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
"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.
Labels: Raymond Chandler, The Long Embrace