“TAKE FOR EXAMPLE,” Fredric Jameson writes in the opening pages of Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality,
some perfectly insignificant daily experience, such as the chance encounter of two people in the lobby of an apartment building. I find my neighbor unlocking his mailbox; I have never seen him before, we glance at each other briefly, his back is turned as he struggles with the larger magazines inside.
Consider also “the stained carpets, the sand-filled spittoons, the poorly shutting glass doors, all testifying to the shabby anonymity of a meeting place between the luxurious private lives that stand side by side like closed monads behind the door of the private apartments.”
Take also the evocative power of certain objects, where “a car is a ‘Ford,’ a lighter is a ‘Ronson,’ a hat is a ‘Stetson.’” Consider, writes Jameson, the possibility that something as light and throwaway as a detective novel may reveal patterns that underlie the workings of our society, and of history itself. Imagine, he writes, “something slight in density and resonance being at the source of some incomparably larger solid, of a kind of nothingness creating being, of a shadow projecting three-dimensionality out from itself.” Imagine that Chandler’s characters “exist for us in a different dimension, like glimpses through a window, noises from the back of a store.” Imagine the flashing eyes of a stern general in a portrait, contrasted with the dull, dead eyes of the general’s living granddaughter. Consider a world — our world — informed by an “abstract intellectual illusion” about federal and local power: “On the one hand, a glamorous national politics whose distant leading figures are invested with charisma, an unreal, distinguished quality adhering to their foreign policy activities,” and on the other, Jameson writes, we derogate local politics, with its “odium, its ever-present corruption, its deals and perpetual preoccupations with the undramatic materialistic questions such as sewage disposal, zoning regulations, property taxes, and so forth.”
Chandler’s novels confine themselves, claustrophobically, to the grimy microcosm, playing out in the heart of “the darkness of a local world without the benefit of the federal Constitution, as in a world without God.” They tour us through the geography of monadic homes, and introduce us to “gigolos, whose home is their office,” and gangsters, “whose office (casino, etc.) is their home.” Flashbulbs go off, and their “momentary lightning [is] both a homicidal and a sexual assault.” We follow the weather, and color schemes, and the diagram of a signifying system, with arrows opposing “The Public” and “The Private,” “Passion” and “Detachment.”
These patterns and systems make themselves known through sidelong glances, momentary glimpses of figures in doorways. Chandler reveals them, perhaps despite himself, by foregrounding the “gradual and tortuous approach” to the secluded mansion, while consigning the interview of detective and client to the background, as a kind of afterthought. “Indeed,” Jameson writes, “it is as if there are certain moments in life which are accessible only at the price of a certain lack of intellectual focus: like objects at the edge of my field of vision which disappear when I turn to stare at them head-on.” The huge gears of Jameson’s technical apparatus grind through interior décor, the artificiality of Los Angeles, differences between manufacturing and service economies, nostalgia, film adaptations, Humphrey Bogart, the voice-over, the return of the repressed, and the “peculiarly terminal aspect” of The Long Goodbye.
Jameson, now 82, has long been the most alluring American literary theorist, the only one to match the French in style and depth. This bravura book stems from a long engagement — we might say obsession — with Chandler; what had been a footnote 30 years ago now unfolds with full force. Jameson makes every strand of Chandler’s oeuvre glisten with significance. Passing through “The Shill Game,” “Mapping Space,” and “The Barrier at the End of the World,” Jameson’s extended meditation takes Chandler’s novels as jumping off points; his goal lies elsewhere. In this, his work mirrors Chandler’s, who once claimed, “My theory was that readers just thought they cared about nothing but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, the thing they cared about, and that I cared about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description.”
In Chandler’s novels, Jameson writes, “the initial deception takes place on the level of the book as a whole, in that it passes itself off as a murder mystery. In fact, [they] are first and foremost descriptions of searches,” as is Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality. Though full of elaborate connections between Heidegger and the hard-boiled, between the names of objects and our longing for a vanished economy, what lingers with the reader is “a different kind of ‘totalization’ […] which has nothing to do with the overall plot itself or with the social-character system, but which somehow sketches in the presence of some vaster absent natural unity,” like faint music heard over the water from a gambling boat moored offshore. As Jameson’s book closes, “suddenly, at the thought of that dissolution, and of the mindless lack of identity of the missing person so long called by name, the very appearance of life itself, of time in the present of the bustling activity of the outside world, is stripped away.”
“We feel in its place,” Jameson writes, “the presence of graves beneath the bright sunlight; the present fades to little more than a dusty, once-lived moment which will quickly take its place in the back years of an old newspaper file.” We put the book down on the coffee table. Someone has cleaned off its piles of junk mail while we were reading. A car passes by in the street. The hum of its motor, the swish of its tires, occupy our attention then fall away. Shadows of branches shake on the wall above our heads. Fragments of our own skin, lit like prisms, float through the still indoor air. And then the purely intellectual effect of Jameson’s criticism is “metamorphized into a result of unmistakable aesthetic intensity.”
Angela Woodward is the author of the collections The Human Mind and Origins and Other Stories, and the novels End of the Fire Cult and Natural Wonders. Natural Wonders won the 2015 Fiction Collective Two Catherine A. Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.