raymond chandler and the city of los angeles -- 12/20/19

Today's selection -- from Literary Landscapes edited by John Sutherland. Detective novelist Raymond Chandler and the city of Los Angeles:

"As Los Angeles is the anti-city, a hundred diverse communities stuck against one another into a sprawling metropolis, so is [Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel] The Long Goodbye [with its hero Philip Marlowe] the anti-crime novel. Peculiarly for an author who all but defined the genre, Chandler had few of the skills generally associated with writers of pulp fic­tion, and readers used to the cheap, violent thrills of Chandler's imitators will likely come away bored. For that matter, the through-line at the heart of the classic mystery -- a stolen necklace, a butler murdered in the study -- is nowhere to be found. In its place is a work full of odd asides, of side plots which go nowhere, of characters which appear and then disappear, of loose ends which a competent editor would almost certainly have strangled. While the final sting remains as sharp as anything in fiction, it is precluded by 50 pages that could be cut without affecting the work in any significant way.

"And yet, in the half-century since it was written, The Long Goodbye has become widely recognized as the defining example of what is the only truly American literary form. Chandler's great and abiding genius resides in two areas; first, a talent for language which is shared by few twentieth-century writers, irrespective of genre; and second, a profound sense of place, a vision of Los Angeles which has defined the city in the minds of millions of readers. It is, on the surface at least, an unkindly depiction. Chandler's Los Angeles is a city of gamblers and dope addicts, of decent men rendered amoral by time and misfortune, of woman lost to drink and lust and sadness, of unjust police officers and titans of industry unconcerned with the brutal effects of their wealth. Its great natural beauty is ever at contrast with the sins and vices of its inhabitants, and the sunny optimism which was the hallmark of the 1950s America seems a sick joke.

Seventh and Broadway, downtown Los Angeles, California, in the 1950s

"Visitors to Los Angeles often find themselves agreeing with Chandler's estimation. For those used to the uniform charms of cities to the east, where the only direction one needs to know is uptown or down, it can come across as confusing, too vast, and tacky. It lacks any of the consistency of architec­ture by which cities are generally judged beautiful, with Spanish haciendas sharing space with Art Deco skyscrapers, as if each structure had been designed and built without any reference to those beside it. The city's devel­opment boom came during what was surely the least attractive architectural epoch in recent his­tory, and one can, quite literally, drive 100 miles in L.A. and never lose sight of some or other con­crete monstrosity.

"And yet, beneath the scuzz and commer­cial squalor is a place of unique and magnificent charm. Los Angeles is, in some sense, the least believable city on the planet, a maddening hodge­podge, impossible to neatly categorize.

"Much of the Los Angeles which Chandler describes has long since disappeared. His largely monochromatic metropolis has been replaced by a city, in practice, more diverse than almost anywhere else on the planet, 1,000 ethnic enclaves merging together, where you can drive from Yerevan to Bangkok in less time than it takes to change the radio station. The unin­corporated cities of Santa Monica and Malibu, in Chandler's time distinct entities, have amalgamated to the general Los Angles sprawl, and the Southern California scenery, some of which, in his day, remained relatively pristine, has long since been ploughed over. But scratch the surface and you can still see the city he all but created, its sun-baked grandeur, its endless cor­ruption, the occasional occluded decency of its citizens. The riddle hidden in The Long Goodbye is that Marlowe, whose patter is so hard-boiled you might roll it across the White House lawn, who portrays himself as a man so jaded by life as to be immune to its charms, is in fact every bit as much the knight­-errant as Don Quixote, willing to sacrifice everything and anything for a moral principle. Likewise, scattered amid the author's seeming contempt for his home is an abiding affection for a dreamlike city nestled between the desert and the sea, in which the full range of human behaviour is on exhibit, and, for better or worse, anything is possible."

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John Sutherland


Literary Landscapes


Modern Books


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