Category Archives: California

… he moved like a man whose conscience was clear, or lacking.

The Drowning Pool, by Ross Macdonald

Raymond Chandler once said that Dashiell Hammett took crime out from the drawing room and back into the streets. Ross Macdonald in turn took crime out of the streets and into the hills and valleys of California.

I wrote about Ross Macdonald’s background and first Lew Archer novel here. It was a strong novel, but too derivative of Chandler and Hammett. Macdonald hadn’t found his own voice yet.

In The Drowning Pool I’d say he’s already much closer to finding that voice. I liked Moving Target enough to buy the sequel, but The Drowning Pool is better written and tighter and a distinct style is emerging which isn’t just a rerun of Macdonald’s inspirations.

There’s a line early in The Drowning Pool which though a little overwrought captures something key to the hardboiled crime genre: “Sex and money: the forked root of evil.”

Sex and money. There’s more to the hardboiled genre than that, but in terms of the crimes the genre explores those are the only two motives that matter. That’s Hammett’s legacy. The plot may be tangled, but what drives events is very simple indeed.

The Drowning Pool opens with Lew Archer being hired by a beautiful woman (naturally) who has received a poison pen letter alleging infidelity. Archer takes the case, and investigating the woman’s family finds a husband who may prefer other men, a mother-in-law who controls the family purse strings and keeps that husband emasculated and dependent on her, a daughter perhaps unhealthily fond of her father and family friends not all of whom seem all that friendly.

Archer also learns that the whole family are sitting on a fortune in oil. A fortune nobody can get to as long as the mother-in-law (who owns the land) refuses to sell up. When she is found floating face down in the family pool the question isn’t who benefits from her death, it’s who doesn’t.

I’m not going to talk further about the plot. It’s well crafted and satisfying and the various twists and turns are convincing. The plot is what makes this an easy read, it’s what keeps the pages turning, it’s not though what makes it worth reading.

What makes it worth reading is the sense of place, more particularly the sense of California. I said in my writeup of The Moving Target that I was impressed by how vividly Macdonald brought California to life. That’s if anything even more true in this novel. Here Archer goes for a swim in the sea:

I turned on my back and floated, looking up at the sky, nothing around me but cool clear Pacific, nothing in my eyes but long blue space. It was as close as I ever got to cleanliness and freedom, as far as I ever got from all the people. They had jerrybuilt the beaches from San Diego to the Golden Gate, bulldozed super-highways through the mountains, cut down a thousand years of redwood growth, and built an urban wilderness in the desert. They couldn’t touch the ocean. They poured their sewage into it, but it couldn’t be tainted.

And here, later on that same page, Archer reflects on the oil town that’s sprung up not all that far from that beach:

The oil wells from which the sulphur gas rose crowded the slopes on both sides of the town. I could see them from the highway as I drove in: the latticed triangles of the derricks where trees had grown, the oil-pumps nodding and clanking where cattle had grazed. Since ‘thirty-nine or ‘forty, when I had seen it last, the town had grown enormously, like a tumor. It had thrust out shoots in all directions: blocks of match-box houses in raw new housing developments and the real estate shacks to go with them, a half-mile gauntlet of one-story buildings along the highway: veterinarians, chiropractors, beauty shops, marketerias, restaurants, bars, liquor stores, There was a new four-story hotel, a white frame gospel tabernacle, a bowling alley wide enough to house a B-36. The main street had been transformed by glass brick, plastic, neon. A quiet town in a sunny valley had hit the jackpot hard, and didn’t know what to do with itself at all.

That’s a long quote above, but I think it’s a great one. The town’s expanding, sprawling, it’s capitalism made physical in steel and glass. It’s America changing as it always has changed, with the orange groves and the farms making way for yet another gold rush. It’s money, one half of the forked root of evil, and it’s irresistible.

As so often in the hardboiled genre, there’s a sense of corruption under a glittering surface. California is beautiful, the sea and the sky are both blue, but you don’t need to dig very deep or go very far before you find something much darker. Like the pool itself the surface of California is inviting, but it’s far from the whole story.

The underwater lights of the pool were on, so that the water was a pale emerald depth with a luminous and restless surface filming it.

And with that, there’s not a lot more to say. Macdonald tries less hard here than in the first novel with the zingy one-liners. He still manages a nice line in short sentence descriptions (there’s a couple of examples below) but he’s not trying so hard to mimic Chandler’s polish and the snap of Marlowe’s comebacks. It makes for a less forced style and plays better to Macdonald’s own strengths. Here’s those examples:

There were dark crumbs on the oilcloth-covered table beside the burner, and some of them were moving.

… my hood was still hot enough to fry the insects that splattered it.

I could easily have found more.

In the end, crime fiction is moral fiction. The people Archer encounters are motivated by sex and money, that’s why their actions lead to misery and death. Archer himself though is something quite different. The key difference for me between hardboiled and noir is in the morality of the protagonist. In noir, the protagonist is one more person driven by sex or money or both. In hardboiled, everyone else may be like that, but the detective isn’t that smart. He’s motivated by something else, something more noble, something which frankly the world he’s in has no use for. The hardboiled detective is motivated by the desire for truth, whatever the price, even if the price is paid by him. He’s a paladin, a paragon of virtue in a virtueless world. I’ll leave Archer the final word:

“I don’t know what justice is,” I said. “Truth interests me, though. Not general truth if there is any, but the truth of particular things. Who did what when why. Especially why. …”

The Drowning Pool. That’s the Vintage Black Lizard press imprint, a series I’m very fond of as the covers are generally good, the layout clear and the paper and bindings of good quality.


Filed under California, Crime, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross

Was there ever so pampered an ass as mine?

A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien

Singing in the Rain is one of my favourite films. If you don’t know it, it’s about the advent of talkies and how some film stars couldn’t make the transition from the silents to the new world of sound. Many careers were ended effectively overnight.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a semi-autobiographical novel. Its unnamed narrator is the son of a once glamorous Hollywood couple. As the novel opens, the father is a star famous for working with John Ford among many others. The mother has been a successful actress in her own right, both on stage and screen.

This isn’t a novel of glittering lives though. Although the father’s career does survive the end of the silent movie period, after the war he finds he’s no longer in demand and by the time the narrator’s eight years old his parents are separated and their glory days are distinctly over.

This then is a coming-of-age novel set in what in one sense is a very unusual context, golden-age Hollywood with parents who used to be household names. In another sense though it’s a very common context, that of growing up with parents who hate each other and who seem smaller to an adolescent than they did to a young child. Their way of life is unusual, but it’s a way of life which, for all that, is like any other.

The novel opens with the narrator’s memories of when things were fine, the days at the Casa Fiesta when his parents were still together, rich and in demand. They have staff, they get preferred seats at the baseball and gifts from the players, there are exotic presents and horse riding and all the trappings of Hollywood success.

All that happiness though just sets the scene for what follows. The narrator’s mother is a monster of selfishness, the father weak and confused once he’s no longer needed by the world. The mother goes looking for the perfect man, travelling across Europe and blaming others for everything that goes wrong. The father ends up living with his wife’s mother who treats him with contempt. Where once he had grand adventures, now he makes up tall tales to make his life seem better than it is.

It sounds bleak, but curiously it isn’t. That’s in part because of O’Brien’s gift for dialogue. Many of the conversations are painful ones, but many others are extremely funny (a family friend’s monologue about his life in the avocado business stands out).

It’s the writing though that’s most impressive about the novel. It’s intelligent and subtle. By way of example, early on when the narrator is a child things are described largely without comment – they’re accepted as simply being what they are, as a child would; we’re left to form our own views of people’s behaviour and what it means. Later, as the narrator enters adolescence, he becomes judgemental and the language of the novel becomes judgemental too. It also becomes angrier, teenage emotions invading the prose style itself.

The descriptive passages are excellent. This is very much a Californian novel (not that it was written there I think) and as I read it I could feel the light and the space, even when the narrator was living in the cramped corner of his mother’s sculptor-lover’s studio. O’Brien brings his locations to life. I could see Casa Fiesta, Hollywood, the huge home of Mr. Caliban (a family friend and successful director the narrator goes to live with for a while), Vegas. There’s a strong sense of period too, it’s the 1950s and sex, prosperity and a new freedom are in the air.

One of the reasons I write a blog is that it forces me to think about what I read. The act of writing about a novel makes me engage with it. When I sat down to write this blog entry, I had the two quotes I’m about to use already in mind, one as an example of a playful use of language that worked, and the other as an example of where it didn’t work. Writing my blog, I realised that the second example is cleverer than I realised.

O’Brien is a writer who likes language and who likes to play with words. That’s not play with words in a punny sense. Rather, he plays with them in the sense that he’ll take a word and make it stand out or make the reader suddenly engage with the prose as prose. Here’s my first example, from very early in the book:

These were the Malibu days, the Casa Fiesta days, when I ambled with the ungulates in the chaparral, heard visiting priests celebrate mass in the private chapel to Our Lady of Guadalupe, played with the toys my parents brought me from their travels, the stuffed baby condor from the Andes, the tiny samovar, the voodoo doll, the tortoise shell I used to bathe my puppy in.

He “ambled with the ungulates”. It shouldn’t work, but actually I think that’s a great paragraph. Originally I had noted this next quote as an example of where it didn’t work, but I was wrong. Here it is:

It seems that the wire mattress, rusted and rotted by his nocturnal diuresis, a condition wholly attributable to his state of mind, which caused him to forget to do things the rest of us accomplish through habit and instinct, had collapsed under his weight.

What I had originally planned to write was that the sentence collapses under its own weight. Then I realised, well yes, so it does. It collapses under its own weight in the same way the bed collapses. It’s yet another piece of subtle writing from a novel that rewards a close and thoughtful read.

I’ve not talked here about O’Brien’s own background growing up in Hollywood. I’ve not in fact read up on it much as my interest is in the novel as a novel, not how much draws from life. That said, O’Brien’s knowledge of Hollywood runs through the book and there’s a casual familiarity with the movie business that does make it all the more convincing. Here’s the narrator talking about making movies:

“All right,” I said, “I’ll tell you something. If I was making a picture about Jesus Christ, I’d play up the anger in the temple thing, the fainthearted thing in the Garden of Gethsemane. And I’d get a knockout to play Mary Magdalene. You see it? The human element. …”

At the end of the day though this isn’t primarily a Hollywood novel. It’s a novel about the narrator’s parents and their failed marriage and ruined lives. As it goes on it gets darker – showing people who were once larger than life now small and petty. It’s a compassionate novel though for all that, and there’s a clear wish that things had worked out better for them:

My inquiries into human understanding had taught me that my father was as constantly constant as a rock and my mother as constantly inconstant as the sea, and that wasn’t much to go on. A rock as big as my father you could not throw, but you could hide behind it and rest in its shadow. When it fell into the sea, it sank.

I have Guy Savage to thank for bringing this book to my attention. His excellent review is here (it postdates this review now as Guy subsequently updated it), and he spoke of it further in the comments section to one of my own entries (I forget which sadly).

A Way of Life, Like Any Other. I don’t always like the NYRB covers, but this one I think is wonderfully evocative and very well chosen. There’s also a nice introduction by Seamus Heaney.


Filed under California, O'Brien, Darcy

Every route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them

Post Office, by Charles Bukowski

Most authors don’t write about what it’s like to have a job, possibly because all too many of them haven’t really had much by way of jobs. They’ll write about what it’s like to be a struggling author, there’s an ocean of novels covering that territory, but there’s not much about life as most people actually live it.

Well, that’s a hideous exaggeration of course, there’s the marvellous Something Happened by Joseph Heller; there’s What was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn; Microserfs by Douglas Coupland; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe; arguably one could even say much of Revolutionary Road. Still, it’s not territory most authors are that comfortable in.

Charles Bukowski’s an exception. His (apparently largely autobiographical) 1971 debut novel Post Office has a lot to say about work, about the sheer grind of clocking in, day in and day out. It’s the story of his alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, and his twelve or so years working at the US post office, first as a substitute mail carrier (mailman in other words) and later as a sorting clerk. It includes absurd bureaucracy, idiot rules, petty and malevolent supervisors, banal inhumanity. It’s very well written, often extremely funny, and desperately sad.

Chinaski is drunk and a womaniser, he plays the horses (generally winning, for a while he makes a living at it), he cheats on his live in girlfriend (whom he refers to as his “shackjob”, because he shacks up with her) casually and without thought. He’s a man who on being presented for the first time with his new born baby assesses the nurse’s figure. He’s lazy, has an attitude problem and hates all his jobs, he keeps up with them just because the women he’s with expect him to make an honest living (rather than one at the tracks) and because he can’t generally be bothered to quit and do something else.

Bukowski clearly understands Chinaski’s world, given he lived it I guess he should. He’s tremendous at bringing to life the stupidity and sometimes downright insanity of the public, with their dogs and demands and random aggression. I’ve worked retail, as a student, and I still remember people asking me as I worked the pick’n’mix if they could both pick and mix, I remember the guy who held up two bottles of water, one in each hand, and asked me which one was colder. People individually in my experience are ok, the public though are insane. Bukowski knows this:

The voices of the people were the same, no matter where you carried the mail you heard the same things over and over again.
“You’re late, aren’t you?”
“Where’s the regular carrier?”
“Hello, Uncle Sam!”
“Mailman! Mailman! This doesn’t go here!”
The streets were full of insane and dull people. Most of them lived in nice houses and didn’t seem to work, and you wondered how they did it. There was one guy who wouldn’t let you put the mail in his box. He’d stand in the driveway and watch you coming for 2 or 3 blocks and he’d stand there and hold his hand out.

For the record, Catherine O’Flynn captures the experience of working in retail better than anyone else I’ve read, Chinaski of course is a public servant, if anything that’s even worse. It comes with additional feelings of entitlement on the part of the public.

Chinaski works for sadistic supervisors who take pleasure in making his life miserable, assigning him impossible routes in brutal conditions and denying him work when he answers back. Employees are expected to look up to old timers whose lives have plainly been ruined by the job, men of stunted horizons whose every interest and spark of life has been crushed under years of repetition. When these figures break, as they do, they are discarded like old machine parts, and never spoken of again.

As the novel continues, Chinaski moves from woman to woman, sometimes hitting it lucky, sometimes not so much. He leaves his job as a mail carrier, but later returns to the post office, now as a sorter. It’s an indoor job, better money but lacking the challenge of making difficult routes on time in bad weather. That said, it is secure:

After swearing us in, the guy told us:
“All right now, you’ve got a good job. Keep your nose clean and you’ve got security the rest of your life.”
Security? You could get security in jail. 3 squares and no rent to pay, no utilities, no income tax, no child support. No licence plate fees. No traffic tickets. No drunk driving raps. No losses at the race track. Free medical attention. Comradeship with those with similar interests. Church. Round-eye. Free burial.

Security here is the trap. The post office offers a good job, good conditions, decent pay, it’s hard to get fired (Chinaski routinely turns up drunk and takes time off without permission). There’s constant chivvying, tasks to be performed in times calculated by external consultants who’ve never done the job, penalties for going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water outside your allotted ten minute break, requirements as to how you sit on your stool while you sort, but if you can put up with all that you could spend decades with the post office. Those who do put on weight, sag and spread, but they’re secure. To Chinaski, it’s a form of death, a way of losing your own life.

Bukowski doesn’t just write about work, Chinaski is popular with women, despite being described by more than one character as looking like a wino. He’s obviously got some charisma, some charm, and although he generally treats women like convenient objects there’s a level at which he remains aware of their essential humanity. At times, there’s even a tenderness:

The blankets had fallen off and I stared down at her white back, the shoulder blades sticking out as if they wanted to grow into wings, poke through that skin. Little blades. She was helpless.

Chinaski just doesn’t connect that humanity, that vulnerability, with any implication that maybe he shouldn’t sleep with the next woman who’s available as soon as his current one is off to work.

Post Office is full of damaged people. Workmates who shout and boast of sexual conquests they’ve clearly never had. People who break down, crying in the locker room as they become too old to still sort post as fast as management requires. Chinaski’s world is a brutal one, supervisors care only about delivery targets, institutions are faceless and indifferent to those they employ, people are messy and drunk and needy but their society requires them to be none of those things. Chinaski inhabits the world of those who slip through the cracks, the people who stop coping, who maybe could never cope, the people who get old and never made enough to create a cushion that could make that bearable:

She got a job as a waitress, then lost that when they tore down the cafe to erect an office building. Now she lived in a small room in a loser’s hotel. She changed the sheets there and cleaned the bathrooms. She was on wine.

She went back to her room and put on her best dress, high heels, tried to fix up. But there was a terrible sadness about her.

This is a plotless novel. Stuff happens, but there isn’t really a story arc. Chinaski gets a job with the post office, leaves it and does some other stuff for a while, then returns to the post office. He has relationships, few friendships, he spends a lot of time drunk. That’s about it. What it is though is a portrait of what it’s like to be part of the itinerant underclass, the people in lousy jobs on poor wages, seen as unreliable by bosses who neither understand nor care about the chaos of their lives. These people start out with dreams, ambitions, desires like all of us. But along the way they get crushed, and Post Office in part shows us how:

I don’t know how it happens to people. I had child support, need for something to drink, rent, shoes, shirts, socks, all that stuff. LIke everyone else I needed an old car, something to eat, all the little intangibles.

It’s no surprise to me that Post Office had the impact it did. This is a great novel. It’s ugly, vulgar and crass. It contains a lot of block capitalised shouting. It’s characters are unpleasant, mad, pathetic, often cruel, sometimes downright repugnant (including Chinaski). But it’s true, and for me truth is the essence of good art. This is good art.

Post Office


Filed under Bukowski, Charles, California, Social Realism, Vernacular

You’re the neon type, aren’t you?

The Moving Target, by Ross Macdonald

It’s a curious thing how writers come in and out of fashion. A writer can be a great success in their lifetime, critically acclaimed, popular perhaps too, yet after a few years be largely forgotten. Others languish in obscurity, are even ridiculed, but years later come to be seen as masters in their field. There’s little pattern to it that I see, literary immortality is a crapshoot.

Ross Macdonald hasn’t fared so well at the tables the last few decades. In his day, Macdonald was a major writer of hardboiled fiction, he was referred to as belonging to the holy trinity of crime, along with Chandler and Hammett. Now, he’s little known, undeservedly so because while I don’t (so far anyway) put him next to Chandler and Hammett in terms of ability he’s an enjoyable read with a fine line in snappy dialogue and sense of place.

I heard about Ross Macdonald through a Tobias Jones article in the Guardian, which can be read here. Jones argues that Macdonald surpasses the other hardboiled greats, but that this took time with the early novels consciously imitating his predecessors. That’s interesting, and in a way reassuring, because I started with Macdonald’s first and while I enjoyed it I couldn’t help but notice quite how derivative of Chandler in particular it is.

Macdonald’s protagonist is private detective Lew Archer, the name a reference to Miles Archer – Sam Spade’s partner in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Archer operates out of LA, mostly doing divorce work, but in this first of fourteen novels he is hired by a Mrs. Sampson to find her husband who has failed to return from a trip. The Sampsons, naturally, are rich, and Mrs. Sampson is determined to outlive her husband and inherit his wealth. She’s concerned that he might be with another woman, which could mean she could get squeezed out of the inheritance, it soon becomes apparent though that the truth is more likely to involve kidnap.

As you’d expect, matters soon complicate. Sampson’s daughter, Miranda, is young and beautiful and in love with Sampson’s private pilot, handsome young Alan Taggert, but Taggert doesn’t love her back. Who is in love with her is Albert Graves, a lawyer and old friend of Archer’s, but to Miranda an old man of 40. Mixed in too are a has-been film star, a California guru operating a mountaintop temple, a piano bar singer with a background in jazz and drug-induced psychiatric problems, a smooth and silver haired hood and many more. It’s not original, these are all pretty much stock characters for the genre, but it’s well written and moves along speedily.

Normally, I like to quote passages from works, so as to give a feel for the writing. Here though, the one-liner tends to be king. Hardboiled fiction loves snappy dialogue, Chandler can maintain it for whole passages of glittering beauty, Macdonald isn’t that good (yet anyway), but he still has his moments. I thought this line, from the first page, quite marvellous:

The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money.

I also liked “unripe oranges like dark-green golf balls”, and generally was impressed by how vividly California was itself brought to life, a character in the drama. Archer goes from rich and secluded estates, to downtown dives, to grimy shacks, and throughout it all Macdonald has a nice eye for the California landscape.

From the summit of the pass we could see the valley filled with sunlight like a bowl brimming with yellow butter, and the mountains clear and sharp on the other side.

There’s a lot of nice little character descriptions too, a telephone operator who “was a frozen virgin who dreamed about men at night and hated them in the daytime.” “Her tone clicked like pennies; her eyes were small and hard and shiny like dimes.” A thug is described as follows “I didn’t like the way he moved toward me. His left shoulder was forward and his chin in, as if every hour of his day was divided into twenty three-minute rounds.” That’s very easy to picture, and tells you all you need to know of the thug in two sentences.

The Moving Target is an easily read book, which of course it should be. It was hampered for me by my reading it during a week when I’ve had a cold nasty enough to kill my concentration (though not so bad as to keep me from work), which meant it took days to read what should have taken an evening, even with that though I found my interest sustained and the pacing held up well. As it goes on, it gets nastier, as Archer gets further into the twisted lives of Sampson and his associates, a world of jaded sex, drugs, new age beliefs (not that they called it that then, but it’s what they are) and of course money.

The most unusual element is a focus on psychology, something I understand gets much more pronounced later in the series. The piano bar singer sings a song about her psychiatric issues with “decadent intelligence”, Archer early on asks if there’s “a psychological explanation for my being here”, Archer’s a form of secular priest, a therapist even, bringing the truth to light and encouraging confession (which may be good for the soul, but it’s lousy for your chances of avoiding the needle). Of course, hardboiled detectives always have that element of clergy to them, that feeling of being agents of a higher justice in a world that feels no need for it, what’s unusual here is the way the references tend to the psychological, the psychiatric even. So far it’s an interesting twist, I’ll see in due course if it gets too much in later volumes.

As I noted above, this is Macdonald’s first, and though at times there are some lovely bits of dialogue (“I wouldn’t trust him with a burnt-out match.” is another), at others he slightly overdoes it. The line between inspiration and pastiche can be a thin one, and once or twice Macdonald crosses it. Here, I thought the tires element just a metaphor too far:

“You want to go there?”
“Why not?” I said. “The night is young.” I was lying. The night was old and chilly, with a slow heartbeat. The tires whined like starved cats on the fog-sprinkled black-top. The neon along the strip glared with insomnia.

That’s just too hardboiled. I couldn’t take it entirely seriously, it was too studiedly Chandler-esque, too plainly an imitation. Macdonald also has a habit of describing all the female characters’ breasts, which have nipples that look at Archer like eyes or point out at him (going on the films I suspect 1940 bras were a bit pointy actually) or generally tend to be a bit noticeable – giving me at least the slightly unfortunate impression that Archer was one of those men who speak to women’s chests rather than their faces.

Plotwise, this goes as you’d expect, Archer gets beaten up and sapped a few times (“His fist struck the nape of my neck. Pain whistled through my body like splintered glass, and the night fell on me solidly again.”), has guns held on him more than once, people get killed and the whole thing turns out more complex than it looks. This isn’t a novel that pushes the boundaries of its genre, it’s rather a novel by an author drawing heavily on what went before and writing firmly within the genre his predecessors created. It’s enjoyable, but it’s a novel for genre fans, not so much for those looking to take a dip outside their usual literary waters, for whom I’d recommend going back to Chandler or Hammett just like Macdonald himself did.

Still, for all that I am a genre fan, so I’ve ordered the next. For me, the jury’s out whether the psychological elements coming more to the fore will make it better or worse, it’s good Macdonald later finds his own voice but I may not of course like that voice. Still, there’s only one way to find out and this was good enough to make it worth sticking with Macdonald a bit longer while he finds his feet.

The Moving Target. I read this in the Black Lizard edition, a range published by Vintage. Black Lizard tend unfortunately only to be available in the US, I like them as they’re physically light with good paper and printing making them an easy and pleasurable read. Hopefully we’ll see more of them in the UK going forward, as there’s a bit of a paucity of good imprints for works of this kind right now in the UK (which is, in part, why I’m so fond of Serpent’ Tail).


Filed under California, Crime, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross

a salad of despair

Thomas Pynchon has a reputation as a challenging author. I’ve just finished The Crying of Lot 49, he lives up to that reputation. This is an extraordinary work, not one that apparently Pynchon himself rates but one that I definifely do. All that said, it’s complex stuff.

Pynchon is most famous for his third novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, a book with such impact that Pynchon’s career is now divided into pre- and post-Gravity’s Rainbow phases. By all accounts, Gravity’s Rainbow is a masterpiece, a triumph of 20th Century literature, it’s also though famously dense and rather long and so perhaps a slightly amibitious entry point to Pynchon’s work. The Crying of Lot 49, by contrast, is around 110 pages or so and is thought to be one of his most straightforward and linear novels. Straightforward is relative, it is superb, but having finished it I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the plot was, or even whether there was a plot.

On the surface, it’s the tale of how Oedipa Maas is appointed executor to the estate of a rich ex-boyfriend, and as a result comes to uncover an ancient conspiracy dedicated to creating a rival postal service to the US Government one. It’s not that simple though, there may not be a conspiracy, if there is it may not be that one, there may be several conspiracies, there may just be random noise, throughout this novel meaning is always just out of grasp, never quite realisable, perhaps not there at all.

Here’s the first sentence of the novel:

One Summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsh in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or the supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous enough and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

That’s a very characteristic sentence, dense yet clearly written and already not wholly serious. It also contains what is usually a pet hate of mine, blatantly incredible character names. Obviously in real life few people have names like Pierce Inverarity or Oedipa Maas. Generally, when novelists seek to give characters cutesy names I find it alienating, it reminds me I’m reading a book. Waugh’s Scoop was in large part ruined for me by the obviousness of the silly names given to the newspapers in it.

Here, that didn’t happen, and the reason it didn’t is that the names have a purpose. Before I get to that though, here’s a few more, a sample of some of the characters encountered in this short work:

Wendell ‘Mucho’ Maas, Dr Hilarius, Metzger who used to be a child actor named Baby Igor and who is now a lawyer (and whose life story is being made by a former lawyer who is now an actor named Manny Di Presso), Mike Fallopian, Randolph Driblette, Genghis Cohen. There’s also the wonderfully named law firm of Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus, of Los Angeles.

A lot of these names are allusions, though not necessarily ones with any actual significance to the text. Some, Genghis Cohen, are outright jokes, but most of them almost mean something. Oedipa Maas, Manny Di Presso, the references are obvious, but meaningless. Like so much of this novel, they tremble on the brink of significance, they appear important, but it’s really not clear that they mean anything at all.

As Oedipa starts to investigate Pierce’s affairs, she becomes involved with co-executor Metzger, and becomes aware of what may be a conspiracy running right through Southern California involving a centuries-old organisation dedicated to alternate means of mail delivery. She goes to see a newly staged Jacobean revenge play, which contains within it curious references to the contemporary conspiracy, she visits an inventor of a perpetual motion machine that doesn’t appear to work, and becomes alert to the symbols of the conspiracy – a line drawing of a muted trumpet, forged stamps each containing intentional and often disturbing minor errors.

Her psychiatrist, Dr Hilarius, presses her to take part in a new study using LSD for therapeutic purposes, her husband is still scarred by the psychological trauma of having worked on a used car lot and now works as a DJ but is having a crisis of faith in that calling, Manny Di Presso is being hunted by one of his clients, the hotel Oedipa books into is used for practice sessions by a mock-English band called The Paranoids who try to spy on her in the mistaken belief she is having bizarrely kinky sex. Paranoia then is everywhere, paranoia is at the heart of the novel.

Pynchon creates here a powerful sense of place, even though the place much of the story occurs in is made up, San Narcisco:

San Narcisco lay farther south, near LA. Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a group of concepts – census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access routes to its own freeway.

Throughout the novel there is a sense of 1960s Southern California, a mix of drugs, capitalism, creativity and urban sprawl. The weird is everywhere, there is a bar that only play electronic music (which to me is a form of music that originates in Germany and Britain in the late 1970s, I don’t really know what it meant back then), with live nights on Saturdays. The defence contractor Yoyodyne has its offices here, where the staff sing company songs but use their own private mail network (separate to the conspiracy) to pass contentless messages, sent to each other only to ensure the private mail network has something to deliver. There is a company that makes bone-dust cigarette filters from the bones of dead GIs. It is an an insane melting-pot of innovation and horror.

Among the chaos of Southern California, Oedipa begins to find meaning in her investigation of the conspiracy, assuming it exists that is. Is she herself descending into paranoia? Is it all some post-mortem joke of Pierce Inverarity’s? Is it in fact an ancient conspiracy, albeit a singularly pointless one? The search for meaning creates meaning, we find patterns in the noise, but whether any of it exists outside our own heads is unclear, perhaps unknowable.

And that is a large part of what this is about, for me anyway. It is a vision of paranoia, of the terror of a world in which everything makes sense, we create conspiracies though because even that is preferable to a world where things make no sense at all. They are out to get you, but at least they care enough to try. As reader, we are like Oedipa, looking for meaning in a mass of references, allusions, apparent themes, we draw conclusions on what it’s all about but who knows if we’re right? Perhaps we just want it to be about something, so we find things within it that support our expectations.

Along the way, there is some genuinely very funny comedy here, it contains for example one of the funniest, and stupidest, sex scenes I’ve ever read and there are some marvellous throwaway lines:

Despair came over her, as it will when nobody around has any sexual relevance to you.

There is also a certain beauty to the whole thing, wonderful and disturbing imagery, an exuberance bursting through the pages which seems uncontrolled but which is in fact expertly crafted. At one point Oedipa finds herself staying in a hotel which is also hosting a conference for deaf-mutes:

Back in the hotel she found the lobby full of deaf-mute delegates in party hats, copied in crêpe paper after the fur Chinese communist jobs made popular during the Korean conflict. They were every one of them drunk, and a few of the men grabbed her, thinking to bring her along to a party in the grand ballroom. She tried to struggle out of the silent, gesturing swarm, but was too weak. Her legs ached, her mouth tasted horrible.They swept her on into the ballroom, where she was seized about the waist by a handsome young man in a Harris tweed coat and waltzed round and round, through the rustling, shuffling hush, under a great unlit chandelier. Each couple on the floor danced whatever was in the fellow’s head: tango, two-step, bossa nova, slop. But how long, Oedipa thought, could it go on before collisions became a serious hindrance? There would have to be collisions. The only alternative was some unthinkable order of music, many rhythms, all keys at once, a choreography in which each couple meshed easy, predestined. Something they all heard with an extra sense atrophied in herself. She followed her partner’s lead, limp in the young mute’s clasp, waiting for the collisions to begin. But none came. She was danced for half an hour before, by mysterious consensus, everybody took a break, without having felt any touch but the touch of her partner.

Apart from the beauty and strangeness of the imagery in that passage, I can’t help but see it as an image of America itself. Everyone dancing to their own dream, somehow not colliding and the whole thing unexpectedly working. There is something both frightening and magnificent in it, it’s not the only vision of America out there (I don’t myself buy into American exceptionalism), but it’s a vision and in some ways an optimistic one. And if America is anything, it’s optimistic.

So, there are my thoughts, for now anyway. Whole books have been written on The Crying of Lot 49, books longer than the novel itself. There are essay collections about it, teacher study guides, any blog post is but a thin scraping at the surface. This book is packed with references, to Nabokov, to the Beatles, to all sorts of things, most of which I probably didn’t get. Most of which I doubt anyone gets, though we’d each likely get different ones.

I’ve not even touched here on many possible core issues of the book, communications theory and failures of communication, consumed experience, the blurring of the self, entropy, I could write 10,000 words and still not manage all of it. For me though, it connected most as a story of the search for meaning and the (perhaps?) creation of it where we don’t find it – the imposition of patterns on random data. Other readers could, many have, drawn quite different conclusions.

It’s an extraordinary achievement.

The Crying of Lot 49


Filed under California, Novellas, Personal canon, Pynchon, Thomas

Every time we say goodbye

Die a Little, by Megan Abbott

Die A Little is a work of noir fiction by Megan Abbott, an American author with three fiction titles released in the US, of which Die a Little was her first and which is also her first to be released in the UK.

Die a Little is an unabashedly genre novel, not so much an homage to the golden age of noir fiction as a deliberate attempt to write a classic noir novel in a style that would have seemed perfectly in place had it been published back in the 1950s. Largely, it succeeds, Abbott plainly knows her genre and delights in it, and indeed her website (also a good source of noir links) reveals that her first major work in print was a study of White masculinity in hardboiled fiction and film noir.

However, Die a Little departs from the traditional noir template in one very interesting way, it is written from the point of view of a female character. Noir protagonists, generally speaking, have tended to be White men. By adopting a female narrative perspective, Abbott does not subvert the noir genre (and does not I think intend to subvert it), but she does succeed in adding something fresh to it, and for any genre as old as this one that is very welcome.

Abbott also shows a great affection for the golden age of noir/hardboiled covers, with the cover art for Die a Little and for each of her other novels (see the front page of her website, linked to above) being rather gloriously lurid. Lurid because golden age noir is of course a deeply lurid genre, full of sex, jealousy, intrigue and murder. The original covers reflected that, being reminiscent of the pulps in which many of the early authors first got themselves published, and I rather like to see the garish tradition of the pulp cover embraced by at least one contemporary author.

Moving to the book itself, Die a Little is set in 1950s Los Angeles. Lora King is a schoolteacher who lives with her brother, Bill, who is in turn a junior investigator with the DA’s office. The novel is written in Lora’s internal voice, she is speaking directly to us, and she is speaking to us after the fact (though after the fact of what is not initially clear). The very first words of the novel are “Later, the things I would think about”.

Lora and her brother are close, indeed although nothing untoward is happening or has happened between them, they seem rather too close in some regards. By just page 2 Lora is reminiscing how she used to cut Bill’s hair, remembering:

“Hours afterward, I would find slim, beaten gold bristles on my fingers, my arms, no matter how careful I was. I’d blow them off my fingertips, one by one.”

A passage which seems more sensual than perhaps a sister’s memories of her brother entirely ought to be. The very next paragraph she refers to his honeymoon with his new wife, in Cuba, a destination Lora seems not wholly to approve of (we later learn that it was an expensive choice, but the objection seems more to the fact of the marriage than the choice of vacation).

So, by the second page it already appears that Lora is fonder of her brother than perhaps is entirely healthy, that she is jealous of his new wife, and that she has been displaced in his affections and his life by this interloper whom we soon learn is glamorous and beautiful. Bill is a handsome man, tall, with razor cheekbones and square jaw, blond and well built. His new wife is thin and dark and full of nervous energy. She is Lora’s opposite, Lora being herself blonde and though perhaps beautiful a homebody whose love life is a quiet matter of occasional trips to the movies with other teachers, dates which never seem to get past an occasional kiss in the car on the way home.

Lora then, like her brother, is a shining piece of 1950s virtue. She a teacher, he a fighter against crime, they each serve society in their own way and each lives a life of quiet honesty and decency.

Bill’s new wife is named Alice Steele, she is a Hollywood wardrobe assistant, already a profession a world away from those of Bill and Lora. She comes apparently without family, without a past, the only guests from her side at the wedding being a few coworkers. Thus we have the three central characters of this work, Bill, Lora and Alice. But really, this is a novel about Lora and Alice, Bill has no narrative voice, he is bordering on a mere McGuffin, it is Lora’s jealousy of Alice’s usurping her place in Bill’s life that drives the narrative of this novel. Alice is Lora’s antithesis, or at least seems to be such, as the novel progresses however it becomes increasingly apparent that the women have more in common than perhaps Lora is willing to admit.

Abbott evokes the 1950s in a number of ways, but one of the key methods she uses is by reference to the things which Alice acquires as wedding gifts and in her attempts to be the perfect bride and perfect housewife. Alice is hungry for normality, to belong to the perfect world which Bill represents, and the purchase and consumption of things is a key part of how she pursues her goal.

So, by way of wedding gifts and objects Alice orders for her new home with Bill, we have:

“A full set of smooth pink and gray Russel Wright everyday dinnerware, my mother’s Haviland china in English Rose, a series of copper fish Jell-O Molds, a large twelve slice chrome toaster, a nest of Pyrex mixing bowls, a gleaming bar set, tumblers, old-fashioneds, and martini glasses with gold-leaf diamonds studding the rims, a bedroom set with soft, dove gray, silk quilted coverlets, matching lamps with dove gray porcelain gazelles as their bases, a vanity with a round mirror and a silver deco base, a delicate stool of wrought curlicues holding up a pale peach heart seat cushion, a tightly stuffed and sleekly lined sofa, love seat, and leather wing chairs in the living room, with its green trim, jungle-patterned curtains, and a large brass cage in which a parrot named Bluebeard lived.”

A few pages later, as Alice settles into her new role as Bill’s wife, we get a similar list – this time of presents the neighbourhood wives buy each other. Much later, as Alice throws an oriental themed party, we see Japanese paper lanterns, vases with moon lilies and bamboo stalks, hanging temple bells and much, much more. What is noticeable about the sentence quoted above (and it is just one sentence), and the similar description a few pages later in the novel, is the sheer volume of goods and the way in which as a reader one starts to get lost in the description. There are no full stops, no pauses, simply a wave of consumer desirables washing over and representing a life which can be bought and which being bought is made perfect. It is the 1950s dream, a litany of sorts, it is also of course written from the perspective of Lora and as such is also a litany of that which another woman has and which she does not. Additionally, for a woman of the 1950s and with the choices available to women in that age, the acquisition of these objects is a form of success – a form of achievement which other women will envy and which forms one of the few tangible goals (beyond children) open to them.

At the same time as we encounter these lists of objects, we also see Alice settling into her new life, a life she throws herself into with a level of energy and enthusiasm which soon makes her the most popular and arguably the most successful wife in the neighbourhood. Alice appears driven, being the perfect wife is everything to her, her very ambition to be so perfect itself starts to make us suspicious of what she is driving away from and as she chats with Lora she makes passing references to a childhood which seems far from the perfection she now seeks to establish.

We also encounter what will be one of the most commonly recurring elements of the novel, the gap between surfaces and interiors, the divide between the façade presented to the world and the decay which it masks within. We first see this one evening when Lora has slept over in the spare room, rising during the night she encounters Alice reading in the living room:

“I stop suddenly at the archway and find myself stifling a tight gasp. Under the harsh lamp, in sharp contrast to the dark room, her eyes look strangely eaten through. The eyes of a death mask, rotting behind the gleaming façade.”

Later, after they have spoken for a while, the conversation turns to Alice’s past and an anecdote of childhood which turns uncomfortably to past horrors:

“As Alice tells me this, I turn away from her. I stare hard at my hands, wrung around each other. I am afraid to look over at her because I know what I will see. I will see her eyes turning, always turning to rot.”

Eyes feature large in this novel, eyes which are “glossy, dark like brine, fixed and waiting”, eyes “like bullet holes”, “twitching, blinking eyes”, “guilty eyes”, the wide open and beautiful eyes of a murdered woman who had seen far too much in her life. Characters stare out of photos, eyes lock together, eyes act as reflective surfaces behind which nothing can be seen or as apertures to the fearful and decayed interiors that people do not wish the world to see.

Similarly, mouths become “like a wound”, “give way to a gray-blackness like something has crawled inside them and died there”, lipstick becomes the “bleeding edge of her painted mouth”.

Abbott describes characters not just in terms of physical appearance, but also in terms of the clothes they wear (which generally reflect the way they wish society to perceive them, teacher, executive, good-time girl) and on more than one occasion the colognes they use. Lora notices how men smell, the warm and peppery scent of Bill’s aftershave, the (also) peppery cologne of Mike Standish – a studio publicity man that Alice introduces Lora to and with whom Lora embarks on a physical affair.

And that takes me to another key strand of the novel. Just as we see Alice embracing Lora’s world, the world of clam bakes and good neighbours and ultimately even getting a job as a teacher at Lora’s school, so too Lora starts to be drawn to Alice’s world. Alice wants a life like that Lora possesses, and acquires it to a degree with the acquisition of Lora’s brother. Lora was happy with that life, but has more in common with Alice than she admits to herself and is increasingly drawn to the darkness that Alice introduces her to.

Until Alice, Lora’s life has been one of propriety, but with the arrival of Alice she meets some of Alice’s old friends and acquaintances, many of whom are distinctly disreputable. She meets Mike Standish, a “clean and cool container of a man”. By a short distance into the novel, Lora is sleeping with Mike, but shows no interest in advancing their relationship on to any deeper or more conventional footing. Lora meets Lois, a minor actress and B-girl and an old friend of Alice. Joe Avalon, a Hollywood fixer though exactly what he fixes is not too clear. As Lora becomes embroiled with these people from Alice’s world, so too Alice starts to have an impact on the people in Lora’s.

As the novel progresses, we see then two worlds colliding, the world of Hollywood sleaze and corruption and the world of suburban virtue and public service. We see too that Lora, for all she starts in the world of virtue and service, has darkness waiting within her and we become uncomfortably aware that Lora is not a heroine, that in fact there is no hero or heroine. Alice is a femme fatale, a classic one, fully formed and quite traditional in that. Lora is more interesting, in her we see the birth of a femme fatale, something I don’t recall seeing in any other noir or hardboiled novel, we see Lora moving from being a girl next door to a woman who wants to meet “men with smooth cheeks smelling of tangy lime aftershave, who would order you a gin and soda before you even knew you wanted one.”

Glossy surfaces, whisky with soda from a “smooth green bottle”, men in sharply pressed suits who smell as good as they look, consumer goods in abundance, Hollywood and suburban perfection side by side. And, at the same time, eyes and mouths that open only on to decay, rot and emptiness. In a sense, this is a depiction of a cancerous society, still beautiful on the outside but rotting away inside with reeking breath that is increasingly difficult to conceal.

I have, deliberately, said little about the plot. It is giving away little to say that Lora sets out to investigate this new woman in her brother’s life, that she becomes a sort of amateur (very amateur, happily she doesn’t suddenly transform into Sam Spade) detective and that she does not like what she finds very much. But really, it is a novel about two women, both of them passionate and intelligent and both of them with very firm ideas of what they want and few limits as to what they will do to achieve it. It is noir, there are no heroes, no paladins fighting for an elusive justice. Here there are simply clever animals driven by lust and greed and fear.

All that said, Lora does of course present the story, and in doing so though she does not quite make herself the hero she does manage to show a tremendous talent for self-justification in respect of every decision she takes, no matter how questionable some might seem. For all that I would not call her an unreliable narrator, it is true that there are times we see more than she might wish us to and perhaps more than she is willing to see herself, but there is also always the suspicion that she understands herself in ways that she is not prepared to directly voice.

Die a Little is a quick read, I read it in one sitting while flying between London and Madrid and I am not persuaded it would benefit from being spread over many days (I’m not persuaded many good pulp novels would actually, it’s not the nature of the form). There are places where I felt the technique possibly a little obvious, where I could see as a reader how Abbott as a writer was looking to achieve certain effects, but that may be as much a fault of this blog (in making me overanalytical) as it is of Abbott and certainly I intend to buy her other novels when they reach the UK (not least given that the same criticism could easily be made of Spillane). Only once did I feel jarred from period, when the word “homemaker” was used when I would have thought housewife still the period expression, but that’s a harsh quibble and generally I thought the period well evoked and brought to life, as indeed was LA itself in all its seedy glory.

Above all, I found it interesting to read a noir novel from a female perspective, a novel of constrained lives and choices, lives defined in large part by relationships with men, a novel of female desire and female ambitions and of determined women unwilling to compromise. It is a novel which includes dark pasts, illicit pornography, sex (which is never directly described, classic noir referred to sex but did not depict the act itself, the importance is in the passion and its consequences, not the practical detail), death and all manner of vice, but in which the most terrible truth of all is that “The hardest thing in this world is finding out what you’re capable of.”

As I said at the opening of this blog entry, this is a genre novel. However, it is a novel which understands the genre it is part of, which embraces that genre and which celebrates it. James Ellroy helped reinvigorate the classic noir of novelists such as James Cain or the extraordinary Horace McCoy. Ellroy’s novels are brutal, staccato affairs full of casual violence and graceless lives. Die a Little is not that sort of novel, these characters would not fit well into an Ellroy novel and the focus is more on the personal than the historical, but this does share with early Ellroy an immediacy and a paciness which marks good pulp noir and which I found refreshing and which reminded me of quite why I am as fond of pulp literature as I am.


Filed under Abbott, Megan, California, Crime, Hardboiled, Noir