Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler's Imagined City: A review

By Catherine Corman
Preface by Jonathan Lethem
Charta Art Books

I spent a few days in Santa Cruz this spring. Wrong end of California, but I still saw parts of it through Raymond Chandler's eyes.

Others have done the same, whether in Santa Cruz or elsewhere. Jonathan Lethem's preface to this collection of Chandler excerpts and Catherine Corman's photographs accounts nicely for the rich visual associations Chandler conjures up — and the reasons have nothing to do with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall or Martha Vickers. "In Chandler," Lethem says, "the hardboiled style becomes above all a way of seeing, not so far from photography itself."

The preface and the photographer's own introduction play heavily on solitude in Los Angeles and in Chandler's own work, invoking Edward Hopper's paintings, for example. And the photos are of buildings, fences, trees, airplanes — and none of people.

Here are some of the excerpts that Corman has illustrated with her lovely, lonely black-and-white pictures:

"We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind."

"He had a good job in Wichita. I guess he just sort of wanted to come out here to California. Most everybody does."
"The guy in the sports coat and yellow handkerchief got in and backed his car out and then stopped long enough to put on dark glasses and light a cigarette. After that he was gone."
I'm ready to do some serious seeing when I read writing like that.

The excerpts are treats, bits of ominous description and philosophizing and Chandler's wonderfully erudite jokes that will send me back to my Chandler collection. Sometimes Corman makes the photo part of the story. A stark, empty corner of what looks like a street-level shop accompanies an excerpt about "Geiger Rare Books," the porn outlet in The Big Sleep. After Geiger and Carol Lundgren have cleared out, perhaps?

Two small complaints concern the book's lack of annotation. The locations lack identification, and the individual excerpts lack convenient citation by source. The former would have intrigued experienced Chandler readers, and the latter would have made a useful reading guide for those new to Chandler. But those are quibbles, for the book is not a Chandler travelogue, but a companion to his way of seeing the world.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Blogger Rob Kitchin said...

I recently wrote a piece on place and crime fiction and Chandler was the first quote I used. I think Lethem is right - reading Chandler becomes a way of seeing the city and I think for many that does resonate with Hopper's painting (which interestingly art critics and urban theorists often view as a form of anti-urbanism - the alienation and loneliness of the city, etc). The thing I love about Chandler is he doesn't simply describe, he captures an entire lifeworld and its sense of place without it becoming over-elaborate or tedious, and the place-focused narrative is as hardboiled as the other characters.


August 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the link. This book reminded me that Chandler could appeal to the eye even without jam-packing his prose full of images. One might say that where another author might do the reader's seeing for him, Chandler instead makes the reader want to see with his own eyes.

August 19, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, thanks for the review. I'd ordered this book and hope to find it waiting at home when we get back from a little vacation. Chandler's evocative descriptions of Southern California's cities and landscapes are always nibbling in my head as I move around in them. I know this is true for so many other readers, too, and Chandler's interpretation of SoCal's places is one of his greatest gifts to us. As I fancy myself an "experienced Chandler reader" I think it will be fun to play visual detective with the unannotated photos. Based on your description, this book may be similar in concept to Jonas Maron's "Chandlers Welt: eine Spurensuche an der amerikanischen Westküste," 2004. This book also employs photographs to capture Chandler's mood and tone rather than provide a photodocument of Chandler's Southern California; there are several tour guide-type books that do this fairly effectively. I'm glad it's made you want to dip into Chandler's stories/novels again; hope it does the same for others.

August 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The back of the book cites the excerpts by page from the Chandler novels from which they are taken, but these citations, oddly enough, are not cross-referenced to the photos and excerpts. Perhaps the publisher wanted to let readers play detective the way you look forward to doing.

The book is a condensed, enriched dose of Chandler, and that's a good thing.

August 19, 2009  
Anonymous John Purssey said...

From Australia I have only a vague understanding of LA, Bay City, and other towns and suburbs used in Raymond Chandler's fiction. Google maps has helped.
However, the increasing frequency of forest fires and their appearance on the news always brings to mind one of my favourite quotes from the opening of Red Wind.

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband's necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

October 16, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The last sentence was always my favorite part of the description. It lends the passage an amusing finality.

Los Angeles, of oourse, has been much in the news because of its own wildfires, though nothing on the scale of the dreadful ones in Australia. Perhaps other readers have made the Chandler-L.A.-fires connection as well.

October 16, 2009  

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