Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Getting Up to Speed: Benjamin Black (John Banville) Writing as Raymond Chandler

But first, a rant.

Peter Mathiessen died recently. He had lived a long, fruitful and interesting life. His work as a nonfiction writer and stint as the founder and editor of The Paris Review places him firmly in the pantheon of literary greatness. Thriller Guy enjoyed all the obits, especially a few weeks ago the one in the New York Times Magazine. In each one they carefully record his many awards, specially his 2008 National Book Award for his trilogy, known collectively as Shadow Country. While Thriller Guy takes no pleasure from speaking ill of the dead, no one else seems willing to do it: has anyone ever actually hacked their way through that fucking book? It’s unreadable. While thousands may take exception to this remark, TG is not a stupid person. He has read many “difficult” books and enjoyed them. He’s been known to go on at length, after a couple of drinks, about what a great read Moby Dick is. (It’s about hunting for a whale, people, forget all that symbolism bullshit.)

And TG is a Mathiessen fan, having loved Snow Leopard and some of the other non-fiction.
TG remembers liking an early novel, Far Tortuga. So lo these many years ago,  in 1990,
when it was announced he had birthed a new novel, Killing Mister Watson, TG was excited and lined up to read it. He tried, TG did, but it was as dense as the mosquito ridden, overgrown biological hell of South Florida that Mathiessen was writing about. TG got about a third of the way in, and gave up. This is extremely rare: TG almost never puts a book down unfinished. (One reason is these days all the books he reads he’s paid to read, so he has no choice to plow through the really bad ones. But that’s another story.) It wasn’t that it was badly written, how could the author of all those excellent non-fiction books be a bad writer? just that it was really, really boring. Really, really, really boring.TG would like to throw down a gauntlet here, has anyone out there read the three books of this trilogy and really liked them? Be honest. Or are these books part of that vast category of books that people pretend to have read and loved because it makes them look smart. TG awaits your comments. And while we’re at it, let’s hear some other titles in this category, there’s a ton of them.

Anatole France... “The books that everybody admires are the books that no one reads.” Not that France had read any by Mathiessen.

Thriller Guy can see already that this blog is going to have to be split up into several entries. Why can’t TG write short? Stray ideas turn into short stories that turn into novellas that end up as novels. Same thing with these blogs. So be warned, if you’re dipping into this one be prepared to stay awhile.

TG has spoken several times about the need for writers to get themselves into the correct voice before beginning the day’s writing. The best way to do this is to read (and edit) several pages of writing that you have done (ideally) the day before. Up to where you left off. By then you’ve got your own voice in your head and banished any extraneous styles that may have insinuated themselves in your brain, from, i.e. the morning newspaper, the Game of Thrones episode you watched on television the night before, any book you’ve been reading before you start your own work, or any other print media that has crept in and made itself at home.

In another post TG talked about actually putting a mood, an emotional tone, into your writer’s mind before beginning the day or more specifically, before tackling a particular scene. In his early days as a thriller novelist, TG used to keep a copy of a Dick Marcinko book near his desk so before writing an action scene he could grab it, open to almost any page, read a quick scene of mayhem and then jump right into his own rampage. (The danger with Marcinko, who TG admires to this day, is that he has a jokey style that is insidious, so if you’re trying this at home, be careful to put his book away once the last body has fallen.) From TG’s mailbag, he has found that many writers do the same thing by putting on specific music to invoke a mood. TG doesn’t like to write to music, but that’s another blog entry.

This is not to say you are stealing, appropriating, another writer’s style, you are just setting the frequency in your mind to the appropriate channel.

Aside:  When TG was in his first year in college, living in a dormitory, the arts of seduction were earnestly debated in late night bull sessions. It was thought that of paramount importance for a successful seduction was the sound track for the romantic encounter. One of the fellows in the dorm had a nice collection of Johnny Mathis albums, and these were thought to be at the very top of the romantic heap for putting the object of one’s attention “in the mood.” So if someone had a date, he would borrow the Mathis albums, lower the lighting and listen in the semi darkness. On looking back now, one has to wonder what the hell that was all about. First of all, this was back in the days when dorms were segregated by gender and there was no hope that you were ever going to get a woman in your room. And what good was it going to do to put yourself in a romantic mood? Everyone, all the males, were in a constant state of arousal on one level or another; we didn’t need anything to amp that up.

Ahem. Anyway, TG has a point, it has, as always, just taken him awhile to get around to it. TG has been thinking along these lines -- putting himself in the correct voice before sitting down to write -- because he is rewriting a short, gritty novel he recently wrote, called, until someone comes up with a better title, The Ford Murders: Delia. This is a novel that TG wasn’t intending to write, it just seized him by the throat and demanded to be written.

The book is set in Detroit in 1910 and it’s written in a first person, semi-noir style. This is not TG’s “normal” voice, but it was interesting to fall into it. So interesting – the noir style -- that many others have picked it up for their own uses. The first and most insidious dangerous of writing noir is that you can easily slide into parody. This can happen without the writer even noticing, but, trust TG, when it happens readers can spot it from five hundred yards offshore and it will ruin the story the writer is so proudly constructing. The noir effect is achieved by multiple methods: structure, character building, scene, place, etc. It’s not just a matter of sitting around and thinking up clever imitations of Raymond Chandler lines.

Another Goddamn aside: TG recently read a thriller written by a person from another country who used this line when describing a character: She was about five feet four, with a figure that might have compelled a priest to kick holes in church windows. Most of TG’s readers will immediately catch this as a steal from the great Raymond Chandler book, Farewell My Lovely. Chandler’s line is, It was a blond. A blond to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. Note how much better Chandler’s line is, just with the emphasis on a few words. The other guy’s line sounds like it was translated into English by Apu down at the Quicky Mart. TG was outraged when he read this in the guy’s book. The line wasn’t attributed, it wasn’t used in irony, it wasn’t an homage, it was a steal. And botched in the process. This was only one of hundreds of commonplace phrases that this writer thought were cutting edge, and in his country maybe they were. Which leads a furious TG back to the questions he has asked in this blog so many times: Why would a company buy and publish a piece of crap like this? (Answer, for money, the book was a bestseller in its home country.) Where was an editor when the manuscript came across his desk? (Answer: He wasn’t there because he’d been laid off so the publisher could make more money. And if he was there, he’d given his balls away years ago to his bosses to keep his position.) And legacy publishing keeps whining and asking why they are being left back in the 19th century when the rest of the world has moved on. Pathetic.

OK, TG, calm down.

What was TG talking about? Oh yes, getting into the proper mood when sitting down to write. But that will have to wait, this has gone on far too long. Stay tuned for the rest of the story. In the meantime, TG will leave you with some other gems from Raymond Chandler. Rather than rerun all the great ones from the well known novels, here are some seldom seen examples from various short stories.

Here’s the extended version of the stained glass quote from Farewell:

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. She was wearing street clothes that looked black and white, and a hat to match and she was a little haughty, but not too much. Whatever you needed, wherever you happened to be—she had it.”

"To say she had a face that would have stopped a clock would have been to insult her. It would have stopped a runaway horse."-- The Little Sister

"I felt like an amputated leg." -- Trouble Is My Business

"The corridor which led to it had a smell of old carpet and furniture oil and the drab anonymity of a thousand shabby lives"--The Little Sister

"His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish." -- The Man Who Liked Dogs

"The walls here are as thin as a hoofer's wallet." -- Playback

"The kid's face had as much expression as a cut of round steak and was about the same color."-- Red Wind

"Tasteless as a roadhouse blonde."-- Spanish Blood

"From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away."--The High Window

"I called him from a phone booth. The voice that answered was fat. It wheezed softly, like the voice of a man who had just won a pie-eating contest."-- Trouble Is My Business

Oh, what the hell. TG can’t resist one more from Farewell. This is the entire noir genre in two brilliant sentences.

"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun." Farewell, My Lovely

1 comment:

  1. This comment in from writer Mark Smolonsky..."I read Killing Mr. Watson. In fact, I think it's one of the most brilliantly conceived and written books I've read. As you observe, it's as dense as Hell, but I managed to get through it. It's not just the density that makes it difficult. The milieu is horrible, the characters are worse and the story is downright depressing. Yet it is one of a short list of books I always think about. I find certain parallels between Peter M and William Kennedy. Both have a dense style of writing, and set their work in dreary places filled with hopeless characters."