Saturday, August 15, 2009

Who is the bigger fool? The fool who leads or the fool that follows?

re: Inherent Vice by "Thomas Pynchon"

To very loosely reinterpret what Samuel Johnson said, hardboiled crime fiction is the last refuge to which a has-been writer clings.

The jig is up. The joke is on them. The genre withstands the alleged satire, and I, as one of the true believers, ain't buying it. Thomas Pynchon is a myth. A mere resurrection of Penelope Ashe perpetrated by J.D. Salinger.

I realize I am professing to be no more clever nor knowledgeable than those glass-house critics who judge a work before viewing or reading it, but, hey, if anyone told you life was fair and balanced, they were probably talking from the lofty and unreal climbs of Fox News.

But now is not the time for me to lay down my theory of crime fiction. It would take to long and put both of you to sleep. Suffice it to say, Raymond Chandler was a brilliant writer, and an inebriated, insecure kvetch, who, among other things, complained that his work wasn't taken seriously as literature. He should be smiling from the netherworld to know that the New American Library eventually thought differently. But crime fiction, hardboiled, noir, pulp or whatever you wish to call it, is nothing more than dimestore entertainment that more often than not delves into the dark recesses of the human psyche. To spoof it or to use it as a platform for satirical cleverness is to miss the point. The clumsy, moralistic writing of David Goodis or Cornell Woolrich is low art at its best. There are precious few passages in Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union that approached the breezy pathos of the genre . But he, like Pynchon are, by nature and definition, antithetical to the genre. "Literature," with a capitol "L" should not mess with the truth. Leave that to the dimestore pulp writers. Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald did not write literature. Thank God for that.

* * *

The next day: I got up on my feet and went over to the bowl in the corner and threw water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.

That's Marlowe talking. Phillip Marlowe, who usually worked for twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses, expenses being mostly booze and gas. It all pretty much sounds like the stuff of bad cliché movie-talk. Gumshoes and floozies. Tough guys with iron and strong arms with too few brains. But it's the real deal. Raymond Chandler was a bitter, frustrated man, who failed in business and married a much older woman. He's also one of the greatest American writers to have pecked at a typewriter.

This Pynchon thing bothers me and not just because I list being a curmudgeon as one of my personality traits. I may yet read Inherent Vice. The reviews, after all, call it Pynchon's most readable book. And that may be saying something. I have tried to read his previous work. Rare is the day I put down a book unfinished. Maybe I'm being too damned simplistic, but isn't the purpose of writing books to have them read? Why write impenetrable, unresolved fiction? Why test the reader's patience and power of concentration? And, why live in seclusion and mystery, as an enigma wrapped in a riddle? The Salinger routine is not onliy passé, it was burst wide open by Joyce Maynard, a great writer of limited output, by the way. In this age of confessional memoirs being found out as just so much whole cloth and characters like the once lauded JT LeRoy, what does Pynchon hide from? Does his scarcity from the public eye make him more of a LITERARY character? The word is in caps, and should be in lights. Hey, DeLillo hasn't been heard from for a while, maybe he'll take a stab at the genre-- a pastiche of the world of the private eye. Charles Bukowski wrote a book called Pulp, that was dedicated to "bad writitng." It was a send-up of... you guessed it... pulp fiction. It started off with promise and then degenerated into... bad writing.The only writers that have improved upon Chandler are those that have taken the genre seriously. James Ellroy once said that the first modern crime novel wasDostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. It certainly has most of the elements. In addition to the title is the dark tone and tortured. Fear, desperation and anguish fill the story of a murder and a murderer. Raskolnikov's tale could lead one directly to Jim Thompson's Killer Inside Me. Ultimately, I am bothered because I like the genre so much. I don't particularly like it mocked or demeaned. Reviewers have called Inherent Vice a parody. Others have called it "stoner noir." Go to the source. No one wrote crime fiction better than Chandler.

And on a remotely related point, the cover article on today's New York Times Magazine is about the new Beatles' Rockband-video game. Why do I think William Gibson is suddenly become more relevant? Talk amongst yourselves. I'll get back to this one...

* * *

From the August 23, 2009 New York Times Review of Books:

Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” — a psychedelic homage to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler set in the last days of hippie-era Los Angeles, after the Manson murders have spoiled the vibe... Some readers will tire of this high nonsense, however, despite its skillful orchestration and period authenticity. Pothead humor, whatever its guilty pleasures, hasn’t evolved much over the last half century, and what was once its charming wackiness has succumbed to orthodoxy. It still relies on vast epiphanies aroused by fleeting trivialities and suddenly interrupted by junk-food cravings. One minute all the great puzzles have been solved, especially those that never puzzled anyone, and the next moment everyone’s pigging out on carbs and lighting their cigarettes from the wrong end.


Lou Boxer said...

Very well put! We are all looking for something.

Davaudian said...

The fool who follows a fool.....happens a lot. What's this overpowering interest in criminality? I mean, a couple of Sam Spade movies should be enough.

barryshap said...

Thanks for the comment, Lou.

David-- you are right and wrong. It is indeed an overpowering interest, but not in criminality. The genre is, I think, mislabeled "crime fiction." The best "crime novels" deal with the human condition, shining piercing flashlights into the dark recesses of the psyche. It is not a giant leap from Dosteyevsky's Crime and Punishment to Ross MacDonald's The Way Some People Die. I could blather on about the great works within the genre and way the best of them transcend the genre itself. Perhaps, I will, in another post. My own self-published "Boxer" novels were firmly placed within the genre.

The interest probably began with television. Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk played Nick and Nora Charles in the TV series of The Thin Man in the 50's. Craig Stevens in Peter Gunn. Efrem Zimbalist and Roger Smith in 77 Sunset Strip. Hell, Have Gun Will Travel was a detective series with horses. And, for the record, there were only a couple Sam Spade movies. The Maltese Falcon was made twice, the definitive version starring Bogie. Watching that, The Big Sleep and so on led me to the source material: Chandler and Hammett. Moving to Los Angeles brought it all home. Those mean streets and dark tales. Chandler begat the likes of Walter Mosley, Robert Crais and James Ellroy. And no, two movies couldn't be enough. That would leave out Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and even Pulp Fiction.

Go to Westwood. There's a place called the Mystery Bookstore on Broxton. Ask Shelly McArthur (the owner, genre expert and raconteur) for a couple essential, must-reads. Oh and say hello for me. There will come a day the place will disappear, like the Baroque Book Shop in Hollywood. We'll all be the poorer for it.

Davaudian said...

Yeah, I grew up with Palladin and The Thin Man, 77 Sunset Strip, all those '50's shows. I love the old B&W especially the monsters...Frankenstein, Wolfman,...guess I didn't go deeply into the crime fiction except thru the comic books which my Mom swears she has none of them in the attic, or my baseball cards. So much for my retirement plan.