Saturday, February 16, 2008

It’s a Shame About Ray

Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace is a nasty, messy car crash of a book, a purported biography of Raymond Chandler that too often devolves into gossip or seems to have as much to do with its author as its subject. It’s a gruesome, bloody wreck--a buffet for rubberneckers.

And in between bouts of wanting to hurl it at the wall, I couldn’t put it down.

Freeman, a longtime Chandler fanatic, attempts to plow the uncharted waters of Chandler’s personal life, including his longtime marriage to the enigmatic Cissy Pascal, a woman who, it turns out, was almost 20 years older than he was. The subtitle of this biography is “Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,” and its author hits upon a brilliant premise--she will apply a geographical approach to her literary legwork, trying to track down each of the more than 30 different locations in which the nomadic, reclusive Chandlers lived in and around Los Angeles.

It’s a great angle, but too often it peters out. Although Freeman has done some commendable research, in both L.A. and the UK, digging up rare photos, little-known anecdotes, correspondence, and the like, she also has a tendency towards literary and journalistic casualness that would be more at home in glossy supermarket tabloids than a hardcover biography of one of 20th-century literature’s most influential contributors.

Chandler was a private and obsessive man, and he destroyed most of his personal letters concerning Cissy after her death in 1954. But that’s no excuse for Freeman’s sometimes-fanciful speculations. The book is riddled with phrases like “could have,” “probably,” “possibly,” and even “I’d like to think.”

Was he gay? With whom did he cheat on Cissy? Did he have a leg fetish? A thing about his mother? Freeman’s ponderings are all the more frustrating, because she seems content simply to raise the questions; her interest appears to dissipate the moment the subjects are broached.

And she continually refers to Chandler as “Ray.” I’m not sure the proper, perpetually formal man in the bowtie, who once wrote “his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry,” would allow a biographer so intent on plowing through his past for dirty linen such familiarity.

Treat him as a proud man? At times she treats Chandler in these pages like he’s Britney Spears.

Fair enough, I suppose--everyone’s entitled to their opinions and maybe even their speculations in a non-fiction work. But Freeman does herself no favors by also allowing sloppiness into this book. Photos, for example, are miscredited in the back of the volume, instead of being labeled clearly where they appear within the text. And Terry Lennox was not a character in The Big Sleep (1939). She pointedly claims that the novel Farewell, My Lovely (1940) was filmed three times, then only discusses two versions--making us suspect she doesn’t know how to count (it was in fact filmed three times; the first version was a quickie adaptation tailored to fit RKO’s popular Falcon B-movie franchise), but it’s still jarring. And when a work of non-fiction has such obvious errors, a reader can’t help but wonder what else he or she is missing that’s also incorrect. An errant typo or two (“to the manner born”) doesn’t help.

Even more disconcerting, though, is Freeman’s attempt to insert herself into the story at every turn. Sometimes this meta, oh-so-Pomo approach works, but too often it doesn’t. The author devotes almost as much energy to telling us about the writing of the book as she does telling us about Chandler himself. A pattern emerges: she visits one of Chandler’s old haunts; may or may not get out of her car; snaps a few pictures; laments that Chandler’s City of Angels (and even hers) is gone; recounts (or speculates upon) what was happening in Chandler and Cissy’s life when they lived there; speculates a little more; and then goes off on all sorts of personal tangents, opinions, and the like about the city and how it has--or hasn’t--changed. Her cursory and lopsided retelling of recent and not-so-recent controversies (such as the police shooting of a 13-year-old car thief and the Rampart Scandal) are so removed from most generally accepted accounts of the incidents that they verge on irresponsible--I wondered if she was trying to write about Chandler or incite another riot or two. Her point, as far as I can tell, is that Los Angeles has always had bad cops and corrupt politicians, but it makes you wonder if she’s ever read a newspaper.

It’s as if the bold, thick lines Judith Freeman attempts to draw between the dots of known fact are so heavy, they threaten to obliterate the dots themselves.

Still, despite her narrative and literary stumbles, this book is hard to resist and equally hard to put down; it’s even moving at times. As I said, not all her authorial intrusions fail, particularly her account of the sad last few years of Chandler’s life, as he succumbed to alcohol and grief following the death of his beloved Cissy. Those last years are related in conjunction with Freeman’s visits to Chandler’s last permanent address: the La Jolla, California, house that the restless Chandlers finally settled into, and where they lived together until Cissy finally passed away. It’s the same house in which a drunken Chandler, overcome with grief, eventually tried to kill himself. It was the only house they ever owned, a beautiful, expensive home overlooking the wild restless sea.

It is a frustrating glimpse of what this book could have been, less a dry recitation of biographical facts and gossip and a litany of houses that are no longer there, and more an attempt at actual emotional investment in the subject. By the time Freeman tracks down its location, the La Jolla house is slated for demolition and renovation. Desperate to preserve some sort of record of the residence where Chandlers spent their last years together, she gets permission from the owners to videotape the home before it’s demolished. The owners are absent, but their teenage daughter is home, watching television in her bedroom--which at one time served as Chandler’s study, the place where he wrote The Little Sister (1949), The Long Goodbye (1954), and Playback (1958).
She invited us in to look around. This of course was the room I wanted to see, the study in which Ray had worked. I had seen photographs of him taken in this room. I could recognize the windows, the place where his desk had sat...The girl on the bed snapped her gum lazily as we walked around, becoming self-conscious whenever the video camera was pointed in her direction. She said she had never heard of Raymond Chandler. In fact, she said, she didn't really much like to read (preferring) movies and video games.
It’s to cry.

Freeman, of course, never really nails down her subject, although she certainly tries to stir up the pot.

There’s a photograph included here, a snapshot taken by Chandler of his beloved Cissy walking along a path in the woods. By this point, Chandler is well into his 50s; Cissy is in her 70s and in poor--and rapidly declining--health.

It is, in fact, a real find, because so few photos of Cissy exist. But, perhaps predictably, her back is to the camera. Freeman confesses to studying the photo “for a long time, as if hoping she might suddenly turn around and look at me.”

Of course, Cissy never turns around. And neither does Chandler, really. It’s an apt metaphor for this book.

But I’ll confess right now, for the Chandler fanatic, that photo alone may be worth it.

NOTE: Click here to read the complete first chapter of Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin, nice review, thanks.

One minor confusion: did you mean that "to the manner born" is a typo? Because I believe that "to the manor born" is a play on the original (the original probably being Shakespeare.)

Laurie King

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Dang. you're right.

Evidently Hamlet says it to Polonius.

Ay, marry, is't:
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.

But there are still enough little speed bumps in The Long Embrace to give one pause. Terry Lennox in The Big Sleep? No.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review--I want to read this even more now.

The problem is the Frank McShane biography was so well researched that there isn't much left to say--for a writer so famous we really know very little about him. Hiney blew it I thought by being too certain on too little evidence so this sounds like an interesting effort if only for the angle. And now I desperately want to see that photo.