Thursday, February 14, 2008

It's a Shame About Ray (Part Two)

I came across this little bit while reading The Long Embrace. It's an excerpt from Chandler's attempt at a literary short story, "A Couple of Writers" (1951).

"Jesus, we're the most useless people in the world. There must be a hell of a lot of us too, all lonely, all empty, all poor, all gritted with small mean worries that have no dignity. All trying like men caught in a bog to get some firm ground under our feet and knowing all the time it doesn't make a damn bit of difference whether we do or not.... All the world's would-be writers, the guys and girls that have education and will and desire and hope and nothing else. They know all there is to know about how it's done, except they can't do it. They've studied hard and imitated the hell out of everybody that ever rang the bell."

Gee, no wonder he drank...


It's a Shame About Ray

Judith Freeman's The Long Embrace is a nasty, messy car crash of a book, a purported biography of Raymond Chandler that too often devolves into gossip or seems to have as much to do with its author as its subject. It's a gruesome, bloody wreck; a buffet for rubberneckers.

And in between bouts of wanting to hurl it at the wall, I couldn't put it down.

Freeman, a long-time Chandler fanatic, attempts to plow the uncharted waters of Chandler's personal life, and his long-time marriage to the enigmatic Cissy Pascal, a woman who, it turns out, was almost twenty years older than he was. The subtitle is "Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,' and the author hits upon a brilliant premise -- she will apply a geographical approach to her literary legwork, trying to track down each of the over thirty different locations in which the nomadic, reclusive Chanders lived in and around Los Angeles.

It's a great angle, but too often it peters out. Although Freeman has done some commendable research, in both LA and the U.K., digging up rare photos, little known anecdotes correspondence and the like, she also has a tendency towards literary and journalistic casualness that would be more at home in glossy supermarket tabloids than a hardcover biography of one of twentieth century literature's most influential writers.

Chandler was a private and obsessive man, and he destroyed most of his personal letters concerning Cissy after her death. But that's no excuse for Freeman's sometimes-fanciful speculations. The book is riddled with phrases like "could have," "probably," "possibly" and even "I'd like to think."

Was he gay? Who did he cheat on Cissy with? Did he have a leg fetish? A thing about his mother? Her ponderings are all the more frustrating because Freeman seems content to mostly raise the questions; her interest seems to dissipate the moment the subjects are broached.

And she continually refers to Chandler as "Ray." I'm not sure the proper, perpetually formal man in the bow tie who once wrote "his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry" would allow a biographer so intent on plowing through his past for dirty linen such familiarity.

Treat him as a proud man? At times she treats him like he's Brittney Spears.

Fair enough, I suppose -- everyone's entitled to their opinions and maybe even their speculations in a non-fiction work. But Freeman does herself no favours by also allowing sloppiness into the book. Photos, for example, are mis-credited in the back of the book, instead of labelled clearly where they appear within the text and Terry Lennox was not a character in The Big Sleep. She pointedly claims the novel Farewell My Lovely was filmed three times, then only discusses two versions -- making us suspect she doesn't know how to count (it was in fact filmed three times; the first version a quickie adaptation tailored to fit RKO's popular Falcon B-franchise) but it's still jarring. And when a work of non-fiction has such obvious errors, a reader can't help but wonder what else is incorrect. An errant typo or two ("to the manner born") doesn't help.

Even more disconcerting, though, is Freeman's attempt to insert herself into the story at every turn. Sometimes this meta, oh-so-po-mo approach works, but too often it doesn't. She devotes almost as much energy to telling us about the writing of the book as she does telling us about Chandler. A pattern emerges: she visits one of Chandler's old haunts, may or may not get out of her car, snaps a few pictures, laments that Chandler's LA (and even hers) is gone, recounts (or speculates upon) what was happening in Chandler and Cissy's life when they lived there, speculates a little more, and then goes off on all sorts of personal tangents, opinions and the like about the city and how it has -- or hasn't -- changed. Her cursory and lop-sided retelling of recent and not-so-recent controversiies (such as the police shooting of a thirteen-year old car thief and the Rampart scandal) are so removed from most generally accepted accounts of the incidents that they verge on irresponsible -- I wondered if she was trying to write about Chandler or incite another riot or two. Her point, as far as I can tell, is that Los Angeles has always had bad cops and corrupt politicians, but it makes you wonder if she's ever read a newspaper.

Its as if the bold, thick lines she attempts to draw between the dots of known fact are so heavy they threaten to obliterate the dots themselves.

Still, despite her narrative and literary stumbles, the book is hard to resist or to put down, and even moving at times. As I said, not all her authorial intrusions fail. Particularly her account of the sad last few years of Chandler's life, as he succumbs to alcohol and grief following the death of his beloved Cissy. Those last years are related in conjunction with Freeman's visits to Chandler's last permanent address: the La Jolla house the restless Chandlers finally settled into, where they lived together until Cissy finally passed away and where a drunken Chandler, overcome with grief, eventually tried to kill himself. It was the only house they ever owned; a beautiful, expensive home overlooking the wild restless sea.

It's a frustrating glimpse of what this book could have been, less a dry recitation of biographical facts and gossip and litany of houses that are no longer there and more an attempt at actual emotional investment in the subject. By the time Freeman tracks down the location, the building is slated for demolition and renovation. Desperate to preserve some sort of record of the home where Chandlers spent their last years together, she gets permission from the owners to videotape the home before it's demolished. The owners are absent, but their teenage daughter is home, watching television in her bedroom -- which at one time served as Chandler's study, where he wrote The Long Goodbye, The Little Sister and Playback.

"She invited us in to look around. This of course was the room I wanted to see, the study in which Ray had worked. I had seen photographs of him taken in this room. I could recognize the windows, the place where his desk had sat...The girl on the bed snapped her gum lazily as we walked around, becoming self-conscious whenever the video camera was pointed in her direction. She said she had never heard of Raymond Chandler. In fact, she said, she didn't really much like to read (preferring) movies and video games."

It's to cry.

Freeman, of course, never really nails down her subject, although she certainly tries to stir up the pot.

There's a photograph included here, a snapshot taken by Chandler of Cissy walking along a path in the woods. By this point, Chandler is well into his fifties; Cissy is in her seventies and in poor -- and rapidly declining -- health.

It is, in fact, a real find, because so few photos of Cissy exist. But, perhaps predictably, her back is to the camera. Freeman confesses to studying the photo "for a long time, as if hoping she might suddenly turn around and look at me."

Of course, Cissy never turns around. And neither does Chandler, really. It's an apt metaphor for this book.

But I'll confess right now, for the Chandler fanatic, that photo alone may be worth it.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Toronto Noir: World Class, My Ass (Maybe)

Okay, true confessions here. I haven't read Toronto Noir yet, the latest in Akashic's acclaimed "noir" series, which is due out in May. But I've been hearing about it for a while. Quite a while.

You want a Canadian city that justifies a noir anthology, think Montreal. Seriously.

Or Vancouver. Halifax. Hull. St. John's. Yellowknife. Moncton. Sudbury. Even fucking Moose Jaw.

But Toronto? The Queen City may be a lot of things (just ask any Maple Leafs-blue Torontonian) but "noir" is not the term that immediately springs to mind. Smug, superior, self-conscious, nice, bright, clean, self-involved, anal, touristy, squeaky, brassy, well-scrubbed, tight-assed horn-tooters, T.G.I.M., world class-obsessed, faux-American... sure. The city the rest of Canada loves to hate... you bet. But noir?

Still, like I said, I haven't read it. And lord knows, the heart of darkness knows no municipal limits. After all, there's even been a Twin Cities Noir in the series. And a city whose most distinctive landmark is a giant dork certainly ought to be able to get it up. But now that the list of contributors have been released, I'm not being reassured here.

Instead of the usual reliable, if rather predictable, suspects (Bruen, Connelly, Gary Phillips, Block, Rozan, Oates, Estleman, Parrish, Abbott, Lippman, Coleman, etc.) that have made this series so consistently entertaining, the editors, Janine Armin and Nathaniel G. Moore, have opted for a slew of mostly unknown (even by Canadian standards) writers. I assume they were looking for Canadian writers, which is fine, but still...RM Vaughan, Nathan Sellyn, Ibi Kaslik, Heather Birrell, Sean Dixon, Raywat Deonandad, Christine Murray, Emily Schultz, Kim Moritsugu, Mark Sinnet, George Elliott Clarke, Pasha Malla, Michael Redhill?

Who are these guys? Was there some PC checklist? ("Okay, we got a Jew, we need an Arab. And where's our Sikh?")

Sure, they've got Peter Robinson, Gail Bowen and Andrew Pyper to reel in the curious, but the CanCrime scene is a hell of a lot stronger than that. Maybe old school champs like Engel and Wright declined, but where are writers like John McFetridge? Michael Blair? J.D. Carpenter? Mary Jane Maffini? Rosemary Aubert? John Swan? Marc Strange? Giles Blunt? All of them have written tough, often dark and certainly impressive stabs of crime fiction over the last few years, and yet not one of them shows up in these pages. Were they even asked to participate? Or weren't they "Toronto" enough?

(And, of course, even while they're all loudly touting Toronto's much vaunted multiculturalism in all the pre-release publicity, it's quite telling to note that there's not one single French-Canadian contributor. Sad, but typical. "The more that Toronto changes...")

Talk about world class disappointing...

Then again, I haven't heard of either of the authors either. I fear they may be Toronto literary types - or would-be Toronto literary types -- out to "transcend the genre." Certainly nothing in the short bios of Janine and Nathaniel on Akashic's pages suggests any previous connection whatsoever with any sort of crime fiction; much less noir.

Those who can, do. Those who can't, "transcend."

I hope I'm all wrong, and Janine and Nathaniel know exactly what they're doing, and we'll have a solid collection of noir tales that will introduce a whole slew of new and exciting voices to crime fiction readers around the world, giving the CanCrime gang a much-needed and well-deserved shot in the arm and the damn thing will sell a zillion copies.

We'll see...

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