Dr. Brodie’s Report by Jorge Luis Borges (1970)

In Buenos Aires anything can be fixed; someone always has a friend.

Paratexts

Borges was world famous and getting old by the time he came to compose the 11 short stories collected in Dr Brodie’s Report. They had all been recently published, either in 1969 or 1970 just as the author, born in 1899, was turning 70.

The book has a little gaggle of paratexts, namely a foreword, a preface and an afterword, in which Borges tells us that these stories were the first he’d written since 1953, after a 16 year hiatus in fiction writing – and it really shows in the drastic change of style and subject matter the stories in this collection exhibit compared with the metaphysical and brainteasing ficciones from the 1940s which made him famous.

Surprisingly, of all the authors in the world, Borges names Rudyard Kipling as his model for these stories, and not the later, very compressed Kipling, but the bright young thing of the 1888 collection Plain Tales From The Hills. (As it happens, I have read and reviewed all Rudyard Kipling’s many short stories so can vouch for the difference between the early and later Kipling.) Borges rather artlessly tells us he has tried to write stories in the same straightforward manner as early Kipling.

He calls the art of writing ‘mysterious’ (‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream’) and goes on to describe how a beginning or end of a story will come to him as he walks down a street in Buenos Aires but he has to wait for the middle to appear. More often than not, if he forces it, those are the weakest bits.

He mentions his politics (controversially right-wing) but emphasises that personal opinion is trivial and superficial; the process of creation taps into unconscious forces which are much deeper (a rule which could also be applied to Kipling’s highly controversial work).

Borges was 70 when the book was published. He tells us he has given up ‘the surprises inherent in a baroque style as well as the surprises that lead to an unforeseen ending. I have, in short, preferred to satisfy an expectation rather than to provide a startling shock.’ This is presumably what he means when he calls the stories ‘straightforward’, but still, none of these paratexts really prepare us for the complete change in subject matter, tone and style from his classic ficciones of the 1940s and 50s.

Instead of those weird and wonderful fantasies which play with mind-bending ideas of space and time and infinity and reality, these 11 stories are brutally realistic, sometimes macabre tales, of Buenos Aires hoodlums and gaucho lowlifes or, as he puts it in The Intruder:

a brief and tragic mirror of the character of those hard-bitten men living on the edge of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century

They are hard tales of tough slum dwellers without any of the bookish trappings, the scholarly references or the playful whimsy of his classic ficciones.

The stories

1. The Gospel According to Mark

In March 1928 failed medical student Baltasar Espinosa, a lifelong townie, is invited by his cousin to go and stay on a ranch, La Colorada ranch, in the southern part of the township of Junín. During his stay the local river floods and his cousin is called away on business. Baltasar is left with the three illiterate servant family, the Gutres. Illiterate and uneducated, They are in awe of him, treat him with great respect which turns to awe when he starts, out of pure boredom, every evening after dinner reading to them from a big old traditional Bible in the house. There is banging and nailing, there are mysterious sounds. One morning the simple-minded Gutres adults double check with Espinosa that Jesus let himself be crucified to save all humanity and then… seize Baltasar and take him out back of the house to crucify him on the cross they’ve been building!

Well, this story lacks all the characteristics of the classic Borges ficciones, the saturation with books, bookish references and high-flying metaphysical and philosophical ideas. And it certainly does bear a resemblance to the Rudyard Kipling who wrote a number of hauntingly macabre and horrifying stories. I liked it very much.

2. The Unworthy Friend

The narrator remembers when he used to visit the Buenos Aires Bookstore run by Santiago Fischbein. He remembers Fischbein once telling him an anecdote about when he himself was young, barely more than 15. He was taken into the circle of a local tough guy named Francisco Ferrari. He hero worshipped this tall Latin-looking cool dude who dressed all in black and was amazed when, after bumping into him a few times, Ferrari asked him to hang out in the saloon with all the other members of his gang. Eventually he is invited to take part in a break-in to a factory and told to be the lookout. The morning of the planned break-in he took a long tram journey downtown and reported the whole thing to the police, who were initially sceptical. But that night, when the gang are inside the warehouse, the police arrive quietly, having tethered their horses further down the road (their horses?), the narrator lets them slip into the warehouse without raising the alarm, then hears four shots. It wasn’t a gunfight, as he knows Ferrari and co. didn’t have guns. When the cops drag Ferrari’s corpse and that of his older mentor, don Eliseo Amaro, out of the building, the narrator realises it wasn’t an arrest, more an assassination, the settling of old scores.

3. The Duel

The very understated, barely detectable rivalry between two upper-class Argentine ladies, Clara Glencairn de Figueroa and Marta Pizarro, who both decided to become painters and remained friends despite their rivalry.

4. The End of the Duel

This is a grim, macabre and often barely understandable tale about two hardened gauchos, Manuel Cardoso and Carmen Silveira, who farm neighbouring land and, for any one of a number of reasons, become hardened rivals and enemies.

Until a civil war breaks out in 1870 and they fight for a while on one or other of the sides (it’s the reds versus the whites and, on a first reading, I became confused about who was who and why), the point being they are fellow soldiers on the same side, though their hatred continues unabated.

Anyway, the two rivals are on the white side, which loses a battle to the reds, and are both captured. The red officer in charge is one Captain Juan Patricio Nolan, who has a reputation as a prankster, and now he comes up with a weird and sadistic ‘prank’, which is to set them to run a race after they have had their throats cut. Got that? So they line up with all the red soldiers and white prisoners watching, then a couple of red soldiers step across and cut both their throats as Nolan tells them to start their race. Cardoso and Silveira run a handful of paces before both falling to the ground and bleeding their last into the dry dirt.

You call that a ‘prank’?

5. Rosendo’s Tale

Way back in his 1935 collection, A Universal History of Infamy, had included one ‘realistic’ story of Buenos Aires lowlife hoodlums, or gang members (insofar as that term applied to 1920s criminal gangs). That story was told through the point of view of a gang member who idolises their tough leader, Rosendo Juárez, and describes the puzzling events of a night when another hoodlum, nicknamed ‘the Butcher’, burst into a dance the gang were holding, and confronted their macho leader, Rosendo Juárez who, inexplicably, dropped his knife, failed to rise to the bait, and simply walked away.

Now, 35 years later, Borges publishes a story which gives Rosendo’s side of the story in a first-person narrative. In a nutshell, after a life devoted to becoming chief hard man and head of a gang, when he was confronted by the blustering bullying Butcher, he had a revelation, he realised he was looking in a mirror, he realised what he had become – and was disgusted, realised his whole life was revolting, dropped his knife, and simply walked out into the night never to come back.

Then something happened that nobody ever understood. In that big loudmouth I saw myself, the same as in a mirror, and it made me feel ashamed. I wasn’t scared; maybe if I’d been scared I’d have fought with him. I just stood there as if nothing happened.

The real puzzle here is why Borges bothered. To put it another way, it’s bewildering to think that Argentina’s literary world gave a damn about the earlier, quite difficult-to-follow, hard-to-believe and ultimately trivial story, to such an extent that everyone, including Borges, thought it worthwhile writing this sequel or alternative view.

6. The Intruder

Two lowlife brothers, Eduardo and Cristián Nilsen are hard-drinking, tall, red-haired stingy brawlers. One day Cristián brings home Juliana Burgos and, to cut a tedious story short, both brothers fall in love with her. Eventually, Cristián lets his brother ‘use’ her and they live as a threesome. But the brothers can’t help getting jealous of each other so one day sell her to a brothel. But then Cristián catches Eduardo slipping off some nights to the brothel to carry on boffing Juliana, so they buy her back and bring her home to be their servant and sex slave. Eventually Cristián murders Juliana and the brothers bury her body out in the country.

This story didn’t put me off Borges, a writer can write whatever they want, but it put me off the tone and feel of this book, and it put me off Argentinians a bit.

7. The Meeting

The case of nervous, dark-skinned Maneco Uriarte and tall, white-haired Duncan took place around 1910. The narrator is nine or ten and his cousin Lafinur takes him to a barbecue at a country house called The Laurels. There’s a fine barbecue, then an evening drinking which settles into a game of poker while the boy narrator goes exploring the big, strange house. The owner of the house comes across him and is just showing him his fine collection of knives (Argentinians and their knives).

But the sound of shouting interrupts him and takes them back to the main room where the poker players have got drunk and Uriarte is shouting that Duncan cheated him. The confrontation escalates, someone points out there’s a cabinet of ornamental knives nearby, the select one each and go out into the garden followed the the rest of the men who form a ring while the pair tentatively and then in earnest begin a knife fight which ends with Uriarte plunging his knife into the chest of Duncan who falls to the floor and dies.

Then there’s a little bit of the old Borges magic, a little bit of voodoo thinking. Years later Borges describes his memory to a chief of police who is able to identify the knives as having belonged, before this incident, to two famous rivals, almost as if… as if it was the knives who were destined to fight, not the men:

I began to wonder whether it was Maneco Uriarte who killed Duncan or whether in some uncanny way it could have been the weapons, not the men, which fought. I still remember how Uriarte’s hand shook when he first gripped his knife, and the same with Duncan, as though the knives were coming awake after a long sleep side by side in the cabinet.

8. Juan Muraña

For years Borges liked to tell people he grew up in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo, famous for knife fights and guitar playing (Argentines and their knives!). He sounds like an educated upper-middle-class kid who has a pathetic hero worship of street gangsters and hoodlums.

On a train journey he bumps into an old schoolfriend, Emilio Trápani, who has read his book about the poet Evaristo Carriego in which, apparently, ‘you’re talking about hoodlums all the time.’ Well, says, Trápani, he’ll tell him a story about a real hoodlum. Trápani tells him his mother’s sister married Muraña.

Of all the men around Palermo famous for handling a knife way back in the nineties, the one with the widest reputation was Muraña.

Knives knives knives. Maybe the book should have been titled Knife Fighters of Buenos Aires. And indeed this story is about yet another knife murder.

Trápani was a boy and barely understood his mother’s anxiety that they were about to be evicted from their apartment by the Italian landlord. His mad old aunt, who had been married to the notorious knifeman, Muraña, lives up in the attic. One day his mother takes Trápani to see the landlord, but they arrive to find a crowd and that he’s been stabbed to death. Only weeks later does the boy Trápani venture up into the attic where his mother’s mad widowed sister lives and from her ravings, suddenly realises that she did it but she blames it on her late husband’s knife. In fact she identifies the knife with her husband, and holds it out to the boy saying:

“Here he is. I knew he would never forsake me. In the whole world there hasn’t been another man like him. He didn’t let the gringo get out a word.”

And then a two-penny, ha-penny payoff.

Juan Muraña walked the familiar streets of my boyhood; I may have seen him many times, unawares. He was a man who knew what all men come to know, a man who tasted death and was afterward a knife, and is now the memory of a knife, and will tomorrow be oblivion—the oblivion that awaits us all.

The story itself is a bit spooky but these final lines are, I think, bathetic (meaning: ‘producing an unintentional effect of anticlimax’) because they are so entirely conventional and, almost, sentimental.

9. The Elder Lady

An extended memoir of a rather grand though not particularly well-educated old lady, Mrs. María Justina Rubio de Jáuregui, daughter of a hero Colonel Rubio of the civil war, who lived with her memories of a gladsome girlhood and a homestead with acres of land but, by the time Borges knew her, was restricted to a room in a suburban apartment. On her hundredth birthday, in 1941, there’s a big party, a minister attends, journalists cover it, there are grand speeches and champagne. That night she took to her bed and over the following days, calmly and dignifiedly died.

In the Afterword Borges frankly admits this was a portrait of a great-aunt of his.

10. Guayaquil

This story feels the closest to one of the ficciones in that it is spooky and eerie and takes place in the world of scholarship and academia.

Some letters have been discovered written by the great Simon Bolivar, Liberator of the continent of South America, among the papers of the scholar Dr. José Avellanos of the (fictional) nation of Estado Occidental. Most of them are run-of-the-mill except for one of them which gives Bolivar’s side of the momentous encounter between himself and the Argentine national hero General San Martín, at a place called Guayaquil, in which General San Martín renounced political ambition and left the destiny of South America in the hands of Bolívar.

The discoverer of the letters, Avellanos’s grandson Dr. Ricardo Avellanos, opposes his own country’s government so put the letters up for auction and the Argentine ambassador won them for the glory of his nation. The narrator is a reputable historian, who secures the backing of the National Academy of History and the relevant Ministry to be the official representative of Argentine who will fly to Estado Occidental to take receipt of the letters and then write the definitive scholarly paper about them.

However, the narrative opens soon after the narrator is surprised to be visited at his bookish home by another historian, Dr Zimmerman, who has been proposed by the University of Cordoba. Zimmerman is a refugee, having fled the Nazi takeover of Prague.

The meat of the story is that through a strange and obscure process which the narrator barely detects and cannot define, Zimmerman, although mild and retiring and perfectly polite, somehow manages to – not to persuade, that would be too explicit – to somehow manoeuvre the narrator into abandoning his journey and to sign a letter authorising Dr Zimmerman to fly to Estado Occidental as Argentina’s official representative.

There is mention of the Golem, the legend of the animated anthropomorphic being, which was defined in a novel by an author from Prague. For a flickering second we wonder if Borges is implying that… Zimmerman is the golem. But no…

At several other points Zimmerman invokes the name of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher who said the world as we know it is a product of our own unrelenting drives or Will. So… is he a demonstration of the power of this Will? Without violence, without threats, without any argument or even attempts at persuasion, he simply gets the narrator to do what he wants him to.

Or, (as Borges states in the Afterword) ‘if the reader is in a magical mood’, then the encounter of the two historians could be envisioned as a re-enactment of the confrontation between the two generals which the famous letter describes, in which General Martin inexplicably renounces his rights or ambitions to political power and leaves the way open for Bolivar. As the narrator finds himself inexplicably renouncing his scholarly ambition and leaving the path open for Zimmerman.

This is the most classically Borgesian of these stories, the most complex and subtle and, for that reason, haunting, but it echoes the theme of some of the other stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

11. Doctor Brodie’s Report

This is more like ficciones Borges. The narrator finds a manuscript tucked away in an old edition of Lane’s translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (London, 1839). He identifies the manuscript as written by a David Brodie, D.D., a Scottish missionary who worked first in central Africa and then transferred to the jungles of the Amazon.

It is a fragment which starts in the middle of his description of the super-primitive men he has found himself among, and who he calls the Yahoos. Obviously this name refers to the apemen found in Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels and the text’s method of systematically describing the Yahoos’ appearance, food, and their disgusting concept of royalty reminded me of H.G. Wells systematically describing the Eloi and the Morlochs or the society of the Selenites on the moon, or the Country of the Blind.

I have spoken of the queen and the king; I shall speak now of the witch doctors.

The point being that, even though many of the details are disgusting, the authorial tone is warm and reassuring, like being in an Edwardian wood-panelled room smelling of pipe tobacco, sitting in an ancient and absurdly comfortable sofa, listening to a beloved uncle telling a story.

And so the manuscript goes on, describing the Yahoos’ customs, their king and queen and four witch doctors and their amazingly primitive language. But the story lifts off when Brodie speculates that they might not always have been in this state of extreme degradation, but may be the wrecks of a degenerate nation, a hunch he thinks is confirmed by inscriptions he finds on the heights of the plateau adjoining the malarial swamps where the Yahoos now choose to live.

He describes his escape from the land of the Yahoos and journey to a settlement of blacks, who had a Catholic missionary, who nursed Brodie back to health. Many months later he found himself back in Glasgow where he composed this narrative and is still haunted by visions of the utter collapse of humanity which the Yahoos represent.

Algunos pensamientos

I suppose one way of thinking about the vast difference between Borges’s metaphysical ficciones of the 1940s and these ‘straightforward’ memories of knife fighters and crooks is that the ficciones represent Europe, are an extension of the bookish culture of European civilisation, while these stories are much more monotone, mostly realist accounts of Buenos Aires slums and lowlifes; except, that is, for The Gospel According to Mark which appals with its Edgar Allen Poe macabre-ness, and the final two stories which echo some of the metaphysical magic of the ficciones:

[As to the witch doctors] they are four, this number being the largest that their arithmetic spans. On their fingers they count thus: one, two, three, four, many. Infinity begins at the thumb…

This is the Borges of the 1940s, most of the other stories not at all. They’re not bad, but…

Eternal recurrence

One strong theme emerges from the four or five strongest stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

Thus in The Gospel According to Mark the crucifixion is re-enacted by illiterate peasants who barely understand its context or significance.

The Meeting and Juan Muraña are closely linked in the way that the knives at the centre of each story in some sense ’embody’ the characters of their previous owners, as if the knives are destined to carry on acting out certain types of knife-ish behaviour.

In an oblique way The Elder Lady is about a person who has lived on into her own afterlife, a symbol of events which are almost forgotten and have almost lost their meaning.

In Guayaquil Borges himself suggests that the two present-day historians of the story may be unknowingly re-enacting the drama of confrontation and renunciation first lived out by the two generals whose history they are studying.

And in the chilling Doctor Brodie’s Report the narrator suggests that even in their state of complete immiseration and illiterate, inarticulate degradation, the the people he calls the Yahoos might still retain echoes of social organisation, namely institutions such as the monarchy, a language of sorts, priests or witch doctors, poets and belief in an afterlife. As if the structures of civilisation echo and re-echo through the ages, no matter how degraded and meaningless they have become.

Naming the collection after this story and placing it at the end leaves a quite misleading aftertaste of Wellsian science fiction, of Conan Doyle wonderment, of Edwardian English adventure yarns quite utterly different from the very Latin American settings of almost all the other stories.


Related links

Borges reviews

Virtual Light by William Gibson (1993)

Yamazaki crossed to the smooth curve of cable that interrupted the room’s floor. Only an oval segment of it was visible, like some mathematical formula barely breaking a topological surface in a computer representation. He bent to touch it, the visible segment polished by other hands. Each of the thirty-seven cables, containing four hundred and seventy-two wires, had withstood, and withstood now, a force of some million pounds. Yamazaki felt something, some message of vast, obscure moment, shiver up through the relic-smooth dorsal hump. The storm, surely; the bridge itself was capable of considerable mobility; it expanded and contracted with heat and cold; the great steel teeth of the piers were sunk into bedrock beneath the Bay mud, bedrock that had scarcely moved even in the Little Grande. (Virtual Light, page 182)

The Sprawl trilogy and Gibson’s prose

Gibson is a science fiction author but incorporates a good deal of noir, pulp, thriller and other genre tropes as well as, occasionally, rising to genuinely ‘literary’ complexity of psychological affect. I just read Michael Crichton’s debut novel, The Andromeda Strain, and that has a very straightforward plot, a thriller mapped out across five days, written in extremely clear and lucid prose, written so a 9-year-old could understand it. There are occasional demanding passages describing scientific theories around biology, extra-terrestrial life and so on, but these also are written with the clarity of a school textbook. Clarity is the aim.

Gibson by contrast, is noted for the cool, streetwise, technologically savvy and drug-wired prose style which he invented for his so-called Sprawl trilogy – being Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988).

All three of those novels concern ‘street’ people, hustlers, living among the shanties and hi-tech canyons of a futuristic society, living lives full of violence and drugs, and in all three these hustlers are slowly introduced to the higher levels of society, to the professional middle classes, then to billionaires, and so take us on a journey of discovery to uncover the real workings of their post-war society (the Sprawl trilogy is set 50 or 60 years in the future, after World War III).

Another feature of all three Sprawl novels is you’re never really sure what is going on – even when I reached the semi-apocalyptic endings of all three novels, I wasn’t completely sure what had just happened. Since I felt the same about his collaboration with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine, which also rises to a kind of visionary apocalyptic climax, I concluded that this is a consistent element of Gibson’s approach: that key aspects of the narrative are kept mysterious, giving you the feeling of something ungraspable, just out of reach.

This is one way in which his books might be said to be ‘literary’, in a way the utterly obvious and unmysterious Crichton never is. Everything is explained in Crichton; big important things are not explained, in Gibson.

The Bridge trilogy

Virtual Light is the first of what developed into a new set of three novels, the Bridge Trilogy. How are the Sprawl and Bridge trilogies different? Well, the Sprawl stories were set about fifty years in the future, in around 2035 (they were written in the 1980s), after World War III, when everyone has access to advanced digital technology, and hackers make a living ‘jacking into’ cyberspace in order to carry out hit and run raids against the vast data icebergs of the future corporations which run everything.

The Bridge Trilogy is set in the future, but not so far into the future nor in so different a society. To be precise, it is set only ten years or so after the first novel was published – in what was then the ‘future’ of 2006.

There have still been society-changing events: a mega earthquake (which seems to be named Little Grande) has divided California into NoCal and SoCal (first mentioned page 8) resulting in a steady stream of new volcanoes up in Washington state (p.32). The President is a black woman (p.9), the air is toxic from all the polluting vehicles, skin cancer is a problem, everyone wears a lot of suntan cream (p.14) (see a full list of characteristics of the Bridge world, below).

Why is it called the Bridge trilogy? Because a central feature is that San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge broke during the earthquake, and has been transformed by homeless survivors into a huge, futuristic shantytown. For some of the old-timers who ‘colonised’ it, like Skinner, it’s a place to end their days, but for others like the fresh young heroine of the book, Chevette, it’s all they’ve ever known.

She looked up, just as she whipped between the first of the [concrete] slabs, and the bridge seemed to look down at her, its eyes all torches and neon. She’d seen pictures of what it looked like, before, when they drove cars back and forth on it all day, but she’d never quite believed them. The bridge was what it was, and somehow always had been. Refuge, weirdness, where she slept, home to however many and all their dreams. (p.122)

Given that the trilogy is named after the bridge, it’s notable that the bridge, as such, doesn’t feature that much in the plot, although it is woven in as a key setting, being the temporary home of Chevette and featuring the scene where a bounty hunter comes looking for her there.

The word ‘bridge’ possibly also has a metaphorical sense in that the entire trilogy is a ‘bridge’ from the present (well, the 1990s when Gibson wrote them) to the hyper-digital future envisioned in the Sprawl trilogy of the 2030s and ’40s.

All manner of cool references are slipped into the text about this cool future, which combines a maximum of stoner, drug, derelict street savvy with the highly-armed, gun expertise of Judge Dredd. Thus there is a lot of talk about Glock machine guns, knives, flick-knives, stunguns, SWAT stun grenades and many more weapons. This is meant to be a semi-dystopian future but a) the fact that it is set in what is now our past and b) its obsession with guns, just reinforces my sense of what a screwed-up, hyper-violent society America is, now.

The cool gun expertise alternates with cool references to a new designer drug, ‘dancer’.

Seriously tooled-up intruders tended to be tightened on dancer, and therefore were both inhumanly fast and clinically psychotic. (p.9)

From the get-go Gibson is master of a street savvy, whip-smart, post-Beat prose. Here’s a paragraph from the first page:

The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night. (page 1)

A lot is going on here, but to pick three obvious points:

  1. It’s poetic prose, designed to be savoured and reread for its sound alone.
  2. ‘The sewage flats’? This is the one and only time they’re mentioned in the book so they take their place alongside hundreds of other details which are thrown away, unexplained, and from which the reader uses their imagination to construct the functioning and appearance of this futureworld (see the list below).
  3. ‘lodged in the lens of night’ is a self-consciously poetic and imaginative image. The book is full of them. It is a self-consciously stylish book, on all levels (in its prose style and setting and characters and plot).

Cops

However, having said all this about Gibson’s zippy prose style and slick future-vision, the reader quite quickly realises the novel is about a cop, Berry Rydell, who’s become a kind of private security guard. An American novel about a cop-turned private detective? Actually this is a very old trope, going back to the noir novels of the 1930s and 40s, to Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler…

And then, as the novel progresses, we watch as this tough private eye rescues the attractive young woman from the bad guys and whisks her off to safety while he tries to figure out the Right Thing To Do.

Hmmm, in this elementary respect, the basic plot structure of Virtual Light seems far from experimental or new – it is, to some extent, a cyberspace update of film noir tropes and characters and plot.

So: we learn that Berry Rydell, born 1983 (p.14) is an ex-cop from Knoxville, Tennessee, who was cashiered out of the service after shooting to pieces a drug-addled maniac who was holding his wife and kids hostage and demanding to speak to the president. He’s managed to get a job with a private security firm named IntenSecure in Los Angeles, alongside a ripe collection of freaks and allergy monkeys… Here’s a plot summary:

Plot summary

Berry Rydell is fired from the Tennessee police force for shooting a hostage-taker, the demented Kenneth Turvey.

Rydell is in his twenties looks like Tommy Lee Jones (p.81) i.e. ruggedly handsome.

The notoriety Rydell wins from shooting Turvey and being sacked leads to him briefly being taken up by the sexy presenter of a TV show, Cops With Problems, Karen Mendelson (p.16) who flies Rydell out to LA and up to her swank penthouse apartment for a few weeks of expense account living and wild sex, before a new and better story comes along, she dumps him and has him escorted from the apartment by security guards who work for IntenSecurity Corporation, a ‘rentacop’ outfit.

That’s what gives Rydell the idea of applying for a job there. He gets one driving a vast 6-wheel ‘Hotspur Hussar’ around the houses of the rich up in Benedict Canyon who’ve paid for security checks (to be precise, he is employed in ‘the residential armed-response branch’ of the IntenSecurity Corporation p.48), alongside a skinny streak of piss named Sublett, who grew up in a trailer park dominated by his born-again Christian mother, watching old movies and harangued all day by TV evangelists.

One evening Rydell and Sublett follow instructions beamed from ‘the Death Star’, the nickname they give to the Southern Californian Geosynclinical Law Enforcement Satellite (p.11).

But it’s a hoax; someone has hacked into the system in order to make Rydell think a robbery and hostage situation is taking place at some luxury home. So Rydell rams the huge truck through the house’s security gate, across the Japanese garden and through the living room wall, and is staggering into the house with his machine gun when… an LAPD helicopter descends over the wreckage and arrests him; the children were off with their father somewhere; there was no hostage situation; the wife was having kinky sex (PVC and handcuffs) with the Polish gardener. As a result she sues IntenSecurity for physical and emotional damages, and they suspend Rydell from all duties: it’s another screw-up.

Cut to San Francisco. Here Chevette-Marie Washington (p.120), who long ago escaped from a juvenile detention centre outside Beaverton (p.125), is a bicycle courier. After making a drop (or ‘pull a tag’ as they seem to call it) at the Hotel Morrisey, she bumps into a drunk in the elevator who takes her up to a party hosted by someone called Cody Harwood, where she spends 15 minutes feeling seriously out of place, gets hit on a by a slimeball with a wet cigar then, on the way out, pushed up against the slimeball by the dense crowd while his attention is distracted talking to a hooker, something is sticking out his pocket and so, on impulse, Chevette nicks it, and is out the apartment door and over to a service elevator, down to the car park, unlocks her bike and is off into the city within minutes…

This turns out to be the core of the plot. Without realising it, Chevette has stolen a very expensive pair of sunglasses. Why? Because they are Virtual Light shades, see below.

Chevette lives high up on the Golden Gate Bridge with a broken-down old man named Skinner in a shack he’s built high up amid the cabling. In the years since the earthquake, thousands of homeless people have constructed a shanty town in the sky, building home-made apartments which have slowly crept up the struts and along the cables of the old bridge till it looks like a giant crustacean, covered with Gothic excrescences.

Skinner is regularly visited by Yamazaki, a Japanese sociologist who is writing a study of how the bridge was colonised and so interviews Skinner because he was one of the ‘pioneers’ of its settlement. T, this being a handy prompt for a series of flashbacks or retellings from Skinner of how it all happened. Yamazaki is not, however, an impressive or powerful figure;  when we see Yamazaki from Chevette’s viewpoint, he is ‘the Japanese nerd… the college boy or social worker’ who always looks lost.

LA Back in Los Angeles, Rydell – having been suspended from work by IntenSecurity – is told by his immediate boss Juanito Hernandez about a job opportunity, working for a freelance security operative, Lucius Warbaby, up in San Francisco. Rydell needs a job so he flies economy up to Frisco sitting next to a sweet old lady who goes on about having to arrange for her husband’s brain, which is in cryogenic storage, to be moved to a better facility. The wacky old future, eh.

Rydell is met at the airport by huge black Lucius Warbaby and his gofer, Freddie (both described on page 80). Freddie’s loud shirt is covered with images of guns, Warbaby has a brace on one leg and walks with a cane. He is the size of a refrigerator but stylish and dignified.

San Francisco Chevette works for Allied Couriers. She’s called in for a grilling by her boss, Bunny Malatesta (p.94) who asks why she checked in to Hotel Morrissey security (on the job where she strayed into the party) but never checked out. The hotel is following it up because the heat is on about the missing shades. In fact, Bunny tells her, the heat is turned up because the owner of the shades has been murdered.

In the next scene Rydell is with Warbaby when he meets two SF homicide cops who are investigating the self-same murder, of Hans Rutger Blix (p.102). The cops are Russians, Svobodov and Orlonsky. Warbaby is a big man but precise and punctilious and polite; he has beautiful handwriting (p.163). He reminds me a bit of the Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon.

Chevette’s courier colleague, a beautiful black man named Samuel Saladin DuPree (p.129), or Sammy Sal, gets her to admit to stealing the shades. She shows them to him and he explains that the shades are Virtual Light sunglasses (p.113). They interact directly with the optical nerve without needing actual light. Sammy explains they’re fairly common among professionals, like a hologram.

In fact Warbaby has a pair which he uses when he takes Freddie and Rydell to the crime scene – the hotel room where Blix was murdered – and further explains that the VL shades have ‘drivers’ in the lenses and frames which affect the optic nerves directly (p.120).

Freddie takes Rydell shopping to ‘Container City’, comprised of loads of derelict cargo ships and their containers with stairways strung up and between them, very trash futuristic, maybe like the final scene in the movie I, Robot.

A character named Loveless, a hired thug, arrives at Skinner’s shack on the Bridge with a gun. Chevette is up on the roof with Sammy. Loveless doesn’t see Sammy but orders Chevette to climb down and back into Skinner’s shack. He handcuffs Skinner and Yamazaki with funky futuristic handcuffs made of flexible plastic which tighten if you struggle against them.

Loveless has come looking for the stolen shades. Chevette lies and tells him they’re in the pannier of her bicycle so he forces her down ladders towards the rigged-up lift which takes them down to road level. Here Chevette cleverly arranges for the bike’s electric defence mechanism to give Loveless an electric.

Sammy has silently followed them both down to street level and now bops Loveless on the head but not hard enough. He just has time to hand Chevette back the shades (he’d been holding them up on the roof when Loveless appeared in Skinner’s apartment) before a dazed Loveless staggers back to his feet and pumps Sammy full of lead – Sammy simply disappearing backwards between the cables off the bridge and falling to his death. Shocked, Chevette just turns and runs.

Meanwhile, Warbaby and Freddie arrive with Rydell at the base of the bridge and send him onto it to find Chevette, they being scared by exaggerated stories of its voodoo, cannibalistic inhabitants.

To ensure drama, a heavy rainstorm comes on and in the thick of it Rydell stumbles across Chevette standing in the rain. He tails her as she staggers along the bridge in the rainstorm and comes across her one-time boyfriend, Lowell, and his ghoulish sidekick Cody, sitting atop a container.

Rydell tails the three as they head off to a bar, humorously named Cognitive Dissidence. Rydell goes into the warm fug of the bar after them, taking a place at the bar and ordering a beer while he ponders what to do next. But into this bar suddenly arrives one of the two Russian homicide cops Warbaby had introduced him to soon after he arrived in SF, coming in huge and silent and with a drawn gun. He orders Chevette to come with him but then…all the lights go out.

In the darkness the fat lady who operates a dancing hologram which is a feature of the bar, makes it dance all round the Russian’s head, giving Rydell long enough to make it across the bar, scoop up Chevette and carry her kicking and screaming to the stairs out of the place. Unfortunately, he runs straight into the other Russian waiting at the top of the stairs who stops them. Rydell and Chevette are both disarmed and handcuffed and forced to trudge under the watchful guns of the Russians to the San Francisco end of the bridge.

Here Warbaby and Freddie, who commissioned the Russian heavies, are waiting for them. They unhandcuff Rydell and are beginning to explain what’s going on when there is another dramatic surprise: one of Chevette’s friends who we’d been very briefly introduced to a bit earlier, a big bear of a man incongruously named Nigel, seeing Chevette taken away at gunpoint, now attacks everyone on a heavyweight bike, ramming the Russian with the gun, grabbing him and banging his head against the hood of Rydell’s car.

As the others set about dealing with this Nigel, Rydell drags Chevette into his Patriot 4 x 4, kick starts it and they skid off, Warbaby raising his cane which turns out to be a concealed gun and shooting out the Patriot’s rear window, but then they’ve turned a corner and are escaping!

Chevette directs Rydell to Haight Street, where they drop the Patriot (which is promptly stolen) and hide out in a tattoo parlour, pretending to take their time in the waiting room deciding on a joint tattoo, while they calm down.

When they eventually leave the tattoo parlour, in a striking coincidence, who should stop and ask the way but the nice old lady Rydell had chatted to on the plane up here, Mrs Danica Elliott, who has hired a big white camper van to drive back to LA in. She asks Rydell if he can drive since she is completely lost. So he and Chevette get in and drive nice and slow out of town. Eventually they’re so tired they hand the driving back to Mrs Elliott and go to sleep in the bed in the back of the camper.

BUT – when they wake up the camper is stationary and Mrs Elliott is gone and who else but Loveless, the hired killer, is waiting for them! I had a sinking feeling that he might have murdered the old lady (one gets sick of all the murder and carnage in American novels) and so was relieved to discover she was herself an IntenSecurity operative put in place to tail and watch Rydell.

Loveless now proceeds to explain The PLOT. The Virtual Light shades Chevette stole contain the blueprint for the comprehensive rebuilding of shattered San Francisco by foreign investors. These are based in Costa Rica (which has been mentioned a number of times as the location for stored data in the same way Switzerland is for huge foreign bank accounts in our day).

The rebuilding project has to be handled carefully because the local Americans might object, but the core issue is that big corporations want to buy up the land the new city is going to be built on. So if the plans get out, all sorts of other actors (for example, the state) might buy it up instead. Thus the precise plans must be kept secret because inconceivably vast fortunes stand to be made or lost.

And it all comes down to possession of the shades. Blix was a courier tasked with delivering them to the right person in San Francisco, but instead let himself be distracted, getting drunk at that party and then stupidly losing them (when Chevette picked his pocket). Loveless had been tasked with shadowing Blix and when the latter lost the shades was only too happy to murder him, not just killing him but slitting his throat and pulling his tongue out to make it look like some South American drug killing.

While Loveless is talking he gets thirsty and orders Chevette to get him a drink from the camper’s fridge, nice and slow. Out of his sight, Chevette slips into Loveless’s drink an entire stash of the designer drug dancer, and hands it to him. Thus, as Loveless carries on explaining The Plot to Rydell and Chevette, he starts to sweat and hallucinate, and ends up firing his pistol manically. Rydell and Chevette throw themselves out the doors, and hide while Loveless runs off shooting wildly. Then they jump back into the camper and make off at speed.

Rydell and Chevette stop to get directions from an old-timer at a derelict Shell gas station. Rydell had used a phone they picked up in their adventures to ring the only person he trusts, Sublett, who we met back at the start of the story – only to discover Sublett has quit his job at IntenSecurity and gone home to his mother’s trailer on a wacky Christian base camp. Looking at the map Rydell realises it’s fairly close by, so Rydell and Chevette drive there and bluff their way in by pretending to be extreme born-again Christians.

There follows extended satire about TV evangelists, in this instance a fictional one named the Reverend Fallon. This actually feels quite old now, very 1980s. No-one cares about TV evangelists any more, compared to the power of the internet, social media, Facebook, the Russians and President Trump.

Rydell devises A Cunning Plan. First he calls Chevette’s ex, Lowell, and puts the frighteners on him to get him to give them access to the digital online place known as ‘the Republic of Desire’. Then he ascertains that one of Sublett’s nerdy friends in the born-again caravan park, Buddy, has a set of eyephones. He pays Buddy to use them, then Chevette watches as Rydell puts them on and dials into early cyberspace.

Rydell has got details of how to dial into the Republic of Desire and here, in cyberspace, sees three weird figures, a woman made of TV shows, a man mountain and a kind of Tyrannosaurus Rex with human hands. These three entities instantly access Rydell’s records and read everything about his life and history, are bored and are leaving the call when Rydell asks them whether any of them lives in San Francisco and likes it the way it is. This gets their attention and Rydell goes on to explain how the plans stored on the Virtual Light sunglasses reveal how San Francisco is going to be handed over to foreign developers and changed out of all recognition. That gets the three digital warriors’ attention.

Together they cook up a plan which dominates the last thirty pages of the novel, which feels like a scam or heist in the style of Ocean’s 11.

Chevette dresses as a courier and enters Century City II, the luxury condo where Rydell had briefly lived with top lawyer Karen Mendelson when they had their brief affair. Soon as Karen Mendelson opens her apartment door, Sublett pushes her and Chevette back into her apartment.

Meanwhile Rydell has recruited the three hackers in the Republic of Desire to help him. The man mountain figure refers to himself as the God-Eater, but they could be anyone, anywhere, Rydell reflects ruefully. Rydell makes his way to Century City II, where he’s arranged to meet Warbaby at 3pm. He watches Warbaby and Freddie and the two Russian hoods (the Bad Guys) arrive in two separate cars, then enter the mall. He follows them up inside, then phones the three hackers in the Republic of Desire again. The narrative explains that they decided to ‘help’ because they don’t want to see San Francisco over-developed and also it presented a new technical challenge, which amuses them.

What happens is: the hackers take control of SF police in order to fly armed drones into the mall which tell Warbaby, Freddie and the Russians to get on their faces. This is because the system has been hacked to identify them of being terrorists planning to blow up the entire mall.

But where’s their hired goon, Loveless? Seeing he hasn’t come along with Warbaby, Rydall guesses he must have gone straight to Karen’s apartment. Rydell dashes up there and arrives just in time, just at the split second Loveless emerges from hiding and raises his little gun to Chevette’s temple planning to take her hostage or just to shoot her. And that’s the moment Rydell hits him with the capsicum spray he carries round with him like mace gas only much worse.

Epilogue

Then – The Payoff. The cops arrest the five baddies, Warbaby, Freddie, the two Russian hoods and Loveless. Then a whole fleet of Karen Mendelson’s lawyer friends arrive, including the legendary lawyer Wellington Ma, and these media operators immediately see the TV potential of the story and so sign up Chevette and Sublett to tell their stories. While Chevette had been in the apartment with Karen she’d shown her how to play the Virtual Shades, so Karen has seen the development scams which were planned and is able to retell it to her lawyers and the cops. Rydell et al are in the clear, and a good TV show will be made about it all, and the baddies will be brought down. Rydell et al will be arrested but the head lawyer from Cops in Trouble tells him they’ll get bail within the hour and then they can start working on the documentary and then the made-for-TV movie.

In other words – despite the futuristic sci-fi trappings – this feels, in the end, like an American crime caper: the goody is a cop with a heart of the gold, the young girl assistant has nice ‘tits’ (as Rydell puts it, more than once) the baddies are crooked property developers, foreigners and blacks – and everything will be sorted out by shit-hot LA TV lawyers.

Ultimately, feels more like an episode of LA Law than genuine science fiction.

Features of Gibson’s futureworld of 2006

  • the President is a woman named Millband (p.17) and is black! (p.183)
  • there’s a vaccination against AIDS (p.18) seems you need certificates of vaccination to show partners before having sex (p.21), the origin of the vaccine is just one individual, J.D. Shapely, who was found to host a benign version of HIV which eradicated the malign version (see below)
  • cops wear air-conditioned helmets with plastic visors
  • ‘gyms’ offer injections of Brazilian fetal matter and having your skeleton ‘reinforced’
  • Italy is no longer a unified state, people come from parts of ‘what used to be Italy’ (p.40) (cf Canada, below)
  • Chevette’s motorbike has a recognition loop you slip your hand into to unlock it (p.44)
  • swimwear is designed to keep off dangerous UV rays and to keep out the dangerous poisons in the sea
  • the ozone hole is a problem (p.46)
  • a virus has destroyed palm trees (maybe all trees) (p.50), later identified as ‘some Mexican virus’ (p.273)
  • five dollar coins, suggesting inflation (p.58)
  • Thomasson is a generic name Gibson’s invented for pointless yet curiously art-like features of the urban landscape (p.61)
  • the big nations of the world (Russia, Canada, Brazil) have fragmented into numerous mini-states (p.71), Canada has broken up into five states (p.242)
  • the Cease Upon The Midnight movement and other self-help euthanasia groups prefer peaceful suicide to having your brain put in a cryogenic store (p.79)
  • it’s been illegal to manufacture cigarettes in the US since 2000 (p.101)
  • the Sword of the Pig movement (p.108)
  • after the earthquake there seem to have been waves of disease or ‘plagues’, which Gibson lists on page 117
  • New Zealand appears to have been occupied by Japanese armed forces who have to suppress resistance movements (p.190)
  • much is made throughout the book of posters and image of AIDS survivor J.D. Shapely dotted around San Francisco and, at one point, Yamazaki channel surfs to a BBC documentary which gives an extremely thorough biography of Shapely (pages 190 to 192). Shapely was a gay prostitute who ended up in prison where they discovered he had AIDS but it didn’t kill him; in him HIV had mutated to a strain which was a) benign b) ate the original virulent strain. Thus a vaccine was made from his version and was administered to everyone in the world.

Funky phrases

So rich in slang and neologisms, American writers.

  • inner trivia banks (p.14)
  • telepresence rig (p.15)
  • Thiobuscaline (3,5-dimethoxy-4-butylthiophenethylamine) – a lesser-known psychedelic drug (p.16)
  • bunny down (p.75)

Conclusion

My opening comments reflected my memories of the Sprawl trilogy and Gibson’s place in science fiction. As I read on into this novel I came to realise it is far less a science fiction book than a techno update of the long lineage of noir cop crime thrillers; that Gibson’s hard-nosed cop with a heart of gold has more in common with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow, or Deckard in the movie Blade Runner or John McClane in the Die Hard franchise than with more standard science fiction; i.e. that Rydell is an avatar of a very familiar type, the tall, handsome, strong cop or ex-cop, rough around the edges, prepared to bend the rules, but basically a good guy.

Similarly, although Chevette is a ballsy, street girl, an urchin, a reform school runaway, she, also, has a heart of gold and has to be rescued by Sir Galahad, thus fulfilling a thousand-year old stereotype. And – sigh – she, of course, starts to fall for him.

  • She wondered if maybe she wasn’t starting to fall for Rydell… she had to admit he had a cute butt in those jeans. (p.261)
  • She was starting to really like him… (p.276)

Rydell reminds me most of Lee Child’s creation, Jack Reacher, another knight errant who combines physical prowess with basic moral rectitude (although, admittedly, Reacher didn’t make his debut till 1997, four years after this novel was published).

They all supply the reader with the same basic pleasure, which is they’re rule-breakers and naughty boys who are, at heart, good boys really. No matter how much they bend or break the law, it’s always in a good cause. And they all combine a bunch of characteristics most men wish they had – size and strength and physical prowess, expertise with guns, all kinds of practical know-how with cars and gadgets – and their basic decency wins over even the most initially independent or resistant of women.

To quote a seventy-year-old tagline, ‘Men want to be him; women want to be with him’ (James Bond memes)

In other words, the setting of the Bridge trilogy is novel and creative, and the hundreds of details Gibson works into the novel certainly convey a great fullness and plausibility to his fictional world. But the basic narrative structure is very, very old.

Nothing dates as fast as the future

One last thought: setting the novel closer to the present day, paradoxically makes it more dated. In the far future (well, the 2030s when Neuromancer is set) anything goes. But if you set something in the near future, you have to be more measured and realistic with your predictions and chances increase that whatever you predict will be wrong.

Thus some of the baddies in the book, like Warbaby, get their information via faxes; computers are used a bit but nowhere near as much as they turned out to; there are one or two remote phones but not many – in other words Gibson did not accurately predict the full impact of the great transformative agents of our time, the internet, increasingly lightweight personal computers, and mobile phones.

And his cultural references feel dated, as well. As in the Sprawl novels, many things have a strong Japanese flavour i.e. the inclusion of the Japanese character Yamazaki and repeated references to a catastrophic earthquake that’s taken place in Tokyo. But in the years since 1993, Japan has slipped out of the cool cultural and economic position Gibson gives it:

Japan’s economy has struggled with deflation since its bubble economy peaked in 1989. (Investopedia)

Japan has, since the turn of the century, in terms of culture and economy and products and even art, increasingly been replaced by China.

Also Gibson’s pop culture references have aged. The entire concept of rock music, which is referenced throughout the novel, seems old now. The character Sublett has an obsession with the movies of David Cronenberg, which might have marked him off as at the cutting edge of pop avant-garde in 1993, but not now, in 2020.


Credit

Virtual Light by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1993. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

The High Window by Raymond Chandler (1942)

A lot of smart conversation, full of worldliness and sly wit. (Chapter 7)

Being a hard-boiled tough guy in these books seems to involve an awful lot of posing, a lot of acting the part, a lot of knowing that you’re acting the part, and a lot of judging how other people are acting their parts. Chandler’s texts are very stagey. All the characters point out to all the other characters how they’re putting on an act. Or watch each other closely to try to assess just how much of an act they’re putting on.

It’s this artful self-consciousness combined with stylish one-liners which continually makes me think of the plays of Oscar Wilde. And, of course, they’re both funny 🙂

Tough guys

‘I wouldn’t carry that tough-guy manner too far, if I were you, Mr Marlowe.’ (Ch. 2: Miss Davies to Marlowe)

‘If you will pardon a homely phrase, your tough guy act stinks.’ (Ch. 3: Murdock to Marlowe)

‘In my business,’ he said, ‘tough guys come a dime a dozen. And would-be tough guys come a nickel a gross. Just mind your business and I’ll mind my business and we won’t have any trouble.’ (Ch. 17: Morny to Marlowe)

‘What I like about this place is everything runs so true to type,’ I said. ‘The cop on the gate, the shine on the door, the cigarette and check girls, the fat greasy sensual Jew with the tall stately bored showgirl, the well-dressed, drunk and horribly rude director cursing the barman, the silent guy with the gun, the night-club owner with the soft grey hair and the B-picture mannerisms, and now you – the tall dark torcher with the negligent sneer, the husky voice, the hard-boiled vocabulary.’ (Ch. 19: Marlowe to Linda Conquest)

Influence of the movies

In particular, Marlowe complains that various hoods and would-be tough guys he meets have copied their patter and manner from the movies. Since the first talkie is generally taken to be The Jazz Singer in 1927, that’s barely 12 years of talkies by the time The Big Sleep (1939) was published, and since we know the novels are based on short stories published as early as 1933, that’s less than a decade in which actors like James Cagney and George Raft popularised a look and walk and talk which Marlowe complains lowlife crims are consciously copying.

‘All those boys have been to picture shows and know how night-club bosses are supposed to act.’ (Ch. 4)

The blonde sobbed in a rather theatrical manner and showed me an open mouth twisted with misery and ham- acting. (Ch. 9)

‘Oh Alex – darling – don’t say such awful things.’
‘Early Lilian Gish,’ Morny said. ‘Very early Lillian Gish.’ (Lillian Gish being a very early movie star.)

Morny lifted his cigarette away from his lips and narrowed his eyes to look at the tip. Every motion, every gesture, right out of the catalogue. (Ch. 18)

A fallen world

Detective novels and stories are generally written by conservatives. They all-too-easily fall into lamenting the decline and fall of civilisation and the collapse of old-fashioned standards. The tough guy, whose job it is to navigate the lower reaches of society’s pond life, is continually brought up against the so-called collapse in standards of behaviour and is given plenty of opportunity to plaint.

Chandler adds a peculiar wrinkle to this as he had, of course, been brought up in England and attended a notable English public school, Dulwich College, in the pre-Great War years. He is, amazingly, a product of English Edwardian society which we tend to associate with a E.M. Fosterish politeness and gentility. No wonder the rough-house politics, business and underworld of post-War California came as a bitter shock.

The expression of the face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I don’t know what to call it. (Ch. 2)

There are recurring laments that, in these times, when politicians, cops and judges are corrupt, a man can only do the best he can do to carve out a little justice in an unjust world. Laments that would have found an echo with the author of Beowulf, with Shakespeare, with Hogarth, with Juvenal, with the later Dickens, with, er, lots of writers.

The white moonlight was cold and clear, like the justice we dream of but don’t find. (Ch. 32)

This is not a sophisticated worldview. For all pulp’s hard-boiled veneer, it is, in its deep attitudes, curiously simple-minded.

‘A shop-soiled Sir Galahad’

Nonetheless, what makes the novels comedies no matter how many people get killed (and it’s generally only ever 4 or 5 not very nice people) and how many crooks get away, is that Marlowe’s innate chivalry, honour, his sense of justice and morality, are never seriously called into question. Possibly the High Window is the novel which shows this most clearly in that the strongest plot thread is Marlowe’s chivalric rescue of a damsel in distress, the psychologically damaged and exploited young secretary Merle Davis, an act of chivalry which leads his friend the doctor to jokingly call him ‘a shop-soiled Sir Galahad’ (Ch. 28).

As I mentioned in a previous post, the most Victorian of poets, Tennyson, was brought to mind by some of Chandler’s lush phraseology. And now, again, is brought to mind for his famous or infamous lines about Sir Galahad:

My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.

It somehow makes sense that, just as the master of such effortlessly lyrical prose made huge efforts to rein it in and keep it simple, so, on the level of characterisation, an author who goes on and on and on about how hard-boiled, tough and cynical his hero is, in fact continually reveals him to be sentimental, principled and old-fashioned. This is the thrust, after all, of Chandler’s most famous piece of critical writing, the short essay about contemporary crime fiction, The Simple Art of Murder:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.

It is a notion of chivalry as pure as anything in Malory or Spenser or Tennyson.

Contemporary slang

As a side note, Chandler picks up on what were apparently modish and fashionable phrases, phrases we take for granted but which were newer in 1942, and which he is obviously satirising:

The blonde coughed. ‘Sit down and rest your sex appeal.’ (Ch. 5)

The online dictionary dates the origin of the phrase ‘sex appeal’ to the mid-1920s and associates it with post-War style of advertising ie it is still relatively new in the 1940s and, like lots of advertising slogans, mainly used by its target audience as material for knowing jokes.

‘She’s a tall, handsome blonde. Very – very appealing.’
‘You mean sexy?’
‘Well – ‘ she blushed furiously, ‘in a nice well-bred sort of way, if you know what I mean.’ (Ch. 2)

Was saying ‘sexy’ in this way a relatively new thing? Certainly it was post-War. How widespread did the usage become in the 1920s? Did anyone take it seriously?

‘I wouldn’t carry that tough-guy manner too far, if I were you, Mr Marlowe.’
‘I’m not tough,’ I said, ‘just virile.’ (Ch. 2)

Presumably this is a smart-ass wisecrack and sounds like the humour relies very precisely on contemporary usage. Was ‘virile’ in the news or in certain ads or part of the wave of Freudian psychology (which specifically features in The High Window in the doctor’s diagnosis of Merle Davis’s psychological trauma)? Here and throughout Chandler’s quips clearly depend on a knowledge of contemporary buzzwords, advertising slogans etc, and are taking the mickey out of contemporary culture.

I wonder if there are any plans for the Annotated Raymond Chandler. His novels are getting old enough that they would benefit from intelligent footnotes which go beyond the obvious truisms and help to explicate these buried references. Chandler is a writer of exquisite precision. It would be wonderful to have the precisions we have lost with the passage of time sensitively explained and restored.

Pulpy cover of 'The High Window'

Pulpy cover of ‘The High Window’, costing 25 cents!


Related links

Other Raymond Chandler reviews

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

Haven’t read Chandler since school. I’d forgotten how very literary he is, how artful and contrived the prose is – from the era between the wars which, after all, saw an explosion of Modernist experimentation with prose.

And that these books are essentially comedies. The way the plot serves up contrived scenes made of confrontations between extravagant characters who exchange clipped, artful dialogue remind me of no-one so much as Oscar Wilde – when I came across a character actually named Wilde in chapter 18 (Taggart Wilde, the District Attorney) I burst out laughing. Is it a deliberate reference or homage? After all, Chandler references Marcel Proust early in the book (Chapter 11). In their way, the characters and plots are as stylised, as exaggerated and mannered as anything from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Male knowingness

The text radiates post-Hemingway savoir vivre: the essence of this kind of writing is a very male attitude of total knowledge, complete knowledgeability about women, guns, booze, crime, all the tricks and cons of detectives and crooks – the way of the world – or of a certain kind of world. A world of sex, money, violence, drugs which we – as impeccably law-abiding citizens – are thrilled and entertained to enter, and with such a rock-safe chaperone as the artful first-person narrator.

Take women:

It might have annoyed Eddie but business is business, and you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes. (Ch 21)

Sure. So many stray blondes, what is a man to do. Or booze:

I unlocked my deep drawer and got out my office bottle and two pony glasses. I filled them and we drank. (Ch 11)

Obviously he has an ‘office bottle’ of booze. It isn’t even specified what type, it’s just general purpose drink whose purpose is to emphasise his manliness. Of course he has an office bottle. Of course he drinks spirits during the day. But what are pony glasses? The narrator knows. He assumes we know. His routine use of this stylised diction flatters us, assumes we know all about hooch and shamuses and gats. That we’re men of the world, too. Sure. No problem.

Or money:

First off Regan carried fifteen grand, packed it in his clothes all the time. Real money, they tell me. Not just a top card and a bunch of hay. (Ch 20)

Everyone says ‘grand’ now, so reading this doesn’t convey the thrill of the thieves’ argot it originally would have. But ‘a top card and a bunch of hay’, it takes you a moment to realise, must be entertaining jargon for a real dollar note at the top of a wad of fakes.

Since none of us are policeman, or Los Angeles policemen from 1939, none of us can know for sure how much of this was actually the way people dressed and acted and spoke back then – and how much is baroque invention.

‘Hard-boiled’ prose style

You read on the blurb and have the general impression that Chandler invented or is famous for the tough-guy hard-boiled style. And it’s true many of the sentences are ostentatiously clipped, short and understated. Especially around the sensational subjects which are the staples of ‘pulp’ writing (and, let’s face it, of most entertainment), sex and death.

She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn’t wearing anything else.

Death, of course, comes in many forms, all of them a combination of the grotesque and the sordid. All of them, of course, observed with the laconic, world-weary eye of the jaded detective.

Geiger was wearing Chinese slippers with thick felt soles, and his legs were in black satin pyjamas and the upper part of him wore a Chinese embroidered coat, the front of which was mostly blood. His glass eye shone brightly up at me and was by far the most lifelike thing about him. At a glance none of the three shots I heard had missed. He was very dead. (Ch 7)

But almost immediately you realise the clipped sentences are outnumbered by the more artful and colourful sentences. In particular the wealth of deliberately outlandish and vivid similes.

Smart-ass similes

It was raining again the next morning, a slanting grey rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads. I got up feeling sluggish and tired, and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets. (Chapter 25)

A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock. (Ch1)

I lit a cigarette and blew a lungful at him and he sniffed at it like a terrier at a rat-hole. (Ch 1)

This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall, and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead. (ch 2)

Her whole body shivered and her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust. She put it together again slowly, as if lifting a great weight, by sheer will power. (Ch 10)

His cigarette was jiggling like a doll on a coiled spring. (Ch 16)

Then her breathing began to make a rasping sound, like a small file on soft wood. (Ch 23)

The purring voice was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed. (Ch 26)

Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house. (Ch 28)

The pug sidled over flatfooted and felt my pockets with care. I turned around for him like a bored beauty modelling an evening gown. (Ch 13)

‘Pug’ refers to the baddy’s henchman and, as with the ‘bored beauty’, conveys ironic superiority, knowing confidence. It denotes the superiority of Marlowe over the situation, and of us, the privileged readers, also – so superior we can observe it with witty detachment. The delicious similes both heighten the comic/grotesque element of situations – and tickle the palate of the jaded reader.

But look again at that sentence and note that ‘with care’. That phrase denotes something extra, something I’ll call the ‘literary surplus’. It isn’t required by either the mechanics of the plot or the pulp injunction to amuse us with tricksy analogies. It is a real precision of imagining, conveyed with a real precision of language. It is this extra ability, which Chandler can turn on at will, which makes his work real art, real literature.

The literary surplus

I braked the car against the kerb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel.

‘and… and… and…’ a sequence of simple physical (male) acts described in chronological order with no colour whatsoever and linked only by ‘and’ was invented by Hemingway to give modern tough-guy prose a kind of Biblical simplicity and force. There is plenty of Hemingway in Chandler and he knows it. But then…

Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness. (Ch 23)

The poetic, the lyrical side of Chandler’s sensibility is mostly reined in, constrained into stylised similes and tough-guy patois. But here we see it exposed and, therefore, more vulnerable.

Dark silent mystified eyes stared at me solemnly, the doubt growing larger in them, creeping into them noiselessly, like a cat in long grass stalking a blackbird. (Ch 24)

This is repetition, but not and… and.. and repetition. This is repetition with variation of phrasing (‘…growing larger in them, creeping into them…’) which is shading a thought or perception, which takes the reader into the process of thought, her dawning thought and the narrator’s growing perception. It is very far from the definitive thing, the finished smart-arse remark, the Wildean apothegm, served up on a plate for which Chandler is famous:

His mouth drooped open and his cigarette hung to a corner of it by some magic, as if it had grown there. (Ch 25)

As the book progresses these more vulnerable poetic moments occur more often.

The windshield wiper could hardly keep the glass clear enough to see through. But not even the drenched darkness could hide the flawless lines of the orange trees wheeling away like endless spokes into the night. (Ch 27)

Wow. Marlowe comes round after being poleaxed and tied up by Canino, to find himself tended by Agnes Lozelle:

‘What time is it?’ I asked
She looked sideways at her wrist, beyond the spiral of smoke, at the edge of the grave lustre of the lamplight.

‘Grave lustre’. Or the moment when Marlowe enters the silent office to discover Harry Jones’s corpse:

A tramcar bell clanged at an almost infinite distance and the sound came buffeted by innumerable walls.

Something very 20th century, very Kafka, very urban alienation, is created with a handful of words. And yet how rich and poetic each phrase is: clanged… almost infinite distance. The microsecond lingering which reading ‘innumerable’ requires reminded me of the lushest of lush poets, Tennyson:

Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro’ the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Can it be that there is poetry in this prose?

An old man dozed in the elevator, on a ramshackle stool, with a burst-out cushion under him. His mouth was open, his veined temples glistened in the weak light. He wore a blue uniform coat that fitted him the way a stall fits a horse. Under the grey trousers with frayed cuffs, white cotton socks and black kid shoes, one of which was slit across a bunion. On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer. (Ch 26)

Burst-out is the kind of liberty-taking with the language which the Americans have been doing for a century or more with their much bigger population and diversity of dictions. Weak light is functional but poetic also. A stall fits a horse is a wise-guy, pulp simile. By the time I got to slit across a bunion I am pausing because there is real compassion here. Isn’t Marlowe a super-tough guy, inured to sex and death and old losers. But here an old guy on his uppers is evoking compassion. And then:

On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer.

This is far from the Hemingway heritage. This reminds me of Joyce, the Joyce of Dubliners where every sentence is weighed and balanced, and the moving of one adverb creates a slightly alien, alerted meaning. ‘On the stool’ should come after the verb phrase, not before (though even in the right place it would read oddly). Placing it before makes ‘miserably’ conspicuous, foregrounds the sentiment, instead of burying it as hard-boiled is meant to, brings out the feeling, the real literary and humane feeling, which underlies everything in the book.

What an artist!


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