlowe is the way that he is is difficult to say. Why is he a hero in this world where heroism is impossible?

On a more grounded level, this also means that The Long Goodbye can come to seem aimless at times. Marlowe himself moves with purpose in everything he does, but, as we're never allowed to see it, it's easy to lose track of the narrative and get lost in the steps along the way. More importantly, the friendship between Terry Lennox and Marlowe, established early in the novel and crucial throughout, is always a distant thing. Some degree of ambiguity in it is understandable, of course, but – save for one powerful exception – that relationship that is such a driving force for the narrator is never felt at all by the reader.

That distance and Marlowe's observations, the latter the novel's greatest strength by far, serve to hamstring the part of it that is actually a crime novel. Throughout, the mystery is buried under Marlowe's wit, attitude, and judgments. While that makes the novel infinitely stronger than it would've been as just another plot boiler, it does leave the reader focusing on things other than the clues and not particularly invested in the ultimate identity of the killer. Up until the novel's three hundredth page (or so), this really isn't such a problem. The mystery's not exceptional, but in a book this strong, it doesn't need to be, and it's adequate.  Unfortunately, the last sixty pages, all taking place after the seeming resolution, are far more plot focused than anything that came before – and also far less successful. Chandler somehow manages to strike a regrettable balance between meandering bloat and a feeling that everything we see is rushed. Scene after scene feels like it could be the novel's last but isn't, the plot still stumbling through another (frankly unnecessary) turn that would've needed a great deal more space to make us really understand it, let alone care about it.

The brilliance of The Long Goodbye is a direct result of its most deadly failings. Judged by the crime genre's standard strictures of plot and climax, this novel is a failure. Yet that does little to diminish its overall power. The Long Goodbye is, despite and also because of all its faults, an insightful and excellently written that deserves its classic status.

1 comment:

  1. The actual mysteries aren't why I read Chandler; I read him for his style and evocation of the period. Great review!

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