Friday, October 19, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler, 1939

Sometimes “Why Should I Read?...” is just too easy. This is one of those days. Raymond Chandler’s first novel starts with this paragraph:

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

What more do you need? I can go home now. Surely this speaks for itself.

The first thing to note is that Chandler gets his “voice” down in the first paragraph: world-weary, assured, unfussily competent. We will be spending a long time in the company of the protagonist, Marlowe, and Chandler strikes the tone from the start.

Mechanically, Chandler’s opening is a masterpiece of economy. The power is all in the detail, yet the detail is astonishingly simple. Why does he need to tell us the sun isn’t shining? Isn’t all rain wet? Both clauses seem like “mistakes”: that is, they don’t follow the rules; but together they create a vivid image of a certain kind of morning (and a morning fully appropriate to what’s coming up). Then Chandler gives us a list of what Marlowe is wearing: just one word of more than two syllables, the only colours blue and black. This is easy, right? We could all do it. Don’t you believe it. Next we learn that Marlowe is “neat, clean, shaved, and sober” and everything starts to fall into place: this isn’t someone who habitually displays those qualities. Chandler has explicitly told us what Marlowe is wearing, but immediately undercuts it with his implication that it’s out of character. It’s the first paragraph, and with no dialogue or authorial commentary Chandler has set up internal tension. If it was that easy we’d all be doing it. The simplicity of the scene and the language conceals the effectiveness of the writing. And that’s before we get to the kicker: “I was calling on four million dollars”. We know by the end of the first paragraph that we will enjoy our journey with this wry narrator.

Last time out we looked at James Ellroy. Ellroy is a direct descendant of Chandler’s prose, but there are real differences too. We can see from the opening paragraph that Chandler doesn’t deal in the verbal pyrotechnics of Ellroy: there’s nothing at all of the street about his writing. What Chandler does have is the ability to make plain language bear a great weight, and a narrative voice of deceptive simplicity which looks easy to copy until you try it.

Add in Chandler’s ability to create vivid minor characters in a paragraph, and the shady moral universe in which he positions Marlowe, and we have a writer of real power and durability. The idea of the battered idealist, a loner drinking his way through the mean streets of an uncaring city, is something of a cliché, and Chandler can’t even claim the credit for inventing it (Dashiell Hammett is probably closer to the source). It’s become a staple of detective fiction (today, Ian Rankin and Mark Billingham are two of the more successful British exponents). What lifts Chandler above the ruck is the exquisiteness of his prose—economical yet flexible. Just go back and re-read that first paragraph if you don’t believe me.

How has it influenced me?

Chandler was one of the first writers I encountered with an authorial voice so strong and compelling that it justified reading the book in itself. He wrote the kind of book I could, however delusionally, imagine myself writing. Indeed, when I first came to try out the novel form with The Zael Inheritance¸ I envisaged it as the tone and milieu of Jack Vance imbued with the grittier sensibility of Raymond Chandler. However imperfect the execution, that still seems to me a laudable ambition.

There are few writers I admired as a teenager whom I still admire today. Chandler is one of them.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Simple words and sentences can convey information every bit as efficiently as more elevated language.

You can do new things with an old plot (in fact, if you find a genuinely new plot, let me know).

Wit is not misplaced in an action novel.

It’s possible to convey character without action, dialogue or overt commentary.

The first-person narrative does not need an unreliable narrator to be successful.

No comments: