Friday, December 7, 2012

A little light culture: Reluctant modernists

We all get really basic things wrong from time to time. It's forgivable to use words such as "fulsome" or "scatological" incorrectly, as most people do. But what happens when we start using a word such as "hate" wrong? Nowadays, when you hear someone accuse someone else of being "full of hate" you can be sure that at least half the time the hatred is being projected on to a relatievly innocent figure by the person condemning them.

Oh well.

Here is a far humbler, perhaps, example. Here is Ta-Nehisi Coates using a word in a way that shows that he hasn't the vaguest idea what it means:
Continuing our conversation, I should point out why I even find Chandler worth grappling with, in the first place. I think plotting—keeping a story moving—is an underappreciated among those who take the novel as an art-form. 
The word he doesn't get is "plotting" which most definitely does not mean "keeping a story moving". 

It's even more embarrassing than that because plotting was something that Chandler was not very good at. He had a limited set of plots and he tended to use them over and over again. The Big Sleep was assembled from plot elements Chandler had used in his short stories for the pulps (compare it with his stories "Killer in the Rain" and "The Curtain" and you'll see what I mean.

Chandler's weakness at plotting is also evident in that one of the more notorious plotting mistakes in crime fiction occurs in this novel. Chandler piles up a lot of corpses and then forgets to explain one of them. Early in the book, the Sternwood family chauffeur, a young man named Owen Taylor, is killed but the murder is never explained. Actually, it's far worse than that, it can't be explained. There is no way you could rewrite the story so that Owen's murder is explained that wouldn't destroy the coherence of the rest of the story.

I think this weakness at plotting is a consequence of modernism. To be a modernist is to lose faith in any sort of natural arc to human life. Without this faith, plots stumble because the writer has no sense of authority: "How dare I end up with the couple happily married when so many marriages fail." Note that this did not trouble Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope even though there were plenty of bad marriages in their day. Conversely, there are lots of good marriages in our day. And yet no current author feels comfortable with the marriage plot. The facts haven't changed but our interpretation of them has.

Chandler wanted to write about a happy marriage and he was on his way with Poodle Springs, only he chickened out. I think he originally meant it to be his answer to Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, which is about a successful marriage. But he couldn't do it. He choked.

What Ta-Nehisi Coates calls plotting and isn't is "a something else" that we use to replace our sense of there being a natural moral arc to our lives.
And here you can see how Coates makes his mistake about "plotting". To "hold a scene" or "keep a story moving" you need to be able to keep adding things to the narrative that feel right to the reader. That can feel like plotting but they don't, as I hope I've made clear above, actually have to be right, they just have to feel right so you keep reading. Plotting actually has to be right.

In his post, Coates cites a long passage from The Big Sleep and it is telling that one detail bothers him. It occurs in these paragraphs:
Eddie Mars said gravely: "If you're not playing any more, you must let me send someone home with you."

The girl flushed. Her cheekbones stood out white in her face. Then she laughed off-key. She said bitterly: "One more play, Eddie. Everything I have on the red. I like red. It's the colour of blood."

Eddie Mars smiled faintly, then nodded and reached into his inner breast pocket. He drew out a large wallet with gold corners and tossed it carelessly along the table to the croupier. "Cover the bet in even thousands," he said, "if no one objects to this turn of the wheel being just for the lady."

No one objected. Vivian Regan leaned down and pushed all her winnings savagely with both hands on to the large red diamond in the layout.
Now there is obviously something very good about this but note what Coates does not like:
 I could have done without the remark about red being the color of blood. Often I feel like Chandler is going for the bomb, when what he really needs is first down. But the drive as a whole is pretty gripping. This is probably my favorite scene in the book—just as poetry. The details feel just right. They aren't piled on to make you believe. Chandler believes for you. 
(Before being critical, I should note that that observation about the details not being "piled on" is very astute on Coates' part. A lesser writer, or Chandler himself in weaker moments, would have piled the details on here. See Joyce Carol Oates and Bob Dylan for examples of writers who can't stop piling on. I hope to return to this.)
Well yes, the remark about the colour of blood is a jarring, stupid and it breaks the flow. But jarring and stupid is a big part of Vivian Regan. It's when things like that slip out that we know she's lying and she's lying here. This whole "gripping" scene is an act that she and Eddie Mars play out. She wins because the wheel is crooked.

It's not clear that Vivian herself realizes all of this. She's not quite in control. Mars, on the other hand, is very much in control, which is why the resolution of the story is worked out between the men and not the women.

There is, as I've noted previously, some misogyny behind this but, that acknowledged, if you haven't met some women who sometimes or often behave as Vivian does here, you haven't been trying, and that remark about red being the colour of blood is perfect.

To take it out would make the scene smoother but that would be a problem because it shouldn't be smooth. It should grate. If there is anything generally wrong with the sort of movies men like these days it is that they are too smooth and major moral problems that should break the flow the way Vivian's stupid remark does here get smoothed over by the narrative: when in doubt, use a montage. 
I could go all sorts of places here but I'll stop instead and had the floor to Chandler himself for he said what really needs to be said about the effects that Coates likes and why they were powerful. The bit cited below is from an introduction to a collection of Chandler stories from early in his career. These stories were published in pulp magazines and these were, for Chandler, a kind of writing school. Late in his career, he told us what he learned there.
I don't think this power was entirely a matter of violence, although far too many people got killed in these stories and their passing was celebrated with a rather too loving attention to detail. It certainly was not a matter of fine writing, since any attempt would have been ruthlessly blue-penciled by the editorial staff. Nor was it because of any great originality of plot or character. Most of the plots were rather ordinary and most of the characters rather primitive types of people. Possibly it was the smell of fear these stories managed to generate. Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun. The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The street were dark with something more than night. The mystery story grew hard and cynical about motive and character, but it was not cynical about the effects it tried to produce nor about its technique of producing them.
The key phrase in all of that is "long before the atom bomb". Chandler, writing in the 1950s about the 1930s, wants to be clear that he is not with the progressives who would ban the bomb or institute gun control as if it was the technology that threatened civilization. He would have been unable to forget that it was the progressives who had banned alcohol leading to the earlier lawless era (a point progressives themselves have found all to easy to forget right until the present day).

Chandler is a reluctant modernist. Like Proust and Eliot, you get a sense that he would be happier if he felt he could continue as an unreconstructed romantic but he obviously feels that isn't possible anymore. I don't think he—or Proust and Eliot—ever gets around to explaining why they don't feel it's possible anymore. They just don't and perhaps the feeling was so powerful they didn't think it needed to be explained.

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