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Fredric Jameson on the noir literature of Raymond Chandler


To Fredric Jameson, the detective novels of Raymond Chandler are not mere hardboiled entertainment. They rise to the level of literature, on par with Proust and Zola. They do this not by simply smuggling high-minded themes into the popular form of detective fiction. Rather, they use the formal elements of detective fiction to explore themes of isolation, mortality, and political corruption in a way that more “literary” fiction cannot. Thus writes Jameson in a new collection of his writing on Chandler, Raymond Chandler: The Detections of the Totality, just released by Verso. Below is a short excerpt from the book. You can read a longer one at Verso’s blog.

The action of Chandler’s books takes place inside the microcosm, in the darkness of a local world without the benefit of the federal Constitution, as in a world without God. The literary shock is dependent on the habit of the political double standard in the mind of the reader: it is only because we are used to thinking of the nation as a whole in terms of justice that we are struck by these images of people caught in the power of a local county authority as absolutely as though they were in a foreign country. The local power apparatus is beyond appeal, in this other face of federalism; the rule of naked force and money is complete and undisguised by any embellishments of theory. In an eerie optical illusion, the jungle reappears in the suburbs.

In this sense the honesty of the detective can be understood as an organ of perception, a membrane which, irritated, serves to indicate in its sensitivity the nature of the world around it. For if the detective is dishonest, his job boils down to the technical problem of how to succeed on a given paid assignment. If he is honest, he is able to feel the resistance of things, to permit an intellectual vision of what he goes through on the level of action. And Chandler’s sentimentalism, which attaches to occasional honest characters in the earlier books, but which is perhaps strongest in The Long Goodbye, is the reverse and complement of this vision, a momentary relief from it, a compensation for its hopeless bleakness.

The detective’s journey is episodic because of the fragmentary, atomistic nature of the society he moves through. In European countries, people no matter how solitary are still somehow engaged in the social substance; their very solitude is social; their identity is inextricably entangled with that of all the others by a clear system of classes, by a national language, in what Heidegger describes as the Mitsein, the being-together-with-others.

But the form of Chandler’s books reflects an initial American separation of people from each other, their need to be linked by some external force (in this case the detective) if they are ever to be fitted together as parts of the same picture puzzle. And this separation is projected out onto space itself: no matter how crowded the street in question, the various solitudes never really merge into a collective experience, there is always distance between them. Each dingy office is separated from the next; each room in the rooming house from the one next to it; each dwelling from the pavement beyond it. This is why the most characteristic leitmotif of Chandler’s books is the figure standing, looking out of one world, peering vaguely or attentively across into another

Image of Raymond Chandler via the Guardian.