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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Detour: Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep

I've recently rediscovered some things I've posted elsewhere, and in the spirit of keeping a single archive of my literary opinions, I'm going to give them a new home here.

Raymond Chandler

I don't write with a lot of description. Some people like that about my style, some people hate it. I do it because a) in the things I've written so far, I want the words to flow faster than water, and b) I don't think I'm very good at it.

I read a lot of stuff written by past writing groups (nobody who reads this blog), and there's usually a certain tinny sound to it when it's rolling around my head. After a while it all sounds the same... "wind-swept praries", "the coming glow of dawn glanced off of something or other", and so forth. Bottom line: it gets in the way of the story. It brings me out and makes me wonder how long it will continue before I learn something relevant. Call me impatient.

Take Anne Rice for instance. We've read her, loved her at first, then sorta got sick of it, am I right? Her renderings of New Orleans, Paris, San Francisco, and a hundred other places stick in our minds and make us feel the emotional weight of the environment. But after a while it all runs together. I want to reach into the prose and pull the story along: a lot of it seems to be description for the sake of description. I can't bring myself to skip whole sections of the books, so I just don't read her anymore. The setting used to play a character in her environment. Now that character has become typecast: predictable and boring.

Enter my new hero, Raymond Chandler. It's criminal that I'm only now getting around to reading him, but, well, I've been busy. I still haven't read any Tobias Wolf. Pick your jaw up off the desk.

Chandler uses description as a method of character development, almost exclusively. We ultimately don't care about the setting because we're concerned with learning the details of Marlowe's psyche. "Show, don't Tell".

Here are some examples, just from the first few pages of The Big Sleep (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard trade paperback edition). Most of these examples tell us three things: 1) what it looked/sounded/smelled like, 2) how Marlowe feels about it, and 3) how Marlowe looks at the world in general:

  • A stained-glass panel shows "a lady who ... didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair." - p. 3
  • "The plants filled the place, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket." - p. 4
  • "She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn't often seen in bookstores" - p. 23
  • "He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn't owe too much money." - p. 43

It may just be me, but my brain fills in all the details he leaves out, and I get the more important information with only a little extra effort.

The way I write it would take years to create prose so dense. I don't know if Chandler revised a lot, or if he just thought this way. Either way, I find it pretty admirable. And I still have half a dozen books of his to read.

With all that said, here are some questions, for general discussion:

  • I suspect Chandler mainly appeals to men. There's a sticky machismo about this guy that would make Hemingway blush. Am I wrong?
  • What other authors are good at this? I've probably read some, but not since I started writing. Any ideas?

2 Comments:

Blogger incandragon said...

Ah, the magic paintbrush. Two strokes, full picture.

"Don't Point That Thing At Me" by Kyril Bonfiglioli was very good at the unexpected but effective descriptions.

I think that Bujold's mature style has it too. An unexpected guest enters a room and stops, "stranded upon a wall of stares."

Or my favorite, underappreciated, line describing intense frustration: "With regret, Ista forbore to scream."

I'll try to think of more.

Fri Jun 02, 04:24:00 AM  
Blogger zen imbecile said...

Well, there's Dashiell Hammet, for one. And Jim Thompson for another. Phillip Dick also doesn't waste alot of time on elaborate descriptions.

Chandler does one thing I find kinda irritating ... he minutely details women's clothing. I don't have any examples here but it is always so excessive it throws me out of the story.

Regardless, I love him and the other three and I am woman, hear me roar.

Thu Jun 08, 10:09:00 AM  

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