-- I am a writer and photographer ... I tell stories that you can hear and see

Finally a novel about war with the right title – The Eternal Zero

our cat bellaMy dad did not like to talk about his wartime experiencesjon books in review 150x. This was a problem for me when I was a child of 7 or 8 or 9. Not because I did not understand his refusal, but because it was not convenient for me. I wanted the thrills and spills. What I got was my father’s recipe for Barracks Eggs.

Television was part of daily living by the mid-1950s, and black-and-white movies filled in a lot of the spaces that today would be filled with infomercials and cable fodder. We were in the beta stage of Garbage in, garbage out.

eternal zero djOld b/w movies about World War II were my preference. I found the stories and images to be exciting. I could not get enough.

My father would not cooperate.

I imagine that he somewhere along the way realized that war is madness. He certainly was not reticent in saying that he did not want to dredge up memories of a time when he was miserable and (I assume) scared.

I cannot remember when I decided that war makes me angry.

Probably midway through the endless venture of the United States in Vietnam.

Each year in the church that I co-pastor with my wife, we have a Christmas in the Woods Sunday. Singer Nan Hoffman brings her gifts, her song sheets, and her gentle goodness to us, and we sing Christmas carols. Nan, who is much in demand as a performer, also does some solo pieces. One favorite, always requested, is Christmas in the Trenches. I dread this song, not because it is sad, though it is, and not because it is sentimental, though it is, but because this song makes me feel like my heart and soul have been sucked through a knot hole. Without my being consulted on the operation.

The song is about an interlude in World War I, on Christmas Eve, with a truce featuring songs from home, a soccer game by the light of signal flares, and at dawn the resumption of the idiocy of war. By the last verse, I am a puddle of mixed emotions. Why, I ask myself, do you not just trundle off to the bathroom, lock yourself in, and wait out the rendition in silence and comfort?

Thinking about war makes me crazy. I cannot understand why we must sacrifice young men, and now young women, to our appetites for things like oil and the naked expression of dominance. And then I will start arguing the other side, and I have no crisp answer for how one would protect what one values without having a strong military and a daunting first-strike capability. You see, I like my comforts, and I am not willing to link this liking with the lives of those young men and women. There is a hard link between the idiocy of war and my comforts. I work to be blind to it.

Looking for someone or something to blame, I pick on a slurpy Christmas song about war.

This year at Christmas, I bought a new hardcover novel, The Eternal Zero, by Naoki Hyakuta, translated from the Japanese by Chris Brynne and Paul Rubin (ISBN 978-1-939130-82-2). The novel tells the story of a brother and sister who find out that the man whom they had assumed was their grandfather was actually their grandmother’s second husband and not the father of their mother. All they know, at first, is that their blood grandfather was a pilot of the Japanese fighter plane called the Zero. They decide to meet with men who knew their grandfather during WWII. With the accumulation of information from each interview, the multiple points of view form a picture of a man that we all would have liked to know.

The novel tells the history of the war as seen by particular persons, and there is ample information about the decisions that old men made concerning the disposition of young lives to enrage anyone who reads the story. The novel also hooks my inner child with stirring descriptions of dogfights. My older self observes my younger self in the enjoyment of all the noise and confusion, and shakes his head and loves him.

The author of The Eternal Zero has chosen a didactic plot trajectory, but the power of his stories and their piling up one on top of another, in the end, makes for a growing sense of engagement and excitement about the growth in knowledge and sensitivity of his characters.

But no recipe for Barracks Eggs.

So here it is.

You get a chicken egg, if you are lucky enough to find one, and you put a bit of butter in a hot skillet, and you break the egg into the skillet and stir it was a fork. Add salt and pepper. Eat the egg, using the fork, out of the skillet. And pray that one day you will be blessed to be able to teach this bit of noncom cookery to your dear, silly little son.

To teach him about appetites and how best to satisfy them.

My father’s name was Harvey. He served in England as a Technical Sergeant in the Army Air Force during the last year of World War II. He loaded bombs on B-52s and other such weapons of mass destruction. His first son, my brother, was born while he was away. This was a terrible strain for my mother and father. They were married for 50 years.

Dad looks handsome and fit in his uniform, judging from the snatshots that he brought back. When he came home, he threw the uniform away and locked up his memories in a strong box.

Most of the memories, I guess. Some of them escaped. A few of them he judged to be benign.

A dystopia of lexical loses – I have no words

our cat bellaI bought, and read, The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon, on the strength of one word (which was the second word of the title on the inside-dust-jacket blurb – A dystopian novel for the digital age.

jon books in review logoMy first warning: Although this first novel is well-worth your time, it is not a quick read, nor is it a love story dressed up like the flavor of the moment. The use of dystopian is deliberate and not just an attempt to ride the horse of the moment into the winner’s circle of towering book sales.

the word exchange djMy second warning: The number of people mentioned in the acknowledgements achieves a size suitable for running a small banana republic. I never can imagine how much time it would take to develop, let alone nurture, so many relationships as so many writers claim and thank. However, among those names Graedon provides are a number of other fine younger writers whom I have read with great satisfaction. This one is really about me, I guess. I do not, by choice, have a lot of friends. Or collaborators.

My third warning: Graedon’s similes will blow you away. Like a child playing with alphabet blocks, struggling to spell your own name, you will be surprised, and dismayed, by how quickly Graedon turns her pile into amazing and apt clauses.

alena graedonThe story turns on a bastard son of a cell phone and one of the devil’s favorite demons that goes by the name of The Meme. This embedded-brain-chip aware device will call a cab for you, pay the fare, and give the address you want to arrive at. You get the idea. The Meme reads your thoughts, and as you walk through the rooms and streets of your life, it gives you constant data about everything, whether it moves or not. The device takes digital addiction to a new level. In a world where Facebook seems to be enough for most of us, the difference is like that between a mosquito and a jet. Both can fly, but the comparison ends there. Stings vs. Stingers.

Our narrator, Anana, is a young woman of many talents and few ambitions who becomes the administrative assistant of her father, who runs a dictionary called the North American Dictionary of the English Language, or NADEL. In a time where more and more people are relying on their Meme for everything including word definitions, and where print books and magazines are largely a thing of the recent past – the story is set a few years ahead of the present – the NADEL is planning the release of its Third Edition, in print form as well as digital. What happens instead is the rapid entry of a word-eating flu virus that seems to be spread by the Meme and has a benign and a virulent form. In time, thousands will die. Both persons and words.

Enter the idea of dystopia.

In this dystopia, we see what happens when words and word meanings become monetized and corporations, the evil empires of the future, put profits ahead of lives. This is like what happens when corporations become people and money becomes free speech. That is a present reality rather than a speculative future, in my view.

There are many loveable characters and interesting situations, but the author stays a hair’s-length of distance away from her characters, to create a story that stresses what is happening to these people, and everyone in their world, rather than becoming some jumped-up, page-flipping word thriller. Thus the demands on the reader, to attend without the usual tricks of plot and lite.

This author has a bit more interest in instruction than in delight, and in a world – our world — where the impossible teeters at the edge of the precipice of life, this well may be the better choice.

And since The Word Exchange is more an important book than a fun book, it just might be worth your time and effort.

Responses to global climate change – some assembly required

our cat bella logo

I just happen to serve two of the best churches ever.

One church gathers in a village, Gaines, just north of the Erie Canal, in Orleans County, in western New York. Persons of sometimes differing beliefs on both politics and religion form a small but glowing group that really does earn the often said chestnut — We are just like family.

you say dystopia logoOne church gathers in the afternoon in a cottage on Grand Island, New York, built in 1938, with extensive property including wetlands and forest. And an adobe mudhut out back by the pottery shed.

The village church, which meets on Sunday mornings, has three ministers and a PhD among its 40 members. The level of discourse is gratifying.

The cottage church has ties with Buffalo’s aging yet durable activist community. We also made strong ties with the Occupy Buffalo movement.

It would be the work of a New York minute to figure out which one of these assemblies has been talking about and agitating about global climate change for many years now.

One thing that you would not know if I did not tell you is that the one who has been holding back the village church on the subject of global climate change is its pastor. I have been reluctant to broach the subject. However, I am beginning to hear evidence that my folk in Gaines are every bit as concerned as I would expect them to be. I asked the colleague who teaches the adult Sunday School class to consider using a module from The Thoughtful Christian, our curriculum publisher, on global climate change. He was amenable. Others are beginning to express interest.

Last Sunday afternoon, at the cottage church, which I co-pastor with my spouse, I presented a program on what dystopian literature can tell us about climate change.

Here is the outline.

You Say Dystopia: How Literature Can Help Us Change Ourselves and the Climate

First things first — define the term

This is a quote from a Wikipedia article on the word dystopia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dystopia) —


A dystopia is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Such societies appear in many artistic works, particularly in stories set in a future. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society. Dystopian societies appear in many sub-genres of fiction and are often used to draw attention to real-world issues regarding society, environment, politics, economics, religion, psychology, ethics, science, and/or technology, which if unaddressed could potentially lead to such a dystopia-like condition.

Famous depictions of dystopian societies include … Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes place in a totalitarian invasive super state; Brave New World, where the human population is placed under a caste of psychological allocation; Fahrenheit 451, where the state burns books out of fear of what they may incite; A Clockwork Orange, where the state undertakes to reform violent youths, but at what cost?; Blade Runner in which genetically engineered replicants infiltrate society and must be hunted down before they injure humans; The Hunger Games, in which the government controls its people by maintaining a constant state of fear through forcing randomly selected children to participate in an annual fight to the death; Logan’s Run, in which both population and the consumption of resources are maintained in equilibrium by requiring the death of everyone reaching a particular age, and Soylent Green, where society suffers from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and a hot climate. Much of the population survives on processed food rations, including “soylent green.”

Jack London’s The Iron Heel was described by Erich Fromm as “the earliest of the modern Dystopia.”

The Argument (AKA executive summary)

How literature can help us change ourselves and the climate —

I believe that reading works of dystopian fiction can help us with our inner climate of turmoil and terror concerning global climate change, by giving a gentle focus on the problem and offering calming, pleasing story-telling that spins out the possibilities, including the triumph of human love in the face of mindless destruction and the utter durability of the planet. Reading can help us avoid agitation and prepare us for effective action. Reading helps us stay in the here and now.

A Map of the Territory

I. Define “Dystopia”

          a. Wikipedia definition of the term.

          b. Atwood’s definition – sci fi vs. speculative futures.

          c. “All futures are dystopian”.

II. Define our concerns — inner and outer climate

          a. We seem to be bleeping bleeped by the ever increasing changes in global climate.

                   i. We seem to be poorly informed and largely unable to

                   articulate any firm sense of what the problem is.

                   ii. Left to ourselves, we get stuck in agitation and mistake agitation for action.

III. Responses to our dangling-person stance

          a. Chicken Little (the sky is falling)

          b. Tut, tut, looks like rain (Winnie the Pooh)

          c. You will weep and lament, and the world will rejoice, and you will have sorrow, but your sorrow will be turned into joy (John 16:20).

                   i. The Bible as Dystopian Literature?

          d. At the intersection of Past and Future

IV. What can Dystopian Literature do for us?

          a. Define the problem.

          b. Distract us from the problem.

          c. Serve the State, serve Activists, or find a middle way between instruction and delight?

V. Next steps

          a. Write a study resource.

          b. Suggested reading

          c. URLs

Selected Reading


 Here is Margaret Atwood’s definition of speculative fiction (In Other Worlds, p. 6): “What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of … things that could not possibly happen … whereas for me, ‘speculative fiction’ means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books … — things that really cold happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my books in this second category: no martians.”


Recent works of Dystopian Fiction

Good —

       The Divergent trilogy, by Veronica Roth (Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant). Post-war society where the victors decide to group people by their dominant traits. The trouble is, you had better not have more than one of those traits. They are killing folk like you. The first book has been made into an excellent film.

Better —

The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. After a war to end all wars, the victors confine the surviving people to provinces based on economic contributions. Each year, each group sends two teen-agers to a battle-to-the-death spectacle. Something was bound to happen. Books one and two have been make into excellent films.

Best —

       The MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam), by Margaret Atwood, who lives and writes in Toronto. Atwood, the oldest and most gifted of these three writers, spins a tale about the end of the world as we just might, and could, come to know it. Atwood calls these books speculative fiction, for this reason. These are apocalyptic stories that could be(come) true.

Lit. Crit.

Margaret Atwood’s essay on speculative futures appears in her collection titled In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

Recent works on alternative worlds

       In this category, the books imagine our world as different than it is, but the goals is not at all political or polemical. One of my favorites is a series titled The Wildwood Chronicles, by Colin Meloy (leader of the musical group out of Portland, Oregon, the Decemberists), with deft illustrations by his spouse, Carson Ellis. This is good, clean fun, and the third title in the series is newly out. These are works of imagination rather than speculation.

Recent works on climate change

       I am reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes for The New Yorker and has written other books about climate change. Kolbert tells of the excitement and the horror of the times we live in. She describes a scientist who tells his wife that 1) things are gong well in his research and lab work, and 2) his work points to the end to life as we know it.

Recent works from a theological perspective

       I have purchased but not yet read Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, by Larry L. Rasmussen, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. One of his previous books won the top yearly book prize at the theological seminary I was graduated from.

Recent works – variations on the theme

       Two novels I have been reading lately point to the reality that not all negative futures are strictly communal. I recommend these books in their own right. Before I Burn, by Gaute Heivoll, and The Martian, by Andy Weir. Before I Burn explores a series of arson fires and the young man who set them in a region of Norway. The Martian tells the story of an astronaut left for dead by his fleeing colleagues after a disaster hits their team, on the surface of Mars. These works mute the political in favor of the personal, another contrast to dystopian works.

Selected URLs

* Additional background on this web site, jonrieleygoddard.com > click on You say dystopia at top of home page.

* margaretatwood.ca

* I maintain a web site for each of the two churches that I serve. Visit News for the Pews and News from the Woods.

This is a usage rant — *Hunger Games* is capital but not capitol

our cat bella logoI’m reading the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, and I already can see that I will be writing a glowing, flattering review.

But before that, there is one negative thing that I want to discuss.

Once and once only.

The books in the trilogy consistently refer to the story’s capital city as the capitol. The correct word is capital.

Capital refers to a city, such as a city where a legislature meets.

Capitol reefers to a building, such as the flagship building where a legislature meets.

what does a writer seek?It follows that one can tour the capitol in the capital.

Author, editor, and publisher, please make a note of this.

You know who you are, so I won’t say your names.

I usually admire consistency, but in this case the repeated misuse of capitol, where capital would be correct, erases any admiration I have for consistency in this case.

And since The Capital is central to the Hunger Games story, the error occurs all too often.

There is a related question, given the possibility that one or more of the three persons listed above might not know of the commonly agreed-upon distinction between capital and capitol.

That is the who-cares gambit.

This gambit always ends in a stalemate.

Let us not go there.

The writer of the Hunger Games understands storytelling. She understands the quirks that define people. Would that her trilogy also demonstrated an understanding of the roots of the words that tell her story for her.

I’m done with this.


Serial of champions – Flavia de Luce series hits new high

our cat bella logoIt does not seem like it, but five years have passed since the first book in the Flavia de Luce series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, came out and caught my heart.

Flavia, still 11 (almost 12) after all these years, has been an annual delight

  • jon books in review logoThe Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie (2009)
  • The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (2010)
  • A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011)
  • I Am Half Sick of Shadows (2011)
  • Speaking From Among the Bones (2013)
  • The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (2014)

Alan Bradley, who was born in Toronto, has hit on a formula that brings this reader back for more – an 11-year-old chemistry whiz living in a crumbling manor in England solves mysteries for the local police, dodges the daggers of disdain and dislike issuing from her two older sisters (one a face in the mirror otherwise found at the piano and the other an obsessive reading fixture in the library), and pines for her mother, Harriet, who went missing while mountain-climbing when Flavia was but a baby. Her father seems to love nothing but his stamp collection, and a dogsbody named Dogger keeps the family largely on course with the help of a hapless housekeeper whose meals resemble nothing so much as stone soup.

Dogger alternates between shell-shock and lucidity, and is prone to screaming nightmares from the war years. He and the father were prisoners of war in Japan, and they will not willingly discuss this.

bradley coverOddness marks the series, which for those of us who read books written in series fashion is good news indeed. The characters move on their obsessions, away from love, and the books themselves are a smaller format, have no dust jackets, and bear titles borrowed from the works of English poets.

Another oddness is that a white middle-aged male writer can write in the voice of and inhabit the mind and heart of an adolescent girl. You have to see it to believe it, but Bradley does the job well.

Flavia has an entire wing of the manor to herself. She has a laboratory and a bedroom the size of two banana republics. The books about Flavia are crawling their way through 1951, and the village of Bishop’s Lacey though small as a church mouse is able to provide murder after murder for the precocious child’s consideration.

Bradley provides abundant and arresting detail about the chemistry involved in the stories. That is part of the fun.

I did say that Flavia is precocious, didn’t I?

If you know the series, you will be glad to know that the latest title is the best since the first one, and if you do not know the series, I recommend that you fix that, by reading either the first or the last book – then all the rest.

The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates, offers many blessings

The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates, offers its blessingsI can eat shelled peas with chopsticks. In fact, that is my preference. For lunch, right now, I am eating a bowl of fried rice, with chopsticks. So is it any wonder that I enjoyed reading a 600-page-and-more novel about a medley of interesting themes served up by a deliciously unreliable narrator?

jon books in review logoThat was a rhetorical question.

The Accursed is the first novel by Joyce Carol Oates that I have read, and I am glad that I did. The story is set in Princeton, New Jersey, in the first decade of the 20th century. The narrator sets out to give a strictly historical account of a time of great and baffling events in Princeton, town and gown.

As a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, ordained by the Presbyterian Church USA, I have a natural affinity for a story set in this place. However, that would not be enough to convince me to part with gold or silver. I would be persuaded, perhaps, but not convinced. It was the promise of a variation on the gothic novel convention delivered by a twittish narrator that tipped the scale for me.

cover the accursedI enjoy magical realism. I have never met a demon I didn’t find interesting. And I enjoy alternative ways of exercising my spiritual and theological brain spaces.

This novel delivers some instruction and much delight.

I greatly enjoyed the unreliable narrator, the vampires, the demons, and the Presbyterian overtones. Less to my liking, at first, was the strong presence of historical characters such as Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and Mark Twain.

I avoid historical novels that retell what I already know, in general, but this one won me over, at least in terms of itself. The story would be a slice of swiss cheese without the inclusion of all these Big Cheeses.

To discuss the novel at any length, from any angle, would spoil the experience for you, which makes my work almost done here. I will share one quote from the last page, the Acknowledgments –

The truths of Fiction reside in metaphor; but metaphor is here generated by History.

 This statement could easily describe the attitude of many of us in ministry.

 Here spins a world on the edge of explosion, a world already inside out with lingering injustice and dark thinking. The angels and the demons at times are hard to tell apart. Nature is in league with the devil, it seems, and everything including the social order is heading without thought or pause for the towering cliff edge of disorder. You tell yourself that you won’t jump after those ahead of you, but when push comes to shove, you try with all your might to fly but fail and fall.

If you don’t know whether I am describing The Accursed or the stories behind this morning’s headlines, perhaps this is a book that you, too, would enjoy.

*The Lady in the Lake* — novel new territory

our cat bella logoWith this fourth novel, The Lady in the Lake, one can say that Raymond Chandler has done better and has done worse.

rereading logoThe most notable thing about the Lady is the way that Chandler goes away from Los Angeles, thereby showing a knack for nature descriptions. The change of scene allows for some colorful characters, too – characters befitting the rural scene.

chandler later worksIt is not a matter of Chandler losing ground. He is who he is, and that is a very good thing. I can remember searching for another, and another, Chandler title after I had read just one. Anything by Chandler has an advance placement in my top 100 list of favorites in the detective category.

The writing is as good as ever, and the characters are the usual suspects that we have come to expect. The weakest link is the plot, which is standard and predictable. That said, my notes show a lively interest in the language. I copied out more than twenty examples that I just could not pass up.

Here are a few of them –

 She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don’t care much about kittens.

• • •

Six feet of a standard type of homewrecker. Arms to hold you close and all his brains in his face.

• • •

His house was built downwards, one of those clinging vine effects, with the front door a little below street level, the patio on the roof, the bedrooms in the basement, and a garage like the corner pocket on a pool table.

• • •

… and then suddenly below me was a small oval lake deep in trees and rocks and wild grass, like a drop of dew caught in a curled leaf.

• • •

I said goodnight again and went out, leaving him there moving his mind around with the ponderous energy of a homesteader digging up a stump.

• • •

Part of the lapse in plot work is the fact that Marlow himself set the bar high. It is no shame that he does not clear his own bar on this one occasion. The language alone is worth the trip for anyone who loves Chandler’s work.

And I sure do.

Books in Review: *Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles*

our cat bella logoThe interplay of true and fiction, and my enjoyment of such matters, led me to buy Ron Currie Jr.’s novel Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles.

I am glad that I did.

jon books in review logoThe novel combines life and death, and longing, in a story that took me a month to read. This was my choice. The author’s episodic style, with most of the pieces bite-size, allows for a quick or slow read.

Four main plot strains vie for our attention –

  • A story of obsessive love.
  • How the narrator’s father died.
  • The narrator’s own death and return.
  • Speculation on the Singularity.

Currie’s love story examines the way a person can grab and hold you with a grip that cannot be broken, or a grip that you do not wish to break. Currie, which is the name of the author and of the narrator, has such bond with a woman named Emma. She sound worthy of such attention, based on his description of her, but the truth is that obsessions do not admit of reason or persuasion. Your Emma, my Emma,, and his Emma will be three strangers to one another.

The story of how his father died offers a variation on the theme of obsessive love, by bringing in family, obligation, and friendship.

flimsy book coverI guess it amounts to a spoiler, so be warned, but Currie et al attempts suicide and proves to be a failure at this. He lives to change his name and place, leaving everyone to believe that he is dead. Plots strains No. One and No. Two and No. Three have a lot to do with this development.

Taking its turn with the other three plot aspects is Currie’s amusing, absurd, and insightful meditations on the Singularity, which he points out is like the resurrection of Christian dogma but without the precondition of belief.

The bookends of the book establish and develop the theme of the nature of fiction and its relationship to truth, and in particular the relationship of writer and reader from the angle of truth.

I took a month to read this book for a few reasons that do not have much connection. It was in the spring, when my mind turns from books to outdoor pursuits, so the three hours that I usually devote daily to reading, in winter, becomes more like an hour or less in the warmer months.

That is one reason.

The other reason for my slow pace of reading has to do with the intensity of the story. I wanted to pace myself emotionally. Currie’s short takes on the story allowed me to do this without any lapses of attention or memory.

The is one hell of a book. Itself a flimsy little miracle.

Have a heart – Raymond Chandler’s *The High Window*

our cat bellaContinuing my rereading of the books of and about Raymond Chandler, I turn to The High Window, the third novel Chandler wrote (published 1942).

rereading logoWe knew that Philip Marlowe has a heart, and with the coming of this story we can hear its beating. In contrast to the flow of the first and second novels, this one shows Marlowe as a big brother sort of guy in certain well-defined situations.

chandler later worksThere also is an interruption in the tight plotting around rich families. The High Window falls into line by starting with Marlowe meeting with a rich and strange matron who becomes his client, but the story soon takes as new path. The reader keeps expecting a certain character – one Linda Conquest, a torch singer — to be more prominent in the action, based on previous experience with Chandler, but it never happens. A certain gold coin gets more face time than Linda Conquest does, name withstanding. I appreciate the confusion. One plot written over and over would not make Raymond Chandler memorable or laudable.

The High Window offers a lot of arresting imagery about just what a detective is – one who plays God? a trickster figure? one who serves a priestly function? a showman like Hercule Poirot?

Finally there is the writing itself, always a treat with this writer.

Tough exterior, heart of gold

We have, after two novels, come to expect fairness from Marlowe toward all, a certain attitude toward women in general, and a certain something left over for the ladies. In The High Window, the secretary to the rich women who is Marlowe’s client becomes a sort of brotherly love interest. This young women cannot stand to be touched by men but comes to trust Marlowe, who shows admirable restraint and sensitivity in dealing with what amounts to a tightly wound time bomb wrapped in a plain but pretty bow.

This powerful dynamic replaces the usual sparring that Marlowe does with hard-shelled women with hearts of cold iron who are out for what they can get through the process of base attraction.

The substitution is satisfactory.

The plot sickens

Chandler, in The High Window, shows evidence of having come down with a good infection. He changes his attitude toward the detective story plot by following his inclination and being attentive to his lead character’s preference for the secretary over the torch singer.

In this novel, tough guys come and go, and gangsters and their minions, too, but they come and go and do not keep coming back like telemarketers who call every day during dinner. This is another welcome change.

Paired with a new attitude toward plot, there is a new way with the details of a good detective story. In the first and the second novel, Marlowe gives us permission to ignore the fine points of the plot, since the main point is Marlowe himself. In this third novel, there is a long passage of tying up the loose ends of the story that is worthy of detective showmen like Nero Wolf or Hercule Poirot.

All done in ironic mode, of course, which helps.

The detective-as-_________

Usually it is the narrator or the author, or both, who seems to be playing God in third-person novels, but in the detective genre the first-person-singular sleuth joins the others in the high, heavenly clouds.

The High Window gives us several ways of seeing the detective while Marlowe works his way through a story that is pointedly about revealing and concealing criminal and reprehensible persons and behaviors.

While Marlowe is deciding who walks, and who talks, Chandler is working to reduce our moral scruples about the persons who die and the persons who kill. Some of them, anyway. A few characters stand on their own without any help of this sort, and we are expected to hate them without moderation and just because.

We see these alternative views of detectives —

First, as is usual in this genre, comes the view of the detective-as-one-who-plays-God. Concurrent with this is Marlowe’s sudden and occasional reference to himself as Marlowe

Another day drawing to its end, the air dull and tired, the heavy growl of homing traffic on the boulevard, and Marlowe in his office, nibbling a drink and sorting the day’s mail.

To speak this way, Marlowe also has to sneak across the border that he shares with the author, but the point here is the slight inflation one undergoes when one speaks of oneself in the third person singular let alone plural. The Royal I and the Royal We.

Second comes the image of detective-as-trickster. A trickster figure like Coyote in the Native American tradition or Puck and his ilk from Shakespeare’s plays is short of being a god and long on capriciousness. Tricksters can be helpful or harmful, but they are the only ones who know what they intend. Late in the novel, after showing strong abilities of a tricksterish cast, puckish Marlowe takes his leave –

“I’m going the way I always go,” I said. “With an airy smile and a quick flip of the wrist.”

Third comes the image of detective-as-priest. In deciding who pays and who skates free, who laughs and who cries, the detective takes on a priestly function. The detective assumes the sins of others and will be the one who in the end pays the price and accepts the judgment.

Marlowe in The High Window develops this idea more than he did in the two novels that came before. After taking on some sins and farming out a few others, Marlowe heads for bottle and bed. He drinks like a kitten at a saucer of milk until he finally feels ready for the rest of oblivion –

I undressed and got into bed and after a while, but not soon enough, I went to sleep.

We can generally agree that the one who plays the priest is not also playing at being Christ. That would require suffering on a vastly greater scale, with the side effect of salvation and redemption for all who want and need it.

Fourth comes the image of detective-as-showman. You may be thinking of Nero Wolf or Hercule Poirot, preening before a roomful of likely suspects, but in this novel Marlowe plays the grand role for an audience of one, in the dark, and he does it squarely in ironic mode, and not just because he is stuck in ironic mode, though he is, but because this sort of grand show, in Marlowe’s world, is nothing if not ironical.

Chandler’s use of the grand-detective convention ties up his story without causing it an ugly case of bloat. One reason why the tough guys come and go is that they are not required to be present for the story to reach its climax. We all can be grateful for this.

Write as rain

For me, when it comes to Chandler (and Marlowe who after all says his lines like he wrote them himself), at some point it becomes a matter of similes, like a fan who knows all the rock star’s lyrics, gyrations, and gestures. Mind you, I do not recall many of Chandler’s similes the day after I read them but I do remember the feeling of my jaw dropping and trying to hit my Adam’s apple. Muscle memory.

One Chandler image that has stuck with me comes from The High Window

… a green long open convertible sedan with three dizzy-looking dames in the front seat, all cigarettes and arched eyebrows and go-to-hell expressions. The car flashed around a curve and was gone.

Go-to-hell expressions has stuck with me for the decades that have come and gone since the first time I read that innocent-seeming sentence.

Of Marlowe’s client’s layabout son, Chandler writes –

His smile was as faint as a fat lady at a fireman’s ball.

Of a leggy blonde who found occasional work in the entertainment industry –

… the mascara was so thick on her eyelashes that they looked like miniature iron railings. … Her hair was as artificial as a night club lobby.

Of an old man who knew rare coins –

Fuzz grew out of his ears, far enough to catch a moth. … a black string tie poked a small hard knot out at the bottom of the collar, like a mouse getting ready to come out of a mousehole.

Always a pleasure.


About this series I call #rereading —

I’ve always figured that I have a book addiction. I just never intended to do anything about it.

Hello again – Raymond Chandler’s *Farewell, My Lovely*

our cat bella logoContinuing my rereading of the books of and about Raymond Chandler, I turn to Farewell, My Lovely, the second novel to be published (1940).

rereading logoThe plot moves on the story of Moose Malloy (and his one-time, some-time girlfriend Little Velma), a smart cop, a dump cop, and enough concussions (all sustained by Philip Marlowe) to make your head spin and your brain stutter. And a few frails of distinctive appearance, and a con man or three.

About Moose, Chandler writes –

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.

And Marlowe is as wise a wise guy as he was in the first outing, The Big Sleep

I said nothing. I leaned against the door frame and put a cigarette in my mouth and tried to jerk it up far enough to hit my nose with it. This is harder than it looks.

chandler early worksAfter two novels, the reader begins to understand, and appreciate, that Chandler takes great care to describe all of his characters, great and small, with abundant detail. The same goes for the city and the countryside that Marlowe lives and moves and has his being in.

I seem to recall someone of critical standing saying something like that about the extravagance of Fyodor Dostoevsky in describing even minor characters.

The plot of Farewell, My Lovely is more complex than that of The Big Sleep, in my view, but I do like the first novel better, by the length of the ash on that cigarette of Marlowe’s.

Chandler writes a series of stories about Marlowe that have a sense of growth and the passage of time, but he does not call attention to this fact in the way we do now when writing a series. That may be a good thing to ponder. Why call attention to the series thing? Assured that another book in a series is coming, the reader does not have to hope and wonder whether there will be another Marlowe novel. This hoping and wondering bonds reader to writer in ways that a blurb like second novel in a series called Philip Marlowe, Wise Guy with Hard Head does not.


About this series I call #rereading

I’ve always figured that I have a book addiction. I just never intended to do anything about it.


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