Marlowe, sexuality, and mean streets
~~Moved from GR~~
Farewell, My Lovely
by Raymond Chandler
Like the other Marlowe books, Farewell, My Lovely helped to shape a genre that still pervades American culture. This one has the template for the PI-female-journalist-type teamup, the lazy cop who gets said PI to do all the dirty work, and the insouciant, backtalking, oft-punched, hardboiled PI. It also has that indescribable sense of isolation and loneliness, that of a solitary man walking upright down the dark streets, that I have never really encountered outside of Chandler's works.
However, this has got to be one of the most racist, sexist, and homophobic books out there. We start with Phillip Marlowe entering a segregated bar reserved for African-Americans. The first African-American we meet is described as "it"--apparently he doesn't even get to have a male pronoun. We also have a totally racist description of a smelly, pigion-English speaking Native American and a set of incredibly homophobic descriptions of a "handsome" man--although since there are theories that Chandler himself leaned a bit that way, it may be a bit of a reaction.
What I hate most is that the first murder--that of an African American--apparently doesn't count at all. This is stated explicitly throughout the book, and it's not just a comment on society; Marlowe himself appears equally dismissive. It is horrifying to read of such dehumanizing racism being treated as commonplace. It also has some of the most egregious bits of Marlowe's femme-fatale magnetism in the series:
"What's your name?"
etc. Interestingly, despite the (as always) female villains, femme fatales, and damsels in distress, this may have the closest the series has to an intelligent, almost equal female character. Ann Riordan plays girl friday to Marlowe--an assisting role--but she is obviously both intelligent and coolheaded. One of the reasons I like this one is that Marlowe is far more fallible than he was in Big Sleep. Oddly, he's apparently gotten handsomer--more people describe him as good-looking -- but he makes a bunch of idiotic mistakes, gets beaten up quite a bit, and gets hypnotized and given opium and scopolamine, with amusing results.
Chandler's descriptions of both men and women are physical and sensual: he takes note of smoothness of skin, tapered and beautiful fingers, color of eyes, rounded lips, etc of both men and women, and the physical closeness even during a struggle. Although Chandler is virulently homophobic, there is some school of thought (including some of his contemporaries and friends) who considered him to be a repressed homosexual.
Marlowe is really not at all like Humphrey Bogart. Marlowe's appearance is hypermasculine--6ft, dark, large-framed, and either quite muscular or kind of chunky--he's 190 lb. He is also quite taciturn; most of the sarcastic comments happen inside his head...until, of course, he's given scopolamine, when he starts talking quite a bit. Does this hypermasculinity, the tough guy attitude that pervades Marlowe's every action, stem from a desire to create a character who is indubitably heterosexual?
Some quotes that really make you wonder:
He held my gun in his delicate, lovely hand...He smiled, so beautifully....a
thin beautiful devil with my gun in his hand watching me and smiling.
His voice was soft, dreamy, so delicate for a big man that it was startling. It made me think of another soft-voiced big man I had strangely liked.
He had the eyes you never see, that you only read about. Violet eyes. Almost purple. Eyes like a girl, a lovely girl. His skin was soft as silk. Lightly reddened, but it would never tan. It was too delicate...I told him a great deal more than I intended to. It must have been his eyes.
Red leaned close to me and his breath tickled my ear...put his lips against my ear...took hold of my hand. His was strong, hard, warm and slightly sticky.
He was a dark, good-looking lad, with plenty of shoulders and shiny smooth hair and the peak on his rakish cap made a soft shadow over his eyes...His eyes gleamed like water...That put me about a foot from him. He had a nice breath.
He had a cat's smile, but I like cats...his eyes held a delicate menace...he had nice hands, not baby to the point of insipidity, but well-kept.
Perhaps this is the depth that Chandler brings to the novel: the unique loneliness he creates, that every other noir story has tried and failed to capture, is not just the loneliness of a bruised, broken, tarnished, but still chivalric knight walking the mean streets. It is also the unvoiced isolation of a man who cannot fit into his culture, who must keep himself under tight control and never allow his passions and his desire for intimacy to surface.
Perhaps it also explains the virulent sexism of the novels. All of the books have a female villain, a character that Marlowe sees initially as a damsel in distress and tries to protect, but who ends up revealing herself as an amoral femme fatale who breaks and discards the men around her like used paper cups. There is always a sense of deep betrayal, a sense that Marlowe has been personally let down by the women around him. This very sharp sense of aggrievedness might stem from Chandler's own sense of betrayal by the women of his world: they have failed to be as desirable as his illicit desire for men. As Marlowe notes in The Big Sleep:
"It's hard for women--even nice women--to realize that their bodies are not irresistible."
The book also has some examples of Chandler's genius with language:
Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
The room was as black as Carrie Nation's bonnet.
Darkness prowled slowly on the hills.
I used my knee on his face. It hurt my knee. He didn't tell me whether it hurt his face.
But the most intriguing question, to me at least: does the quintessentially "Hetero-He-Man" genre of detective noir owe its beginnings to the writings of a man struggling with his own sexuality?