Columns > Published on August 2nd, 2012

Your Favorite Book Sucks: 'The Big Sleep'

'Your Favorite Book Sucks' is an ongoing column, written by different people, that takes a classic or popular book and argues why it isn't really all that great. Confrontational, to be sure, but it's all in good fun, so please play nice.

I admit nothing, because I committed no crime.

It’s not a crime to fail – no, excuse me – to refuse to finish a book, especially when the refusal is beyond your control. The Big Sleep is certainly accurately titled; I’ve tried three times to get through it, and all three times I’ve made it to page 9 or 10 before diving into the sweet, welcoming arms of Morpheus. The title should  be The Big Snooze. My God, what a bore! I am perfectly willing to state that the diatribe you are currently reading is based on precisely 4.629629% of the bore in question.

How is it possible to turn a story about a nutty and decrepit millionaire in a wheelchair, his two psychopathic daughters, and murders galore into the dullest book this side of Pat Boone’s A Miracle a Day Keeps the Devil Away? First, the writer must be a raging alcoholic. Chandler fit that bill perfectly. It is Raymond Chandler above all who is responsible for the absurd idea that sitting down with a typewriter and a bottle of booze is the key to a productive writing life. He turned shit out, all right. But it was just that – shit. The Big Sleep’s first 10 pages are so disjointed and unintelligible that one is forced to fight his or her way from sentence to sentence, just to make sense of each one separately. Attempting to link them logically is impossible.

The first sentence is pure nonsense:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

There are several outstanding idiocies in this single opening sentence alone:

First of all, rain is always wet. That is its nature. Rain is never, ever dry. To say that the rain in the foothills was wet is beyond idiotic; it’s insulting.

But let’s ignore this particular aspect of the earth's natural phenomena and go along with the preposterous idea that this particular rain was unusual in that it was wet and deserved to be described as such by Chandler. All right, then: how can the foothills, drenched with this “hard” (and wet) rain, possibly be characterized by their “clearness,” especially if the sun was “not shining”? When it rains “hard” (and wet), it is generally not clear outdoors. In fact, in my 55 years on the planet I cannot recall a single instance when it was raining hard (and wet) and the sun wasn’t shining and yet it remained clear. What Chandler is describing is an insane deceit, a drunken writer’s stupid invention, a sentence written by a fool for a fool, for only a fool could get past it without questioning whether the author was actually presenting an especially broad parody of rotten writing.

Take this stupid sentence from page 3:

She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.

May I ask the pedantic question first? Why does the comma between “mouth” and “and” have to go missing? Philip Marlowe should have spent the morning looking for it instead of driving to the creepy mansion in which the first chapter takes place. Removing commas is the hack’s solution to faking style. You want to be known for your literary flair? Just fuck with the punctuation.

Now for the truly egregious part of the sentence: Have any of you ever attempted to smile with your navel? Your knee? Your toenails or elbows? Humans invariably smile with their mouths. That’s part of the definition of what a smile is: to produce an expression of pleasure with the mouth. To write that this woman “smiled with her mouth” is so thunderingly redundant, so profoundly dumb, that by this point the reader has become certain that this novel is actually a full-fledged put on, the result of some sort of bet placed at Chasen’s or the Brown Derby that Chandler could write a novel of blatant inanity and nobody would notice.

I’ll acknowledge that “as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain” isn’t bad, though this sort of showy concoction is exactly the kind of steely-sounding descriptions, the immense slag heap of metaphors, on which Chandler’s reputation rests. But he sure piles them on. And on and on and on: 

"Plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.”

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

“The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.”

“The butler came along the red path with smooth light steps and his back as straight as an ironing board.”

They’re all terribly, terribly clever, these tough-sounding figures that Chandler has devised to prove that he’s writing real literature, not forgettable pulp entertainment. They preen.

But they’re as convincing as a muscle-bound short-stuff at Venice Beach showing off his six pack to some dame from Duluth, who’s too cornfed to know that the acne that arcs across his bullish back like the constellation Orion hurled willy-nilly with the Pleiades proves that his Herculean abs are cut from steroids and that below his Speedos is a tiny nothing resting on two undersized marbles, a set that might make her laugh if she wasn’t so damn horny and let down.

See? It’s easy.

The film, on the other hand...

There’s a funny story, quite possibly true, about Howard Hawks’s brilliant filming of The Big Sleep (1946): Humphrey Bogart, who played  Marlowe, couldn’t figure out who was supposed to have murdered one of the characters. Hawks confessed that he had no idea either, so they asked the question in a telegram to Chandler. Chandler’s inane reply: “I don’t know.”

This lack of resolution works spectacularly well in the film, which isn’t about Chandler’s investigation at all but rather a descent into meaninglessness, a voyage into nihilism; Hawks’s worldview is often frightening and dark, even in his comedies. I Was a Male War Bride (1949) - a comedy - is one of the most brutal films I’ve ever seen in any genre.

It doesn’t matter who killed whom in the movie; in fact, that’s pretty much Hawks's point. There’s a pervasive senselessness surrounding Bogie and his costar Lauren Bacall, and it’s exceptionally effective. It's genuine film noir, and it's stood the test of time.

The book, however, takes itself most seriously as a murder mystery, or a series-of-murders mystery. And the author still wasn't competent enough to know who one of the killers was. Hawks and his screenwriters (William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett) were exploring a hostile cosmos. Despite his all-too-desperate literary pretensions, Chandler was stuck on the plane of pulp, and he couldn’t even pull that off.

The real mystery to me is why anybody reads this piece of crap at all.

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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