Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Long Hello to The Long Goodbye . . .

by Sean Chercover

"Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say." - Raymond Chandler

That quote always kills me. Sad as hell, and although I don’t think it is necessarily true, it was true enough about Raymond Chandler’s writing life.

THE LONG GOODBYE (TLG) is commonly regarded as Chandler’s finest work – the apex from which he descended very quickly. With this book, he’d mastered the “art or craft of fiction” . . . and after this book, it seemed that he had little else to say.

I first came to Raymond Chandler as a teenager. Already a fan of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane and John D. MacDonald, it was Chandler’s use of language that first knocked me back on my heels. Those magic similes; those perfect observational paragraphs. Upon later readings, I was taken by the strident (and often prescient) social commentary.

And those preeminent qualities still jump off the page and grab me by the throat . . .

But THE LONG GOODBYE now also moves me as a novel of naked self-assessment. Not only was it Chandler’s last great work, but it foretold his sad decline.

Much has been made of TLG’s value as a work of social criticism, and I do think that is where its major strength lies. (I also recommend Chandler’s previous novel, THE LITTLE SISTER in this context.) The Long Goodbye and The Little Sister both take on the big issues that previously had been almost exclusively the domain of literary fiction.

And both books display Chandler’s breathtaking use of language, at a time when his skills were at their peak. The masterful similes and perfect paragraphs that have been noted in previous Outfit posts (scroll down for more on this).

No, plots were not Chandler’s forte (to put it very mildly). And I agree that he did not write women well. But damn, did he ever give us a couple of complex and damaged men in The Long Goodbye.

It is clear that two of the major characters – Terry Lennox and Roger Wade – are Chandler himself, at different points of his life.

Terry Lennox is a damaged war veteran, drinks too much and doesn’t like himself much at all. He is pathetic and ineffectual, but he hasn’t given up, not completely . . . and despite the wreck that his life has become, he is still looking for a chance at reinvention. We like him for that, and Philip Marlowe does too. Marlowe is uncharacteristically sentimental about Lennox and sacrifices a great deal, to support the man Lennox could’ve been / should’ve been / could’ve become.

Like Terry Lennox, Chandler was a veteran of WWI, left scarred and insecure by his war experiences, who lived the high society life of big money and fancy cars and marital infidelity . . . before he burned out and lost his job in the oil industry and reinvented himself as a writer of hardboiled detective fiction.

The other major autobiographical character, Roger Wade is a bestselling novelist struggling to finish his latest novel, struggling with alcoholism . . . and losing. Marlowe bristles at Wade’s ego and self-pity.

Chandler, like Roger Wade, had become a bestselling novelist who felt that he deserved more respect than he got. Like Wade, he had a complicated marriage, no children, many readers, and a growing problem with booze.

Philip Marlowe is the lens through which we see these very different self-portraits. Marlowe clearly favors Terry Lennox – Chandler’s younger self – and who wouldn’t? But he also comes to acknowledge a redemptive quality about Roger Wade.

To Eileen Wade, Marlowe says, “Your husband is a guy who can take a long hard look at himself and see what is there. Most people go through life using up half their energy trying to protect a dignity they never had.”

Reading THE LONG GOODBYE, one might say the same thing of Chandler.

If THE LONG GOODBYE is Chandler’s last great work, it is also his most complex, and it rewards multiple readings. Every time you read this book, it reveals more of itself. This may be, in the end, what marks it as literature.


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