Monday, February 19, 2007

The Big Sleep

We're reading Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939) now--one of the great hardboiled novels set in Los Angeles. It shares that "trouble in paradise" quality with other major California books of that year, including John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, John Fante's Ask the Dust, and Carey McWilliams's (nonfiction) Factories in the Field.

The Big Sleep is long on LA corruption. Just months before the book appeared, cops were bombing the homes and cars of local reformers, and voters recalled Mayor Shaw. Also, some juicy labor racketeering in Hollywood was coming to light during this time--partly due to McWilliams's efforts.

"This is a big city now," a cop tells Chandler's hero, Philip Marlowe. Yes, indeed. And its problems no longer reduced to a single social conflict--for example, big business versus small landowners (The Octopus) or workers (The Grapes of Wrath), complete with good guys and bad guys. Chandler's Los Angeles is more about a constellation of vices--gambling, drugs, pornography, homosexuality, etc.--but the intricate plot mirrors the increased moral complexity Marlowe struggles with.

Chandler associates these vices with the Orient--lots of Asian art, clothes, etc. ornamenting the decadence Marlowe comes upon. This lays the groundwork for the Vietnam-era Chinatown, which turns those stereotypes inside out. But unless I miss my guess, students will be more alive to the similarities between The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski.

Thanks to Steve Rubio, who turned me on to The Big Sleep when we were graduate students at Berkeley.

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