Saturday, July 28, 2012

Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler

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So I bought a round-trip ticket on the Chandler train. Can you blame me? The guy tells good stories.

And that's what I've been thinking about -- stories. Or, more specifically, story. When I finished The Big Sleep, I wrote a post about novels having plot. Normally, when I finish a blog post, I release the thoughts I've had on a particular, and they release me. But not this time. Something has been nibbling at the edges of my mind. Something about how some folks sneer at "plot," but still love a good "story"; and how these concepts matter to books like Chandler's.

The confusion -- and this isn't just in my mind, I think -- lies in the distinction between plot and story. In the Venn diagram of these concepts, I think there's a fairly substantial Cecilia. (Plenty of people will disagree with me; whaddya gonna do?) That overlap is "what happens" in a given novel.

I tend to forget that, while plot and story have a lot of parallels, they don't require each other. Vaguely and loosely put, plot is what happens externally, and story what happens internally. My routine visit to the grocery store has a plot; I can tell you precisely what happened and in what order, complete with reasoning and motive and all that jazz, but there's no story. Likewise, I could change my life by staring at the unrelenting sun through my window; nothing happens except that I (or maybe my readers, if I'm a character) undergo some shift in how I (or my readers) understand the world.

When the Modernists eschewed plot, many of them still clung to story -- to the change or refusal to change, largely independent of neat-and-tidy outside factors that to them were absolutely unlike real life. To me, that's as interesting as a novel with all action and no internal change on anyone's part. (Not very interesting at all.) I think most enduring stories exist in that Cecilia, those stretches of storytelling where the tracks of plot and story run side-by-side. (Like train tracks! And the story runs over them like a locomotive! Metaphors are fun.)

So when I said before that Chandler's books require an element of plot, I meant it. But unlike many other detective tales, the story of novels like Farewell, My Lovely is why we come back again and again. Once we know the answer to the puzzle, we're not ruined for re-readings. And Marlowe's story can shine through because it doesn't get too bogged down in plot -- we never find out what those five words are, the doctor really was just coincidental, we don't get an arrest and a trial and a neat-and-tidy conclusion.

I don't care, though. What happens plot-wise is still critical to the novel, but I don't come to Chandler to solve logic games. I come to learn about myself, to see my own world in a new way, to better understand where the monsters really are. (This novel is one of those where the reader changes as much as the protagonist -- I love when that happens.)

When I close the book, my heart is broken and my confidence shaken. Only a proper Cecilia has that kind of power.

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