pseudopodium
. . . Raymond Chandler

. . .

It's odd to think of Beatrix Potter in the Blitz.

It also seems odd that 1940s-top-guy Raymond Chandler was only a couple years younger than James Joyce, whose career ended in 1939.

Well, Chandler didn't start writing until he was 45. And since he didn't live in Europe during WWII, he lasted longer....

Maybe it's just WWII that seems odd.

"John Taylorís compliments and thinks he might pass for a dormouse."

. . .

What proofs did Bloom adduce to prove that his tendency was towards applied, rather than towards pure, science?
Insofar as wise critics have looked at science fiction, critical wisdom has it that the genre's most distinctive form is the series, and particularly the "fix-up": the novel built up of mostly-previously-published more-or-less integrated more-or-less independent short stories and novellas.

"I do not like that other world"

"More-or-less" being the distinguishing factor here. The close relationship of the pulp magazine and pulp novel industries led to many hero-glued fix-ups in other genres of popular fiction (Dashiell Hammett's and Raymond Chandler's early novels, for example); the short attention spans of protosurrealists, pseudosurrealists, and other artistes-fines led to a number of single-hero multiple-narrative (Maldoror, Miss Lonelyhearts) and single-narrative multiple-hero (As I Lay Dying) assortments.

"After God, [insert name] has created most..."

But what defines sf is not a peculiar approach to character or narrative but a peculiar attention to the implied context of the fiction. This implied context is usually called the work's "world," as in the quintessential sf skill "world building" or the quintessential sf hackwork "shared world" writing. Because the constructed context is what defines a "work" of sf, a single sf "work" can cover a great deal of time-space ground (as in Robert Heinlein's "future history") and incorporate many different lead characters and closed narratives.

"He's dead nuts on that. And the retrospective arrangement."

Given a long enough lifetime, sf authors sometimes start to wonder if all their worlds might somehow be "shared" in the all-in-one person of the author: Isaac Asimov's attempt to combine his Foundation universe with his Robotics universe to make Asimov Universe TM; Samuel R. Delany's multi-decade cross-genre remarks toward the modular calculus....

"...if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book."

Outside the sf genre, what this reminds me most of are Jack Spicer's notion of the "serial poem," Louis Zukofsky's notion that a poet's lifetime of work is best considered as one long work, and James Joyce.

(... further reflections generated by the essays in A Collideorscape of Joyce: Festschrift For Fritz Senn ...)

As Jacques Aubert points out in "Of Heroes, Monsters and the Prudent Grammartist," child Joyce's writerly ambition, like that of many genre workers, was fired by reading heroic adventure stories: "Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes." And, also like many genre writers, Joyce continued (would "compulsively" be too strong a word?) to use the notion of the heroic (alongside the notion of author-as-trademark) as an organizing principle while undercutting it with a self-awareness that ranged from scathingly bitter to comically nostalgic.

In "Dubliners and the Accretion Principle" Zack Bowen very convincingly treats the collection of mostly-previously-published stories Dubliners "as a single unified work... the stories so interrelated as to form a type of single narrative" with a clear structural pattern and a loose but extensive web of inter-episode linkages. (A biographical tidbit unmentioned by Bowen backs this up: Joyce knew "After the Race" was a weak story but felt compelled to include it to save the overall shape of the book: a common architectural problem for the fix-up author.)

On the next hand, Christine van Boheemen's "'The cracked lookingglass' of Joyce's Portrait" makes a case for breaking apart A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, since all the chapters use the same semi-self-contained bump-down-and-bounce-up narrative structure rather than gliding smooth-and-steady towards maturity: "Instead of psychological and emotional growth, the fiction depicts repetition." Each episode imagines itself to be first, last, only and alone whereas it is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.... Van Boheemen's approach would imply that the "final" flight to Paris on the wings of artistic vocation is merely another roundabout to the next repetition. And Stephen's bedraggled comedown in Ulysses, so embarrassing to those who pictured him ascending to glory at an angle of fortyfive degrees like a shot off a shovel, certainly seems to give her approach the edge.

There hasn't been much need to remind readers of the heterogeneity of Ulysses, starting from its serialization episode by episode, each episode a chronologically, thematically, and stylistically closed unit. (Are there any other novels for which we refer to "episodes" by title rather than to "chapters" by number?) Timothy Martin reminds us again anyway in "Ulysses as a Whole" that inasmuch as anything can be said to tie the book together it's a shared context -- implicitly an externally documented day in the world, explicitly the inter-episode allusions and reflections, "many of them added late in the book's composition."

As always, the limiting case is Finnegans Wake, whose compositional history also includes serial publication and last-minute blanket-tucking additions. But here the repetition and fragmentation go simultaneously down and up the scale to such an extent that almost no one ever reads the book except as scattered sentence-to-page-sized episodes semi-explained by references to other episodes: "holograms" and "fractals" became rhetorical commonplaces for Wake scholars as quickly as for sf writers.

Maybe that's why Exiles seems like such a flimsy anomaly: it's a self-contained traditionally structured single work where a revue or a burlesque show might have felt more appropriate....

. . .

There's no denying the mythic catchiness of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. And there's no admitting his possibility. Just where would a glib dumb prissy pushy tall dark handsome breast-beating alcoholic intellectual low-brow heterosexual urban nostalgic two-fisted prose stylist idealist spring from? Los Angeles? Regretfully, no. And how would he make a living? As a private detective? I think not. Marlowe can only be explained as a self-loathing writer's pastless futureless power fantasy, who springs only from a book and makes a living only in books.

Which entices moviemakers into a dried river bank surrounded by giant ants, n'est-ce pas, cherie? Movies are supposed to be able to handle detectives; it says so right here in my Popular Culture Handbook. But how can the movies straightfacedly present such an unjustifiable character? ("With Cary Grant" is the best answer, but Chandler didn't manage to talk the studio into it.)

The first successful Chandler adaptations saved themselves by keeping some snappy lines and imagery and ditching the leading man: Edward Dmytryk's "Marlowe" reverts to sleazy Hammett-style professionalism and Howard Hawks's "Marlowe" anticipates James Bond's irresistable aplomb.

Less successful as film but more interesting as critique, two later adaptations tossed out the easy stuff like Chandler's dialog in favor of Chandler's essential oddity. Proving again that hostility towards one's source material is the healthiest stance for a director, Robert Altman's attempt to destroy Marlowe is cinema's first real tribute to the character. The Elliott Gould "Marlowe" could be an aging trust-fund kid who's retreated into fantasy, but there's no way of knowing for sure; the movie preserves his inexplicability while giving it a believable presentation (this Marlowe is as passive, inarticulate, threadbare, and isolated as most self-deluded personalities) and environment (this Los Angeles is too universally self-absorbed to take notice of any particular citizen's delusions). And Sterling Hayden's towering and toppling "Roger Wade" is just the self-loathing powerful writer to shove the Chandler subtext explicitly into our face and down our throats where it belongs.

The only movie ever influenced by The Long Goodbye was The Big Lebowski, a hoot-and-a-half in which Altman's ego-gored hostility is replaced by the Coen Bros.' aimless playing around. Since Jeff Bridges' character pretty much shares their attitude, the result is the most warm-heartedly engaged take on "Philip Marlowe" yet, even if there's not much Brotherly affection left over for any of the other characters....

For a long time -- like, a really long time, let's not even go there -- I've dreamt about my own fully explicated version of a Chandler detective: he's a paranoid schizophrenic who's assigned cases by the voices in his head and whose secretary / leg-man is his pet parakeet. But I have a hard time writing fiction so I've never committed this dream to print. Probably just as well.

Perhaps a similar dream prodded at young Jonathan Lethem, who came up with an admirably tailored science-fiction-y explanation for the Chandleresque narrator of Motherless Brooklyn: Tourette's syndrome. The gap between the narrator's careful prose style and his hit-me-harder banter? Tourette's syndrome affects speech and not writing. The narrator's weirdly monastic dedication to the case? Tourette's syndrome is associated with obsessive-compulsive behavior. His inability to sustain a sexual relationship? Say no more. If anything, it's too well-tailored: even the narrator eventually notices the snug fit, but, of course, is able to explain that explaining his every trait as a symptom of Tourette's syndrome is actually just another symptom of Tourette's syndrome. Clothes make the man if you're selling clothes, syndromes make the character if you're selling pop psychology, but a novel's air gets kind of stuffy by the end....

Which also counts as a Chandleresque effect: Chandler's The Long Goodbye was more like The Long Squirm in a Pinching Suit (but in an interesting way, if you know what I mean), and I could never spend more than a couple of minutes in Playback without rushing back outside for a breather....

. . .

What it corresponds to

Some writers are recognizable in their correspondence and some aren't. (Recognizable to readers, that is; their recognizability as the animals previously encountered by fleshy intimates is an unrelated matter.)

Those writers whose letters cozily nestle alongside their oeuvre -- Henry Adams, Raymond Chandler, Samuel R. Delany, among many others -- rely on a "micro" verbal impulse as well as a "macro"-building one: an impulse to respond to the world and its inhabitants by producing paragraphs, whether those paragraphs are meant to fit into a larger structure or not. Their books may seem colder or crueler or wiser than their letters, but the material comes from the same source. (And, not all that paradoxically, their letters may sometimes seem a bit impersonal: the sausage meat grinds on in a steady stream, regardless who gets the individual link....)

Whereas Dashiell Hammett's letters, like James Joyce's, are purely practical objects (even when their practical purpose is to give their recipients a sense of personal connection), springing from completely different impulses than the writer's book-objects, constructed along completely different lines, and not of much interest except to the addressed or the biographer. For the enthusiastic reader? Well, from one letter where Hammett uses full-out "Hammett style" to describe a day of Army life, I learned that lapidary prose can be a very dull thing outside a structural context; e.g., you can't polish dust. That's about it.

Having now trudged through a Alaskan-sized mud stretch of these letters, I feel the need to revisit some flashier gewgaws, such as those of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. And, look, since they're out of print anyway, how about I pass a few past you as well?

The Earl of Rochester gives some friendly advice, c. 1671

Whither Love, Wine, or Wisdom (which rule you by turns) have the present ascendent, I cannot pretend to determine at this distance, but good nature, which waits about you with more diligence than Godfrey himself, is my security that you are not unmindful of your absent friends. To be from you & forgotten by you at once is a misfortune I never was criminal enough to merit since to the black & fair Countesses I villainously betrayed the daily addresses of your divided heart; you forgave that upon the first bottle, & upon the second on my conscience would have renounced them and the whole sex.

Oh, that second bottle, Harry, is the sincerest, wisest, & most impartial downright friend we have, tells us truth of ourselves & forces us to speak truths of others, banishes flattery from our tongues and distrust from our hearts, sets us above the mean policy of court prudence which makes us lie to one another all day for fear of being betrayed by each other at night. And before god I believe the errantest villain breathing is honest as long as that bottle lives, and few of that tribe dare venture upon him, at least among the courtiers & statesmen.

I have seriously considered one thing, that of the three businesses of this age -- women, politics & drinking -- the last is the only exercise at which you & I have not proved our selves errant tumblers. If you have the vanity to think otherwise, when we meet next let us appeal to friends of both sexes &, as they shall determine, live & die sheer drunkards or entire Lovers. For as we mingle the matter, it is hard to say which is the most tiresome creature, the loving drunkard or the drunken lover.

The Earl of Rochester starts a seduction, c. 1675

If you distrust me and all my professions upon the score of truth and honor, at least let 'em have credit on another, upon which my greatest enemies will not deny it me, and that is its being notorious that I mind nothing but my own satisfaction. You may be sure I cannot choose but love you above the world, whatever becomes of the King, Court, or mankind and all their impertinent business. I will come to you this afternoon.

. . .

The Customer Review that they don't want you to see

The Library of America did an excellent job with its Raymond Chandler volumes, which lacked only the stories that Chandler had "cannibalized" into novels, but I can't say the same for its second (and final) volume of Dashiell Hammett, edited by Steven Marcus.

Of the three Hammett short story collections on my shelves, this $35 book replaces one: The Continental Op, edited by the same Steven Marcus. It includes only 5 of the 20 selections in the recent Nightmare Town repackaging; from The Big Knockover it leaves out "The Gatewood Caper," "Corkscrew" (the Continental Op goes cowboy), and, most unforgivably, "Tulip," an autobiographical meditation on storytelling which is the only sizable chunk of Hammett's postwar writing ever to surface. It does include "Woman in the Dark," currently in print as a thin single volume, dropping its subtitle ("A Novel of Dangerous Romance"); there may be good textual reasons for that decision, but they aren't described in this edition's notes.

Nice to get this work on acid-free paper, but the Library of America is intended to produce authoritative editions. It's unfortunate if predictable that this goal is forgotten when the series takes on the genre writers who need such attention most.

On the other hand, the complete novels of Dawn Powell!

. . .

Make the voices stop

At a similar literary salon about, oh, maybe seven or eight years ago, the favorite first lines game was played, and I quickly realized that I didn't have any.

Partly that's because so much of my favorite writing occurred before the late-twentieth-century vogue for hooky opening sentences; partly it's because I dislike that vogue, which will seem as eccentically simplistic to future readers as an earlier era's focus on moments of moral sublimity seems to us. Grabbing the reader by her arm and yanking seems a rude way to initiate a conversation, and when I remember particularly enthralling beginnings, I remember their structural effects rather than the wording of sentence one: the early and peculiar disappearance of Madame Bovary's initial narrator, for example. (Back at that salon, the only opening line I could recall right off was a condensed version of the Bovary gambit, as played by Beckett in Mercier and Camier: "The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time." The rest of the book being I-less.)

On the other extremity, I'm a sucker for endings that snap close with a satisfying click, and I recall (and re-read) a good many last lines, with special fondness for those whose persistent startle ripples backward through the entire work, restructuring it retrospectively into something far richer than one had even dared to hope for as one kicked joyfully up surfacewards holding one's perfectly timed-to-the-last-page breath.

(Oddly, few of the examples I'm about to offer really count as "spoilers": to understand their defiance of expectations, one must have developed those expectations in the first place. The truly itchy can feel free to request story-wrecking explanations from me.)

Such an ending is more likely to speed the traveller on with a slamming of the door than with a gentle swinging to, treating readerly expectations so aggressively that they could almost be called rebuttals to their own books. (Ulysses is one such rebuff after another.) Closure is, after and above all, a refusal of further story.

1.
Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.

2.
"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédéric.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.

3.
I remember them all with such happiness.
4.
I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.
5.
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
6.
He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it.
[The first remains the most chill-enducing and daringly experimental ending I've ever read, as befits Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the pinnacle, in English literature, of characterization through narrative voice: The plot is resolved in the imperative! or, more accurately, via the narrator's very use of the imperative! Aided by the unemphasized selectivity of her seemingly conventional last paragraph wrap-up! (I think we can agree that exclamation marks are called for here, given the tightrope-acrobat precision of the performance.)

The second concludes Flaubert's most brilliant closing movement: that of the infinitely self-undermining Sentimental Education -- whose influence can be clearly seen in my third entry, from M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, and perhaps also in Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (as cited in Eclogues).

Next, and speaking of characterization through narrative voice, the befuddled detective of Henry James's The Sacred Fount finally manages to reach a conclusion. Fifth is Dashiell Hammett's last word on the murder mystery genre (or perhaps on fiction in general) in The Thin Man, and lastly Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl abruptly becomes non-Highsmithian -- and freezes.]

Some end with a flourished signature:

1.
And by what I have written in this document you will see, won't you, that I have obeyed her?
2.
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.
3.
Having seen this time what I needed to see, I started writing; and in time wrote all that you have read.
4.
"You and Capablanca," I said.
[Janet Frame's Faces in the Water throws mental health into our eyes like vitriol; Virginia Woolf's Orlando shoots its arrows of desire right through the temporal barrier; Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone goes home; Raymond Chandler's The High Window gives everyone a fucking break.]
Some with a gleeful or furious or heartbreaking -- but perfectly definite -- denial of closure:

1.
That is said nowadays by the most modern of the physicists. If that is true, then that is how it is with Pooch and with Carmen and with all the others.
2.
I'd always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I'd never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn't long to wait.
3.
Something further may follow of this Masquerade.
4.
Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes.
[Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog; Barbara Comyns's Mr Fox; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man; and the devastating final sentence of John Crowley's Engine Summer, whose subject (in several senses) might be said to be the tragicomedy of incompletion.]
And some are simply, disturbingly or delightfully, accomplished:

1.
"Nothing, Mamma. I was just thinking."

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother's corseted waist.

2.
He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.
3.
The beautiful weather was compared with the Great Disappointment of '44, when Christ failed once again to appear to the Millerites.
[Robert Musil's Young Törless enters sentimental grad school; Djuna Barnes's Nightwood pays tribute to Aphrodite; Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon lights out for the hills.]

2015-06-21 : Guy Lionel Slingsby kindly directed my attention to this trimmer and more Twitter-friendly approach.

. . .

Induction of Intent

Phew. I'm glad that's over. Aren't you?

Serialization helps, but still the time it takes for me to finish any piece of writing increases exponenentially with the piece's projected length. That's why I had to give up fiction. All my ideas were for novels, and none would have been drafted before my great-great-grandniece's wedding.

During the month-long harrowing of Graceland, I solaced myself misty-eyed at One Pot Meal, Ftrain, and Fireland, which have all recently indulged in navel-gazing on the positive tip. A pleasant trick of nostalgia, since back in the olden "home page" times I didn't have much in common with Ftrain or Fireland.

My own models for the reversed-chronology many-entries-per-page form were Alamut (a professional artist's notebook) and Robot Wisdom (the "What's New" list of a reclusive crank). For those I quickly grew to think of as my compeers, the web was an adjunct to a more established career or, for the younger writers, a projected adjunct to a hoped-for career. Among them, my distinguishing trait (if any) was bovine rectus acceptance of the web as my primary medium and serial self-publishing as my primary work.

That wasn't the result of community values or allegiance to the cutting edge, but merely of crabbèd age. Insofar as I displayed confidence, it was the confidence that no other path was left to explore.

At thirty, I'd found it necessary to begin writing. By forty, I still found it necessary, but I had even less notion what to do about it. I'd made the mistake of believing that skill and intention were equivalent to capability: that a writer writes what they choose to write rather than what they're capable of writing. (This seems laughably naive to me now, but it's been a common enough naivete even among those I respect: think of Dashiell Hammett starting [and starting] his mainstream novel or Raymond Chandler finally getting the chance to work on that historical romance....)

In ten years of confusion, backtracking, and intermittant clarity, I'd gained ability and access, but my capability stayed stubbornly put. In 1999 as in 1989, the writing was motivated by dialogue, you-gotta-see-this enthusiasm, problem solving, and the mesmerizing glitter of verbal artifacts-cum-artifacts; it remained mulishly unspurred by ambition but turned into Red Hot Ryder's mighty Sliver whenever it whiffed a digression -- "Whoa, horsey! Aw, come on, horsey, won't you please whoa?" --; and it arrived as opaque fragment or self-undermining rant or pseudo-conversational speech.

Boy meets form. "For good or for bad," as one mildly disapproving friend said.

Three-and-a-half-years in, the compeers swarm and I grow ever more grateful to the form. Which is saying something, since it started pretty much saving my life from the get go.

Even the "vanity publishing" label comforts me, much as a fetishist might take comfort in wearing the fetished object, no matter how despised by the mob. Virtually all my writerly heroes enjoy only mild-to-imperceptable popularity. And so, if I had somehow managed to succeed in my ambitions for my own work, I was certain that I wouldn't have helped the financials of those nice editors in the slightest.

. . .

Genre note

Although auteurs like M. John Harrison will always fit old clips into new montages, the all-out fixup novel served as loyal attendent to the commercial market for short stories and novellas and did not survive its patron.

While fiction magazines withered, academia doubled-down on publish-or-perish. Journal and books lists exploded, culture took its course, and for several decades humanities' new-shelves have been as loaded with fixups as a 1950s paperback rack.

Of course, not all the tactics of their original home were carted over. Lacking the pretense of organic character-focused narrative, no fixing-up scholar need attempt the reconstructive surgery of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Isaac Asimov's Foundation is the model: elucidation and proof of millenia-spanning psychohistory through chapters on Theocritus's Idyll 15, Eliza Heywood's Distress'd Orphan, and Grand Theft Auto V's soundtrack. As the man says, "ideal for tales of epic sweep through time and space."

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.