Refugees from the Past

James Meek

  • Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality by Fredric Jameson
    Verso, 87 pp, £12.99, July 2016, ISBN 978 1 78478 216 0

We think of immigration as a movement in space, from one country to another. In conventional terms, those who were born in the United States are American; those who were not are immigrants. They were born in another country, in another culture. They bring with them from their homeland certain habits and values, shared assumptions and common experiences – certain prejudices, perhaps. They face nativist hostility; a frequent bigotry is that they can be generalised about as if they were all the same. If they were born in the US to non-native parents, they are ‘second-generation immigrants’. They have lived an authentically American experience, yet they carry the memes of foreign culture learned on their mother’s knee, at their grandparents’ table on feast days, from the strange old books and ornaments brought from the old country. They know the words of old songs. It may even be that second-generation immigrants, feeling discriminated against, misunderstood and rejected by America, seek to immerse themselves in the culture and ideals of their parents’ homeland, fabricating a hybrid identity for themselves based on an acquired reality they have never actually lived through, debased, idealised and simplified from the original.

The same could be said of another set of immigrants: those who have made the journey through time rather than space. Just as America has never been ethnically more diverse, it has never been such a melting pot of ages. In the great cities and airports, in the suburbs and projects, among the young millennials who’ve never been anywhere but the present, you will see people in their nineties who have travelled to the second decade of the 21st century from a strange, faraway land, the America of the 1920s. Millions of Americans – some of them never having changed their spatial addresses – have survived a long and perhaps difficult journey to modern America from their birth-time in the America of the 1930s and 1940s.

If spatial immigrants find it hard to assimilate, they feel rejected, whereas temporal immigrants feel usurped. For spatial immigrants, the old country is thousands of miles away in another place, whereas for temporal immigrants, the old country is right there, buried under the new one, and they have no way of digging it out, except through revolution, or the ballot box, or, if the right guy should come along, a revolution and an election at the same time.

The journey from the mid-20th century to now was slow, imperceptibly slow; there is no Ellis Island on the way from youth to old age, no Rio Grande. If you were born in the America of 1926, how many Americas have you lived in? Two? Three? In such a socially and technologically dynamic society as America’s, it seems inevitable that a form of passage closely related to the immigrant experience occurs; and that some children and grandchildren of temporal immigrants from the 1940s, like second and third-generation spatial immigrants, have an idealised, simplified identification with that era, acquired not at first hand, but from their parents and grandparents’ songs and stories of the old country, and from fake nostalgia, a kind of temporal patriotism, fed by cultural products like old movies, which we can’t help seeing as a ‘real’ portrayal of their time.

The six novels Raymond Chandler wrote between 1939 and 1953 featuring the Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe, and the best-known film adaptation of any of them, the 1946 movie of the first book, The Big Sleep, have helped to shape the perception of what America was like in the 1940s and early 1950s. The film is dark and menacing – Fredric Jameson writes that Humphrey Bogart, who plays Marlowe, ‘is distinguished from the other stars of his period in that he is able to show fear’ – but also glamorous, romantic and politically safe. The novels, still widely read yet less influential in popular culture than that one film, are different. In their relative unfamiliarity we may find it easier to distinguish the melodramatic and the exaggerated from glimpses of the actual era. They portray mid-century America as a place it seems anyone would seek to emigrate from, or hope to grow out of: mean, vicious, violent, corrupt, cynical, up to its eyeballs in alcohol, motivated by primal lusts and rigidly divided by wealth and by an ugly set of racial and gender codes.

In order for a character’s personhood, their human individuality, to be foregrounded in these novels, they must be white and have a surname that is either Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Scandinavian or Celtic: Marlowe, Riordan, Sternwood, Ohls, Morgan, Conquest, Potter, Petersen, Haviland. A small number of characters with names that are vaguely Euro-Catholic are grudgingly brought into individual focus: Canino, Brunette, Florian, Menendez, Agostino, Vannier, Palermo, Degarmo. Otherwise, a person is a member of another race before they are a person:

The fat greasy sensual Jew with the tall stately bored showgirl … A tall handsome white-haired Jew … The fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess … An old Jew in a tall black skull cap … a big burly Jew with a Hitler moustache … He had just grinned at me with his wise Jew face … a group of negroes chanted and chattered … Heads turned slowly and the eyes in them glistened and stared in the dead alien silence of another race … Hooey Phooey Sing – Long Sing Tung, that kind of place, where a nice-mannered Jap hisses at you … I saw a Jap gardener at work weeding a huge lawn. He was pulling a piece of weed out of the vast velvet expanse and sneering at it the way Jap gardeners do … He had a sort of dry musty smell, like a fairly clean Chinaman.

There aren’t female characters in Chandler so much as hair colours: blondes, non-blonde women young enough for Marlowe to feel obliged to assess their attractiveness, and beings of indeterminate hair colour, a sign of their transition from one of the sexually available genders – blonde, brunette, redhead – to a space defined as beyond gender, old age, like Jesse Florian in Farewell, My Lovely, who ‘had weedy hair of that vague colour which is neither brown nor blonde, that hasn’t enough life in it to be ginger, and isn’t clean enough to be grey’.

When Marlowe meets the journalist Anne Riordan, the nearest Chandler comes to creating a female character not entirely defined by her relationship to men, the first thing he says by way of conversation is to tell her what colour her hair is. ‘Your hair’s red,’ he says. ‘There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays,’ Marlowe muses in The Long Good-Bye. ‘All blondes have their points …’ He enumerates a detailed taxonomy of blondes in order to point out that Eileen Wade, whom he’s ogling in a ritzy bar, is a hair-being of a higher order. ‘Her hair,’ he has already noted, ‘was the pale gold of a fairy princess.’ In The Big Sleep, Marlowe visits the Missing Persons Bureau to scope the files on a missing couple, the ex-IRA freebooter Rusty Regan and his lover, the wife of the racketeer Eddie Mars. In the course of a seven-page chapter, she is referred to as ‘blonde wife … Mrs Mars … wife … frau … blonde … girl … torcher … vague blonde … blonde’. It’s not until 140 pages later that we find out she has a name of her own: Mona.

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[*] A seventh Marlowe novel, Playback, based on an unproduced screenplay, appeared in 1958. At the time of his death the following year from an alcohol-related illness, Chandler had written the first four chapters of an eighth, The Poodle Springs Story.