“When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain level of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things.”
Chandler, like most great writers, has a lopsided genius. That list makes you sense that he knew acutely his literary strengths and weaknesses.
Description is the word for the great Chandler. For me it’s hard to think of anyone, anytime, better: beyond his great power to describe, his scenes, dialog and narration descend in that order in skill; his narration is often largely the demystification of the case, the Grand Explanation, made by his hero, detective Philip Marlowe, in the Wrap-up, and otherwise makes but a few appearances, those often when Marlowe is speculating early on off-stage criminal behavior without enough clues to be conclusive, and those rare narrations seem only grudgingly allowed on stage by description, scene and dialog. Chandler’s writerly dues-paying must have taken place when narration alone was called for.
Here are some of Chandler’s nonpareil descriptions whose like can be found on nearly every page of such masterpieces as The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; The High Window; and The Lady in the Lake:
“The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips.”
“1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year’s poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.”
“The lobby looked like a high-budget musical. A lot of light and glitter, a lot of scenery, a lot of clothes, a lot of sound, an all-star cast, and a plot with all the originality of a split fingernail. Under the beautiful soft indirect lighting the walls seemed to go up forever and to be lost in soft lascivious stars that really twinkled. You could just manage to walk on the carpet without waders. At the back was a free-arched stairway with a chromium and white enamel gangway going up in wide shallow carpeted steps. At the entrance to the dining room a chubby captain of waiters stood negligently with a two-inch satin stripe on his pants and a bunch of gold-plated menus under his arm. He had the sort of face that can turn from a polite simper to cold-blooded fury almost without moving a muscle.”
No one can explain the genius at work in those marvelous descriptions. We can speak of word-recall, precision in diction, analogy: but what creative consciousness really is during the making of such passages of writing is probably not merely mysterious but perhaps ever inscrutable. Chandler wrote The Big Sleep in three months; he wrote that classic and his other three great novels in less than four years in a life far from serene. You must assume textual polishing, of course, but the inevitable conviction, given that burst of sublimity, is that sometime very early in his life, before he’d formally set out to write his books, he had possessed the mind to describe the world better than a camera, better by far than that lens as you think about the tempo of his writing and correspondingly about how we as readers apprehend fictional worlds which always brings you to that finally unutterable understanding of old words about all this such as “mimesis” and “verisimilitude.” You know what they are getting at yet you do not.
Is any artist not lopsided in talent? Capote, who admired Chandler, said that Chandler’s plotting–defined technically, plot arises from the causes of the action–is weak. Chandler’s supreme genius for description led him to ride that horse as hard as he could: so he unifies his novels through Marlowe’s first-person account, its tone, stressing Marlowe’s spellbinding description of the world in the present. Chandler didn’t need to worry much about narration of historical stories full of huge dynamics. He didn’t have to worry much about ideas whose time has come. There aren’t many ideas in Chandler. Chandler isn’t historical in the usual sense. Marlowe is Galahad set down in the LA of the 1930s, a place far stranger than Mars let alone anything Columbus saw, and in that sense alone Chandler is historical: he captures forever a stage of LA and, in a larger sense, continues the drama in American literature of the Old World against the New World.
Chandler, it seems, didn’t start early wanting to write. He was notably successful in business until the Depression, and in his subsequent travels in California in sales he decided after reading pulp fiction in the evenings in motels to write his mystery novels. He (and we) discovered that he was born with a special genius for description. It was simply there.
Narration, rather than description, scene, and dialog, is the stuff of historical dramas. Ideas, tone and probably “half a dozen other things” carry such complex dramas to the level where they “become literature.”
But Chandler took to detective novels. And his special genius made him create a form of drama for that literature that is unique and most influential.
A story I’ve heard about Faulkner and Chandler, and trust I can recall in general outline, makes the point about lopsided genius–something that is almost always the most you can hope you have (as well as hope you find) in composing a drama, traditional or historical–and this story does so in a good-natured way: Faulkner went to Hollywood for a while to write screenplays. He adapted Chandler’s The Big Sleep for a movie version. Eventually, Faulkner noticed that one of Chandler’s characters, a chauffeur, vanishes from Chandler’s storyline when that chauffeur probably shouldn’t have. Loose end. Faulkner, the tale goes, called Chandler and asked him why. Chandler paused, then said something like: “Beats hell out of me!”