Mrs. Rees has given me two lovely kids. She has enjoyed the presence of my parents. She even visited Wales with me. But I was never quite sure of her. Because she had only read one Raymond Chandler novel.
In an effort to make our marriage complete, I suggested this week she augment her reading of “The Big Sleep” by going through the remainder of Big Ray’s oeuvre. I tossed “Farewell, My Lovely” at her and she got going.
As I did so, I was just finishing a draft of my next novel. Part of writing, let us be frank, is anticipating what editors will say about it when it’s done. I decided to look at Chandler’s work in the light of the comments I get from agents and editors about my manuscripts – and from readers about the finished book. I wonder how he’d have responded?
For example, “Farewell, My Lovely” begins, as you may recall, with Marlowe outside a bar, watching a very large fellow. The large man enters and tosses another man out of the door. Then Marlowe says: “I walked along to the double doors [of the bar] and stood in front of them. They were motionless now. It wasn’t any of my business. So I pushed them open and looked in.”
There’s no way a contemporary editor or agent would go for that. “What?” they’d say. “Marlowe has no stake here. He needs to have a compelling reason to go through those doors.”
Of course, the reason Marlowe goes through those doors isn’t that Chandler didn’t do plots (as some allege.) It’s that Marlowe is somewhat comically interested in random things around him. He isn’t looking for trouble, but he’s attracted to places where he might encounter it – out of curiosity. He’s an anthropologist of low-life.
Now an anthropologist might work as a “series character” in today’s fiction. But he’d have to be a real anthropologist. Everyone has to have a reason for what they do. Their family must be at risk. Someone must want to kill them. Their identity has been mistaken and they must clear their names. You know what I mean.
No character is allowed to be interested in what’s happening around them and nothing more.
Partially that’s the result of the James Patterson-ization of the thriller/crime genre. Every chapter must have the clock ticking down to the dread event our hero has to prevent.
But it’s also because we’ve grown accustomed to being able to nail everything down in life in general. If you don’t know the answer to a question, look it up on the web and instantly you’ll have someone else’s answer, right or wrong.
A New York Times article this morning noted that Americans increasingly are employing two or even three computer screens on one desk to hold all the different web windows they want to have open before them. One poor monkey-minded lady (it’s a yoga/meditation reference, before you get offended, and it refers to the inability to focus on one thing) told the Times that when her third screen malfunctioned, she felt like she was missing out on the news (because she keeps news feeds on that screen.) Sounds like information-overload, rather than so-called “multi-tasking”? As for the proliferation of data before her on her desk: “I can handle it,” she said. Like any other addict.
But the best example of the changes in our society and the way they’re reflected in our fiction is this: in “The Big Sleep,” one of the characters is fished out of the sea, having been driven off a pier in a car. Chandler was later asked who killed that character. He replied, “I never figured that out.”
Try telling that to an editor or an agent or a reader today. It’d be a badge of incompetence.
But Chandler didn’t need to know. Neither do we.
There should be ambiguity and lacunae in our knowledge. We should learn only what we can focus on. That means looking at a single computer screen and not worrying about missing information as it zips meaninglessly across the web. It also means allowing our plots to maintain a focus on what’s important, and leaving the occasional loose end untied.