Tuesday, May 27, 2008

One Tough Dick

I've just finished the Library of America's Raymond Chandler: Later Novels and Other Writings. It's a bleak read, punctuated at times with bitter humor, but guided from start to finish by a cynicism and loneliness that's staggering in intensity. Chandler's antihero, Philip Marlowe, is a shopworn P.I. who, against his better judgment, involves himself in case after case that lay open the callousness of L.A. society. The Lady in the Lake, the first novel in the collection, is a meditation on loneliness and loss, with the male characters in the story portrayed as empty shells after betrayals by women, or after betraying themselves. Typically for Chandler, the women are conniving, brutal, and far more intelligent than the men, always a step ahead in the arabesque-like plot, until Marlowe, of course, exposes the devious intrigue. The Little Sister is a scathing indictment of Hollywood's promiscuity and self-regard. Here, Chandler's villain is a young woman who not only blackmails her own movie-star sister, but is willing to kill her own brother to further her nefarious agenda. Add dope-peddling physicians and one hard-drinking private eye, and Chandler's nihilistic recipe is complete. Even the somewhat sympathetic characters, in this case a Mexican (or is she?) fledgling starlet--and man eater--meets a poetic fate:
When they cracked open the door he was sitting on the couch holding her pressed against his heart. His eyes were blind and there was bloody foam on his lips. He had bitten through his tongue.

Under her left breast and tight against the flame-colored shirt lay the silver handle of the knife I had seen before. The handle was in the shape of a naked woman. The eyes of Miss Dolores Gonzales were half open and on her lips there was the dim ghost of a provocative smile.

"The Hippocrates smile," the ambulance intern said, and sighed. "On her it looks good."

He glanced across at Dr. Lagardie who saw nothing and heard nothing, if you could judge by his face.

"I guess somebody lost a dream," the intern said. He bent over and closed her eyes.

In The Long Goodbye, Chandler explores the themes of love and friendship, but, being Chandler, only sorrow and loneliness result for Marlowe. From a distance, Marlowe follows the seeming dissipation and death of his alcoholic friend, Terry Lenox. But what seems isn't so, and Marlowe once again is betrayed, finally figuring out in the end, as he always does, what the true story is. And the story is never pretty.

Finally, Playback, the last Philip Marlowe book, is a more straightforward detective tale. In it, Chandler questions conventional notions of morality, and Marlowe discards his business ethics at times to pursue his own agenda--mostly involving bedding the beautiful object of his investigation. Throughout the novel, questions are raised about the nature of God and evil in the world, the first of which Marlowe is unqualified to answer, the second of which he has much experience with. An unusual passage follows, in which an elderly man questions Marlowe as to the nature of the world and the existence of God:

Very small things amuse a man my age. A hummingbird, the extraordinary way a strellitzia bloom opens. Why at a certain point in its growth does the bud turn at right angles? Why does the bud split so gradually and why do the flowers emerge always in a certain exact order, so that the sharp unopened end of the bud looks like a bird's beak and the blue and orange petals make a bird of paradise? What strange deity made such a complicated world when presumably he could have made a simple one? Is he omnipotent? How could he be? There's so much suffering and almost always by the innocent. Why will a mother rabbit trapped in a burrow by a ferret put her babies behind her and allow her throat to be torn out? Why? In two weeks she would not be able to recognize them . . . .

There are grave difficulties about the afterlife. I don't think I should really enjoy a heaven in which I shared lodgings with a Congo pygmy or a Chinese coolie or a Levantine rug peddler or even a Hollywood producer. I'm a snob, I suppose, and the remark is in bad taste. Nor can I imagine a heaven presided over by a benevolent character in a long white beard locally known as God. These are foolish conceptions of very immature minds. But you may not question a man's religious beliefs however idiotic they may be. Of course I have no right to assume that I shall go to heaven. Sounds rather dull, as a matter of fact. On the other hand how can I imagine a hell in which a baby that died before baptism occupies the same degraded position as a hired killer or a Nazi death-camp commandant or a member of the Politburo? How strange it is that man's finest aspirations, dirty little animal that he is, his finest actions also, his great and unselfish heroism, his constant daily courage in a harsh world-how strange that these things should be so much finer than his fate on this earth. That has to be made somehow reasonable. Don't tell me that honor is merely a chemical reaction or that a man who deliberately gives his life for another is merely following a behavior pattern. Is God happy with the poisoned cat dying alone in convulsions behind the billboard? Is God happy that life is cruel and only the fittest survive? The fittest of what? Oh no, far from it. If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn't have bothered to make the universe at all. There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium. Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right, and that God's days are very, very long?

But in the end of this, Marlowe's last recorded adventure (although his spirit certainly lives on today in the movies and in print), even our intrepid P.I. is accorded a measure of hope. The phone rings, and it's his acknowledged love, introduced back in The Long Goodbye, who beseeches him to fly to Paris to marry her. Marlowe, of course, refuses. But there remains a possibility that they might unite.

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