|PART I: "SPLIT IT SO IT
WILL STAY SPLIT"
COLLOQUIAL STYLE AND THE TOUGH GUY VOICE
Originating in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and refined through such writers as Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, and most significantly, Ernest Hemingway, the colloquial or American vernacular literary style had been rising in popularity for over half a century before Chandler brought it to the world of genre fiction (Bridgman, 10-11).
"All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that," says Chandler in his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder." "But when it develops to the point of becoming a literary medium it only looks like speech" (Chandler, 530). The trick in creating this effect was being able to use the colloquial style, a style marked by stress on individual units in the sentence, a fragmentation of syntax, and a resulting use of repetition to balance that fragmentation, without abusing it and lapsing into an inauthentic voice of vulgarity, forced naivete, or falsity (Bridgman, 17,39; Chandler, 531).
Chandler had only been writing detective fiction for six years when he published his first novel, The Big Sleep. For many novelists, particularly those writing a series of books dealing with a central character or characters, the first novel becomes an experiment, a way to put things into motion and see if they play well with others or if they wander confusedly around bumping blindly into metaphorical walls. There are walls, certainly, to be bumped into in The Big Sleep, but the novel's protagonist is as wry, self-assured, self-deprecating and acerbically sentimental as is he in later works. It is considered by most critics, as well as Chandler himself, to be the one in which he achieves the most striking unity with plot, character development, and style (Gardiner, 222; Marling, 73). It is, as Lee Sigelman and William Jacoby also discover in their computer analysis of the Philip Marlowe tales, one of the most "Chandleresque" of all of Chandler's works (Sigelman and Jacoby, 24).
In the opening two chapters of The Big Sleep, we are introduced to the character of Philip Marlowe for the first time (the name of the character in the earlier pulp stories was changed to Marlowe later, when published as a collection after the appearance of the novels), and in meeting Marlowe we run headlong into Chandler's distinctive "tough guy" style of colloquial writing.
The first thing we notice in these pages are the individual words--their size, their class, the way they function in the sentence. On the whole, Chandler's prose is not marked by flowery expansive diction and elaborative word choices. In an application of the "Flesch formula" (a technique that focuses on average number of syllables per word and average number of words per sentence to determine readability level), and a comparison of the text to the "Ogden list" (a 1934 catalog of the 850 "basic" words--words in English that permit the expression of virtually any thought), the mean readability level of Chandler's work is that of a fifth to sixth grade reading level, and approximately 56% of the words employed appear on the Ogden list (Sigelman and Jacoby, 16,19). This character trait is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, one of Chandler's biggest influences. Hemingway believed, as did Chandler, that concision in sentence construction and "[avoiding]the use of...such extravagant [adjectives] as splendid, grand, magnificent" is essential to portraying life "as it is" (Bridgman, 196).
The low-to-average readability level and the fairly simple word choices represented in these figures show us two things: One, by using a rigorous selection in vocabulary and combining seemingly simple words together to form descriptions such as "I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it" (Chandler, The Big Sleep, 589), Chandler creates a sense that the narrator is a "laconic, hard bitten, close talking fellow....he is literally curt" (Gibson, 32); and two, that word choice is important. "It [is] not," Chandler once told an interviewer, "so much the difficulties of syntax that cause poor writing, but the lack of feeling for the weight of words" (Durham, 118). Chandler had that unique ear for word choice; he knew how to pick and choose his words, how to find exactly the right choice to add a critical peak to a sentence, or the proper phrase to act as a fulcrum for the balance of the paragraph. The words are not, as was said, typically large or impressive ones, which would detract from the moment in the prose. Instead they rely on their simplicity and appropriateness to create the picture of Marlowe as a "cool observer who...reports the details of an incident" in a low-keyed, subtly ironic manner (Bridgman, 206).
In Chandler's prose, single words often carry the whole impact of the sentence, allowing an emphasis on isolated words or phrases to create a sense of scene and generate a lasting impression. For example, in the sentence "The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom" (Chandler, 592), much of the descriptive weight is heaped upon the adjectival verb "larded" (James, 117). The verb "lard," carrying evocations of the fat of dead animals, and meaning to enrich or lace heavily with extra material; to embellish or to fill throughout; to inject, is an unusual, but provocative choice. Any number of adjectives could have been chosen; heavy, pregnant, rank, etc., but none of them seem to convey the same sense, the same flavor, as "larded". "Heavy" is too pedestrian, the sentence would be reduced to something dull and cliched, and used in this context would be a totally emotionless word. The word "pregnant," while a fairly powerful word, has as its original meaning one that implies life, birth, and a sense of productivity. The stench of orchids in General Sternwood's greenhouse is none of those things. It is not one of fruitfulness, but rather the sickeningly sweet smell of decay and corruption. And, for that same reason, the fact that the odor, despite its unpleasant associations, is still somehow sweet, like "the perfume...of a prostitute" (Chandler, 593), "rank", with its harsh k sound at the end and its impression of a sharp, almost painful stink would not fit either. "Larded" fits well on several levels. For one, it evokes images of coagulation, death, and the drippings of a dead animal. Also, each of the initial vowels in the preceding adjectives, (thIck, wEt, stEAmy) are front vowels, that is, the point of articulation, or the placement of the tongue, during sound production, is in the front of the mouth. In "larded" the initial vowel becomes a low, back vowel. The tongue has to not only move to the back of the mouth, but is lowered in position as well, giving it a feel of weight, and allowing the phonological shaping to influence the semantics of the word. To compound that feeling of oppressive weight, the initial vowel is surrounded on either side by the syllabic consonants "l" and "r". The syllabic consonant has the ability to form a syllable entirely on its own, unlike most other English consonants, which require a vowel. So, although "larded" only has two syllables, the first one is greatly weighted. The heavy "l" is then continued throughout the rest of the sentence in "cloying," "smell," "tropical" and "bloom," allowing the oppressive heat and stench of the General's greenhouse to settle on the reader like a wet blanket.
Also unique about "larded" is that it illustrates a trait that is distinctively Chandler's. In developing his ear for word choice, he discovered that often the "right" word is, ironically enough, the "wrong" word. Lard is, as Tom Lutz, professor of literature at the University of Iowa, pointed out, cold and congealed. It is animal; it is dead; and it is ugly. The usual suppositions made about greenhouses filled with tropical flowers are none of these things. Chandler uses a word totally out of its expected element to create atmosphere and narrative tension. One would expect to find "larded" in the description of a slaughterhouse or a butcher shop, not in a scene full of flowers and leafy vegetation. But the word functions perfectly here, simultaneously allowing Chandler to play on the idea that maybe things aren't how they appear, to show the unnatural nature of the Sternwoods' behavior, and to emphasize Marlowe's keen yet somehow detached eye for detail and the dry, sarcastic sense of humor that so characterizes him.
Yet another way for words to achieve prominence in the Chandler's colloquial style is through listing. In the opening paragraph of The Big Sleep, Marlowe describes to us his outfit by means of listing his clothing from head to toe: "I was wearing my powder blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them" (Chandler, 589). What is the purpose of this list? Why the long listing sentence that seems to run on and on, when the sentence that follows, "I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it...I was calling on four million dollars" (Chandler, 589) appears to say exactly the same thing but in a much more succinct fashion? And what effect does it have on the reader to pair those two sentences together?
According to Richard Bridgman, lists "define by proximity, by implicitly comparing similarities and contrasting differences" (Bridgman, 28-9). One thing that this passage accomplishes is to set up a comparison that will grow to become one of the fundamental tropes throughout the Marlowe tales. By repeatedly stressing the color of his outfit-- blue suit, dark blue shirt, black shoes and black socks with a dark blue design, Chandler draws an implicit connection between Marlowe, the private detective, and the "knight in dark armor" in the following paragraph.
The list also serves to establish Marlowe's wry sense of humor and self-deprecating wit. It builds up a picture of a serious, yet nattily attired professional, complete with tie and display handkerchief, but by culminating the sentence with the obvious and sing-song phrase "black wool socks with dark blue clocks" Marlowe undercuts his own projected image of gentility and refinement. His dressing up and putting himself on display is just a means to an end, for underneath the clothes, he is still the kind of guy who wears silly socks and has an ear for prose. Although Marlowe may know how to play a role to get what he wants, on some level he will always be "as out of place as a pearl onion on a banana split" when dealing with the rich. He doesn't like to talk like them, and certainly doesn't want to dress like them.
The culmination of the longer, more descriptive list with the short, declarative one, serves to further emphasize the nature of Marlowe's character. Chandler was greatly interested in writing with the "objective method," the ability to "conjure an emotional response strictly through the selection and presentation of objective details" (Speir, 118). Marlowe makes a point of carefully detailing his outfit to the reader, thus stressing its significance. He emphasizes his appearance by telling us that yes, he is neat and clean, and no, he "doesn't care who knows it." Normally, one would say that that they "don't care who knows" something if the action or fact is one that is stigmatized, or something out of character. For example, "I didn't comb my hair today/I have worn these pants for three straight weeks/I steal candy from little kids' trick-or-treat bags and I don't care who knows it." By informing us that he doesn't care who knows he is clean and sober, Marlowe informs us more about the nature of his character than he ever could if he came out and said "I'm a swinger of sorts, I don't like to wear fancy clothes, I like to drink whiskey, and I hang out in the underbelly of society." In addition, it allows Chandler, through Marlowe, in his typical indirect way, to suggest that perhaps getting dressed up in "display" clothes, putting on airs, and hanging around with millionaires living "the good life" isn't something to be too proud of.
A third way of calling attention to individual words and phrases is through the intermixture of slang, argot, and idioms with elegant figurative language and formal diction. Chandler was writing literature in a genre fiction field, and as such his choices of language could become quite eclectic. The description of a drugged Carmen Sternwood illustrates this:
The passage mixes figurative poetic language ("shimmering luster of a pearl," "a beautiful body...lithe, rounded") with slang ("She was just a dope"); elevated, formal diction ("raffish grace," "without...ruttishness") with simplistic, straight-forward comments ("they were very nice"), and in doing so, portrays a narrator who is both knowledgeable and intelligent, as well as street-smart. By varying word choice, Chandler allows Marlowe to sound colloquial without verging on the insipidity and monotony that often crops up in the vernacular style (Lott, 67).
In addition to the danger of falling into a voice of false naivete, one of the results of the vernacular or colloquial style can be a fragmentation of syntax. Quite often, Chandler's style seems careless, but on closer examination we can note that while he was "at play with a fascinating new language" (Gardiner, 214), his syntax is quite deliberately distorted (Lott, 66). Just as he varies his diction to avoid monotony, so too does he play on our expectations in sentence construction in order to create an effect. For example, when Marlowe finds the pornographer, Arthur Geiger, dead, he notes that "Geiger was wearing Chinese slippers with thick felt soles, and his legs were in black satin pajamas and the upper part of him wore a Chinese embroidered coat, the front of which was mostly blood" (Chandler, 614). Although the entire sentence is about one thing, we find that the agents in it, and control of it, move wildly about. At first it is Geiger who is doing the "wearing," then the legs, and finally, the upper body takes control and wears the clothes. If the intent is for each part of the body or article of clothing to be described, there is a lack of parallelism here. There is a specificity in the legs and pajama bottoms, but less so in the "upper body," and where we should get a mention of feet, we get a reference to Geiger as a whole person. At first it may seem discordant to begin with Geiger wearing clothes, and then to gradually take him apart, and let his separate parts take over control of the action in the sentence. But if we look closely we can see that this distortion of syntax is much more than just a fragmentation of syntactic rules. By breaking up the "oneness" of Geiger's body, and implying that he himself is no longer the "doer" of the actions, we get a sense of dismemberment and violent death. As Marlowe studies him and realizes his condition, the vision of Geiger as a person gradually morphs into Geiger as a series of disjointed limbs lying akimbo on the rug.
Chandler played with the rhythms of grammatical and ungrammatical construction to create a character, to set a scene, and to avoid prose that, in colloquial and genre writing, can often sound "as flat as a Rotarian speech" (Lott, 67). In a passage such as
the blend of fragments, complex, simple, and oddly-constructed sentences seems off-handed. However, as Chandler informed a thoughtful-minded editor who took to correcting his grammar, it was extremely crafted and thought out. "When I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular," he wrote, "[it] is done with eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive...When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split" (Gardiner, 77).
If, as Bridgman says, the abundance of fragmented syntax in the colloquial style threatens the overall coherence of a piece, then another of its foils would be the use of repetition which draws the feel of the piece back towards verse. Consider Chandler's repetition of the word "beyond" in the following passage:
The description of the Sternwood estate is meant to be one of extravagance and meticulous contrivance. The gem-colored grass, shiny pants of the chauffeur, decorative and stylized trees, and the domed roof of the greenhouse evoking images of foreign architecture, all contribute to a sense of artificiality. But it is the subtle repetition of the word "beyond" that adds a rhythm and a deeper meaning to the passage. It is as if we are walking alongside of Marlowe, and with each step another layer of ostentatiousness is added to the surroundings. Beyond French doors are a perfect lawn and a white palace, beyond that is elegant hired help and a sumptuous car that isn't even good enough to be driven with any frequency--there is dust collecting on the hood. And if that isn't enough for you there are perfectly crafted trees with all the nauseating cuteness of poodles, only to be surpassed by the Taj Mahal lying in the distant background. It is only in the final "beyond" that Marlowe comes full circle--look just past all the trappings of high society, beyond pretension, beyond the life of the idle rich and you can see the comfortable unevenness and imperfection of the "real world."
In the descriptive passage of Carmen we can see how Chandler uses a repetition of sound patterns to substantiate an observance. The repetition of certain "hissing" fricative sounds in the sentence (especially in the italicized portions), "she had sharp little predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain" (Chandler, 590), creates an almost hypnotic effect, allowing the aural associations to further support the picture of Carmen Sternwood as wildly animalistic. It's as if we can actually hear her laughter, the insane scritching sound of "rats behind the wainscoting" (Chandler, 705).
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