Friday, February 19, 2010

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

I enjoyed the book a good deal more in its last quarter or so, when the plot sharply diverges from the film version. (I like the film version, but the close parallelism of it to the book made reading the first three-fourths somewhat tedious.)

Before the action really kicks in, though, what interested me was the description. It's not uniformly good, but it is very frequently extensive, even belabored. What interests me, though, is not so much its quality as its role in the novel. Let's take the following, rather lengthy passage:
It was a wide room, the whole width of the house. It had a low beamed ceiling and brown plaster walls decked out with strips of Chinese embroidery and Chinese and Japanese prints in grained wood frames. There were low bookshelves, there was a thick pinkish Chinese rug in which a gopher could have spent a week without showing his nose above the nap. There were floor cushions, bits of odd silk tossed around, as if whoever lived there had to have a piece he could reach out and thumb. There was a broad low divan of old rose tapestry. It had a wad of clothes on it, including lilac-colored silk underwear. There was a big carved lamp on a pedestal, two other standing lamps with jade-green shades and long tassels. There was a black desk with carved gargoyles at the corners and behind it a yellow satin cushion on a polished black chair with carved arms and back. The room contained an odd assortment of odors, of which the most emphatic at the moment seemed to be the pungent aftermath of cordite and the sickish aroma of ether.
On a sort of low dais at one end of the room there was a high-backed teakwood chair in which Miss Carmen Sternwood was sitting on a fringed orange shawl. She was sitting very straight, with her hands on the arms of the chair, her knees close together, her body stiffly erect in the pose of an Egyptian goddess, her chin level, her small bright teeth shining between her parted lips. Her eyes were wide open. The dark slate color of the iris had devoured the pupil. They were mad eyes. She seemed to be unconscious, but she didn't have the pose of unconsciousness. She looked as if, in her mind, she was doing something very important and making a fine job of it. Out of her mouth came a tinny chuckling noise which didn't change her expression or even move her lips.
She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn't wearing anything else.
She had a beautiful body, small lithe, compact, firm, rounded. Her skin in the lamplight had the shimmering luster of a pearl. Her legs didn't quite have the raffish grace of Mrs. Regan's legs, but they were very nice. I looked her over without either embarrassment or ruttishness. As a naked girl she was not there in that room at all. She was just a dope. To me she was always just a dope.
Perhaps it is merely due to my perceptions of the genre, but this seems unnaturally verbose (even florid) for the "hardboiled" aesthetic. While a number of very short declarative sentences punctuate this long descriptive section, the average number of words per sentence is about 16. Perhaps that is not very long (for fun, I found a passage on the same numbered page—page 31—of the Lydia Davis translation of Swann's Way which has an almost identical number of words, and the words-per-sentence figure there is about 39.5), but it is not exactly laconic. The reputation for hardboiled terseness, then, probably derives more from the relative frequency of these short, declarative sentences rather than an overall, consistent effect of close-lippedness.

But I'd like to focus more on the role of detail in this passage. Detail, generally speaking, has a few narrative functions. Scene-setting, of course, meaning the provision of details necessary to understand the action, but in this passage, the details which actually perform this function are relatively few: the cordite and ether smells and the nudity. These elements are going to be required both by the reader and by Marlowe to understand what has happened and to advance the plot.

Realistic scene-dressing is the provision of quotidian details which, because of their superfluity or excessiveness, demonstrate at least the authorial intention of anchoring the action in reality. The author is telling us, "I want you to know that I am holding myself to the possibly real; I am committed to keeping my imagination from running completely free." The upshot of this action is a sort of de-pressuring of the reader's suspension of disbelief; the reader isn't supposed to be convinced that the action has truly taken place, but that the contract between the author and the reader has been re-negotiated with better terms for the reader: less suspension, less effort is required. The main beneficiary of this re-negotiated contract is, however, the action. An author can be a little bit more flamboyant with plot, allowing for more coincidences, more exaggerated or stretched probabilities, when the reader believes that the author is committed to coloring in the lines of the real. The multitude of superfluous details here serves this function very well.

A third function, which does take place somewhat in this section, is the establishment of a character's attributes and inclinations—in short, his personality—by displaying what he sees and how he sees it. The fact that a deep carpet makes Marlowe think of gophers is interesting, and presumably tells us something about him—that he has a streak of whimsy, perhaps.

But what I think the details really do—and I think this continues throughout the book—their preeminent function is, in fact, the permission they give for voyeurism. The careful descriptions of the contours and colors of each irrelevant piece of furniture allows Marlowe's gaze to slide right onto a naked woman with the semblance, stressed by Marlowe, of disinterest. Taking note of the colors and contours of her body become just an extension of a process Marlowe has already started—a forensic examination of the room. This professional gaze simply must include the woman's skin and shape. We, the reader, merely get to look over the shoulder of the detective, as we have been doing throughout the book.

Of course, I am far from the first to note how the professional demeanor and habits of detectives or spies—police or private eyes—opens up a huge space for voyeurism. Critics of shows like Law & Order have made this point, as have critics of James Bond, and, no doubt, critics of the noir genre. Michael Denning, in his book on British spy thrillers, plays on the Bond formula "license to kill" by calling this the "license to look." And that is what is happening in the passage above. A balance is achieved between the mundane and the lurid that enables a plausible deniability of pure "ruttishness," as Marlowe calls it.

Of course the back cover, which begins, "She was waiting in his bed…" begs the question of whose plausible deniability is being constructed here. No one reads noir for the "Chinese and Japanese prints in grained wood frames," and no one really claims to be, or believes that other readers might be doing so. It's the girls and the guns, and everyone knows it, likes it, and admits knowing and liking it.

Perhaps the argument should be that the negligible obstacle of this inclusion of the mundane simply adds to the reader's pleasure by delaying it, just as the detective plot itself delays the gratification of knowledge and of the ending. But I think there's also a desire on the part of the reader for a sort of reciprocity: if the author is checking his or her imagination to give the appearance of remaining within the bounds of the possibly real, the reader likewise wishes to discipline his or her imagination, remaining within a code of sorts or adhering to a sense of decorum. It's no fun if the writer is playing tennis with a net but you're not.

Of course, some readers don't think that and skip to the lurid scenes of the books they read, whether that's Lawrence Durrell or Charlaine Harris. I don't know what to do with them, but I think they're probably a minority. Most readers are, I'll bet, interested in this reciprocity, which is itself a very fascinating phenomenon.

6 comments:

Dan Green said...

I think you might be understating the importance of point of view in this novel and all of Chandler's novels. We aren't meant to read through Marlowe to the objects he describes but to read Marlowe describing them. His powers of observation, as well as his reasons for deploying them, are themselves subjects of the story. The use of first-person narration in detective fiction has become something of a commonplace, but in Chandler's case Marlowe as narrrator provides more than voyeurism. The "world" doesn't exist independent of Marlowe's attempts to make sense of it.

Andrew Seal said...

Marlowe as narrator provides more than voyeurism.
This I agree with--and I did say something that was meant to be similar to what you say about his powers of observation being subjects of the story. (I said, "A third function, which does take place somewhat in this section, is the establishment of a character's attributes and inclinations—in short, his personality—by displaying what he sees and how he sees it. The fact that a deep carpet makes Marlowe think of gophers is interesting, and presumably tells us something about him—that he has a streak of whimsy, perhaps.")

The "world" doesn't exist independent of Marlowe's attempts to make sense of it.
I can't go this far, though. The narration is never unmarked by Marlowe, but that doesn't mean Chandler intends for us to be interested only in Marlowe's mental processes. The naked girl is an object of interest--and food for imagination, no doubt--on her own. There is "more than voyeurism" to the novel, but that doesn't mean it isn't voyeuristic.

Dan green said...

I actually don't think Chandler is that interested in Marlowe's "mental processes" at all. It's his observations and his transformation of them into description--his language--that the novel emphasizes. Chandler's novels become just whodunits (albeit rather byzantine ones) without the style we associate with Philip Marlowe.

Andrew Seal said...

I'm not sure we're saying very different things--"his observations and his transformation of them into description" is roughly what I meant by "mental processes," although your formulation emphasizes the result--the "language" or form--and mine emphasized the activity. I think Chandler makes both accessible, and I am certainly not arguing that either are of incidental interest; what I am arguing is that they are not of exclusive interest. The Big Sleep is a voyeuristic whodunit in addition to being a fascinating exercise of creating a style and a character who produces that style--but that doesn't make it any less a whodunit or any less voyeuristic.

Betsy said...

I don't think Chandler or Marlowe is encouraging interest in Carmen Sternwood as an object of voyeurism here. After all, there is an equally detailed and equally plot-irrelevant description of the greenhouse in which Marlowe finds General Sternwood, and no one could successfully claim the old General as an object of titillation. Indeed, Marlowe gives detailed descriptions of all new locations and new people he encounters, and I have a hard time believing that this particular instance is constructed to give the reader encouragement to gaze upon the naked Carmen. In all Marlowe's descriptions of her, the one constant is his scorn and cold disinterest; contrary to your reading, I found that Marlowe's disinterest translated into reader disinterest for a would-be voyeuristic moment. Just how disinterested Marlowe is in Carmen is a major plot point. A quick scan of any of his descriptions of other females in the book is going to provide more alluring details than any of those found in his descriptions of Carmen (see Mrs. Regan's silk stocking-covered calves, or Agnes's long thighs in her tight black dress). Marlowe is capable of providing the reader with the sort of details that lead the reader's voyeuristic gaze towards his female companions, but his details concerning Carmen do not fall into this category. Due to the very nature of his plot, it seems that Chandler tries to make Carmen an unworthy object of this gaze, despite her frequent nudity, by providing these other more sexually described females to draw attention away from her. I might be less interested in female nudity than the standard reader of noir, but I think it worked. The noir genre does encourage voyeurism, but part of the point of The Big Sleep is that Carmen Sternwood is not a "worthy" object of this gaze.

Andrew Seal said...

Betsy,
You're right--throughout the book, Carmen is scorned and construed as unworthy of Marlowe--but that doesn't make her sexually neutral, and what Marlowe is really scorning is the person, not the body. The reader is in a better position to divide the two (which, I guess, may be the point of voyeurism) and think of or imagine the body only.

The point for me is that the reader isn't likely to identify with Marlowe entirely any more than she or he is likely to identify with Bond entirely--that part of the fun of these books for their readers is the possibility of being in a world where naked women are always popping up, regardless of what these women are actually like. Carmen may be a little different from your average femme fatale (who is also often scorned or construed as unworthy) in that Marlowe is actually turned off by her, but I don't think it necessarily follows that the reader will be turned off by her body as well.