17 May 2007

Hello Again to The Long Goodbye

There's a Long Goodbye,
And it happens every day.
When some passerby
Invites your eye
To come her way.
Even as she smiles a quick "hello,"
You let her go,
You've let the moment fly.
Too late you turn your head
You know you've said
The Long Goodbye.

"The Long Goodbye" by John Williams and Johnny Mercer

Perhaps a reaction to recently reading an old-fashioned parlor room murder mystery, perhaps my reflective mood, or perhaps because when reaching for another book my hand brushed against its spine and I felt that tingle of an old friend, but I picked up and re-read Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel The Long Goodbye this week. It remains one of my favorite books, and I use the word “favorite” in its strongest possible sense. This is not a book I like, or even love. This is a book I treasure, and it belongs on the imaginary short shelf of the works that have meant the most to me in the brief time I've existed on this weird planet. The Long Goodbye is one of the most penetrating looks at that planet. It's a difficult novel to digest emotionally; no matter how many times I read it, I feel my world has changed in some way when I close it after the last line. The air around me feels heavier, sounds outside my window have a distant echo, and human voices sound unreal. A potent spell Mr. Chandler weaves.

Raymond Chandler was an author of hard-boiled “Private Eye” mysteries. No one had a greater effect on the genre, not even Hammett or Spillane. All the cliches we associate with it come from his novels and his P.I. character, Philip Marlowe. However, Chandler was not a prolific writer, turning out only seven novels about Marlowe between 1939 and 1958. The Long Goodbye was his sixth, published in 1953 in England and 1954 in the U.S. and written under arduous conditions: his beloved wife Cissy, eighteen years his senior, was dying at the time (she would die in 1954). Cissy's death would launch Chandler into deep depression and alchololism and a suicide attempt in 1955—and you can feel it all coming in the pages of The Long Goodbye. Chandler, already a reflective and introspective writer who specialized in a reflective and introspective character who narrates in a reflective and introspective first-person, got especially reflective and introspective with the new novel. Not to mention satirical, bitter, and sentimental. (Read an excellent article about the writing process of the The Long Goodbye, which contains some plot spoilers.)

As a detective mystery or whodunit, The Long Goodbye will shock and stun no one, and Chandler was aware what he was writing would not appeal to the hardcore mystery and tough-guy aficianados. Chandler toned down his usual metaphor-happy style, for one. And, although by far his longest book at over 125,000 words, it has the simplest murder plot of any of them—in fact, it's the easiest to follow, compared to the Byzantine craziness of The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. The idenity of the killer isn't hard to spot, even for someone like me who almost never sees the plot twists coming in a murder mystery. (I'm too much of an “in the moment” reader, plus my mind doesn't operate with the mechanics of a mystery writer. I could never write one, for example, nor would I try.) The book also contains scant action and violence. For readers in 1953 coming off the high of Mickey Spillane's recent blood-drenched noirs, The Long Goodbye’s sojourn through the rich high life, with only the slightest hint of gangsterdom in the character of Menendez, must have felt a touch anemic.

But Chandler wanted to achieve something different with his new book, and in his own stressed mental state you could hardly blame him for trying to bust out of the formula of the P.I. mystery. And he succeeded 100%: if not a great mystery, The Long Goodbye is superlative literature, the apotheosis of the hard-boiled style into high art without a trace of “selling out.” It’s a hard book, an emotionally difficult pill to swallow. Marlowe is the lonely but decent man who wanders through a world of careless corruption where nobody really gives a damn about anything. Everything to Marlowe is a disappointment, but he doesn't rail against the world; he just tries to make sure he does the best he can do, follow his own inner sense of what's right, even if it means he'll end up alone in the end. The novel, while outwardly tracing the murder of rich Sylvia Lennox, the flight and suicide of her no-good husband Terry Lennox, and its complicity in the life of a rich, alcoholic, and depressed writer (uhm, sound familiar?) named Roger Wade, actually follows the consequences of Marlowe helping the down 'n' out Terry Lennox for no other reason except that no one else would help the poor guy. This small act of kindness drives the reast of the story. The dramatic revelation of the murderer and Marlowe's explanation of events happens fifty pages before the end of the book; it's not the focus, it's merely the catalyst for the real finales that follow, concluding in the long goodbye of the title. Or “goodbyes.” More on that in a moment.

What appeals to me so much about The Long Goodbye is that it is one of the few novels I've read that contains no illusions whatsoever. Raw, slapped down on a clean white plate, here you go...whether it's the author or the character talking (and whether it even matters) there are no lies between you and him/them. Welcome to my life: Philip Marlowe/Raymond Chandler/(Your Name Here). And welcome to Los Angeles. The most real Los Angeles you will ever read about. More real than the one I see out my window at this moment.

Subjective analysis? Hell, yes. Subjective only scrapes the sun-burnt surface of such a subjective bathing beauty like The Long Goodbye. It's a complex experience, and so based on emotional gut reaction that getting to grips with it is a tough task. You can't say that about many mystery novels.

I imagine that living for most of my life in Los Angeles does affect the way I view the book, and it may not strike someone who hasn't lived in the city as strongly as it does me. I can feel my city breathing down my neck as I read Chandler's prose, even though more than fifty years separate his City of the Angeles from mine.

I can't argue with one of the most beautiful book titles in existence, but strictly speaking there is more than one long goodbye in The Long Goodbye. The title must have had deep resonance for Chandler, since he was involved in his own long goodbye with his slowly expiring wife. In story terms, the goodbye between Terry Lennox and Philip Marlowe, the novel's central disillusionment, is the crucial one. The word “goodbye” rings out throughout the pages, each time like a funeral bell marking the death of another illusion, the end of another relationship that did not go as we planned. Chandler provides two marvelously potent descriptions of the “long goodbyes” that appear throughout our own lives:
We said goodbye. I watched the cab out of sight. I went back up the steps and into the bedroom and pulled the bed to pieces and remade it. There was a long dark hair on one of the pillows. There was a lump of lead at the pit of my stomach.

The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right.

To say goodbye is to die a little.
And in the closing pages:

“You bought a lot of me... For a smile and a nod and a wave of the hand and few quiet drinks in a quiet bar here and there. It was nice while it lasted. So long, amigo. I won’t say goodbye. I said it to you when it meant something. I said it when it sad and lonely and final.... So long, Señor Maioranos. Nice to have known you—however briefly.”

“Goodbye.”

The Long Goodbye was made into a film in 1973, starring Eliot Gould as Philip Marlowe and Sterling Hayden as Roger Wade, and directed by Robert Altman from a script by another master of pulp detection (as well as space opera science fiction), Leigh Brackett. Some Chandler fans feel the movie insults the book with its jokey style and sloppy portrait of Marlowe, the updated setting in the 1970s, and the massive changes to the ending. I don't understand this criticism at all: the film The Long Goodbye differs in plot from the book, but it conveys the exact same feeling I get from the novel. The theme remains intact, only updated for the 1970s and given that usual idiosyncratic Altman twist. I even like its new ending: it's a shocker, but for the Marlowe of the 1950s who has woken up in the 1970s, it makes perfect sense. It's a catharsis I think Chandler at his most bitter may have approved of. Mr. Altman, you are missed.

On a personal level, I also love the film because it reminds me of my early childhood growing up in Malibu in the 1970s. The houses, the people, the beaches, the parties—they look exactly like the young images in my head of my youngest days.