Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best use of cold mutton fat in a crime novel?

An outside commitment is cutting into my blogging time, so I trolled Detectives Beyond Borders archives for an old post with which to regale readers. I've just reread The Big Sleep, so the time seemed right to revive this post about Raymond Chandler's similes and metaphors.  Extravagant similies are probably a close second to the trench coat and hat pulled down low as signifiers by which people think they know Chandler. But read the books, and you'll find that, wild though they may be, the similies amd metaphors are no mere jokes.

Here's one example from The Big Sleep:
"I got back to the living room Ohls had the boy up on his feet. The boy stood glaring at him with sharp black eyes in a face as hard and white as cold mutton fat."
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I was pleased today to find an article about metaphors and grotesque characters in Farewell, My Lovely. (I am tearing through the novel now like a vote counter in the Minnesota Senate race. I'd be reading faster, but work interrupts.)

The article's author, William Marling, writes: "Perhaps the most literate hard-boiled novel ever written, Farewell explodes with metaphors and allusions. Their density is manifest on the first page." One nice touch: Marling sees in the tarantula/cake image I cited earlier this week an allusion to Great Expectations.

Farewell, My Lovely is home to one of the most celebrated Chandlerisms: "A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window," but I like this, from the novel's second page:

Off-the-wall descriptions are easy; "white explosions on the toes" is poetic, surprising, and a nice mood-setter for the violence that must follow in a hard-boiled novel.

The description moves from head to toe, reaching a rhythmic climax in the bit about the white explosions. How many shaggy borsalino hats have you seen? How many shoe ornaments have you seen described as explosions and how many explosions by their color? Is surprise the key to vivid description and successful metaphor?

"He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes."
© Peter Rozovsky 2009, 2011

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18 Comments:

Blogger Gerald So said...

Hi, Peter. Allow me to consolidate my two previous comments into one:

I don't believe surprise is the key to vivid description or successful metaphor. As often as not, extended metaphor and quirky description can distract readers from the image the writer means to present. I think it's more important to deliver a clear picture than one that is surprising or unnecessarily embroidered. Figurative as metaphors are, it's easy to get carried away using them. They should be controlled to lead readers to the intended mental image. One shouldn't use figurative language simply for style or surprise. Some of Chandler's metaphors and similes are great, but their overall impact is diluted by how often used them.

April 18, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

That American Library do nice Biblical editions that give Kindle a run for its money. I've got the Chandler, their Crime Writers of the 50's and their Philip K Dick novels of the 60's.

April 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerald, you may be right. It's also difficult to sustain the highest quality when the metaphors and similes flow so fast. That subject came up in a comment to a previous post.

One reason I like the white explosion is that is has a narrative role or at least a thematic one.

April 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

They're biblical, all right, complete with the cloth ribbon bookmark. I feel a certain somber sense of purpose when I hold those books.

April 18, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

In contradicting Gerald, Aristotle, in THE POETICS, wrote about Sophocles' OEDIPUS THE KING, and said that one of the essential elements of well-written tragedy was superb diction; more relevant to this discussion, though, he went on to explain that metaphor was the most important and most worthwhile element of diction. Following that precept, Chandler almost always nailed it with his use of figurative language, especially his use of metaphors, because--going beyond Aristotle--he was thoroughly original. Therein lies the secret: explosively unique metaphors always work best, but only once, and any metaphor that has been used even once before elsewhere is always trite when it appears again and ought to have been avoided. When you read Chandler's figurative language, you read something singular and fresh. When you read some of his contemporary imitators, you too often read language that is trite when it appears again and ought to have been avoided. Oops! I already used that phrase. Ah, well. You get the idea.

April 18, 2009  
Blogger Gerald So said...

I took Peter's notion of surprise as something that might jar readers, and jarring isn't always the intent of metaphor. There are times when metaphors make us think, "Yes, that's exactly how it should be described," not "Wow, I never would have thought of that."

I, for one, don't think Chandler's figurative language always worked. He may not have made the same metaphor twice, but his frequent use of the technique made it less original over time, such that even writers who surprise with metaphor today are said to be copying Chandler.

Figurative language is a dramatic tool. Good drama doesn't rely on it to the extent Chandler made it seem.

April 18, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

I should just say that I am very much with Gerald on all this. I greatly appreciate Chandler's achievement without being a great fan, and part of the problem I have with his writing is that I find that figurative language a touch relentless and sometimes jarring indeed. I think this has much to do with something evident in the many discussions of Chandler and 'metaphor' that have cropped up over the years, something that always bemuses me: almost all the examples of his 'metaphors' trotted out are actually similes. Metaphors can much more easily be made part of a seamless web of prose and allow readers to suspend judgement as to their accuracy, largely because of their greater poetic quality, while similes, used as often as Chandler uses them, and with the constant use of 'as a', 'like a' constructions, tend to bring one up short after a while, too aware that "here's another one", more inclined to pause and ask whether it is actually accurate, or even if it makes any sense at all.

April 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., it would be interesting to see what sorts of metaphors Chandler's contemporaries use and how they used them. Chandler's often took me out of the story in Farewell, My Lovely, for better or worse.

Interesting that you praise Chandler's "explosively unique" metaphors, since I singled out the figure of the white explosions.

April 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerald, your comment raises the question of the extent to which it is possible to view Chandler or any other widely imitated writer other than through the filter of those who imitated him. I'd agree that some of the similies are distracting to a reader today. How they struck readers in 1940, I don't know.

April 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Phillip, similes are without doubt the most often cited type of figurative language in Chandler's work. I hadn't thought of this before, but like and as are highway signs that warn "metaphors at work, next 10 miles." Readers may be inclined, as you say, to ask whether the simile makes sense. Or they may be annoyed by the interruption. Or they may surrender themselves to it and enjoy the extravagance of the figure.

April 19, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

I think that the fact Chandler is so well-known for this helps him a lot -- akin to a sort of novelty act, people are prepared for it and may quite relish it. I greatly enjoyed Philip Kerr's two post-war Bernie Gunther novels, but when I went back to the first in the series, March Violets, finding Gunther and damn near everyone else in the book speaking in similes -- an astonishing number involving "...as a Negro..." or "...as a Jew..." constructions -- struck me as so contrived and unreal I had trouble getting through it. Happily, that seems to diminish as the series progresses, but what I take was meant to be something of an homage to Chandler only reminded me of just how irritating the conceit can be. I must say that if all the metaphors in, say, Macbeth, perhaps the most metaphor-laden play in the Shakespeare canon, were re-written as similes, that would go plummeting in the estimation of not a few as well.

April 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember flipping through the opening pages of the first Bernie Gunther novel and being astonished at the audacity of the Chandler imitation.

April 19, 2009  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

The site you linked to, detnovel.com is great - I've posted it on my blog too. Thanks for the discovery.

V-word was catatela, which is what happens when someone talks in their sleep

April 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome. I like what the author had to say about the split between American and English crime writing. It plays right into my most recent post (April 29).

A catatela is a fast-paced dance for unconscious people, I think.

April 30, 2009  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Chandler seems to be the master of "light" and "dark.

"http://www.flickr.com/photos/anouilh/3918472825/"

Perhaps only a person from the chill of Northern Europe would capture the atmosphere of a place where sun and passion are so fused?

Great post. Thank you.

May 07, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I'm also with Gerald on this. Figurative language needs to be used thoughtfully and not for startling effect. I used to be appalled by Dennis Lehane's use of horrible misfits of metaphors and similes in his early novels. There seems to be the thought that having a lot of such comparisons lends the humble detective novel some class. Wrong!

December 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Chandler may be suffering for the sins of his successors. I was surprised when I started rereading him a couple of years ago how appropriate the metaphors seemed and how unjokey.

December 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I tried reading one of Dennis Lehane's early Kenzie and Gennaro novels, and the jokey take on the hard-boiled private eye turned me off utterly. I don't remember if extravagant similes played any part, though.

December 18, 2011  

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