Chiasmus: ivory, white, and the dynamics of description in Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”. Recipe included: how to build your own chiasmus.
The American hard-boiled crime genre of the mid-twentieth century threw up at least three models for the private detective: Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. Of those, only in Marlowe do I find an unabashed ear for the poetic and the elegantly humorous. And only in Chandler’s writing an unapologetic use of rhetorical figures to achieve both ends.
Quote: The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the windows. The white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out.
On how to give a protagonist attitude: Raymond Chandler writes it into Marlowe’s interior monologue at the beginning of “The Big Sleep”.
If the back-cover blurb is a book’s CV, then the opening lines of a book are the opening lines of its job interview. Whether the book stays with you is likely to depend on your first impression.
Exceptions abound, as exceptions do—but not in today’s Quote.
The opening sentence of Raymond Chandler‘s novel The Big Sleep (the book that introduces his protagonist, private detective Philip Marlowe), concerns the time of day, the month, and the weather.
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.
We cut him some slack, because it was 1939, and you were still allowed to start a page-turning crime novel with the weather and skip the action for a whole 140+4 characters; even today’s readers can get as far as the length of a tweet and still be interested in the text that’s on the accompanying picture. (Also, according to The Guardian, that first line could have been one of Fitzgerald’s, so that’s alright.) The next few sentences of The Big Sleep are given in the Quote.
Quote: I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Most good books will start touting their wares as soon as possible, if not in the first line and not in an obvious fashion, then soon and subtly. Which part of the Quote caught your attention?
Quinn’s book is a short, gently humorous introduction to figures of speech with plenty of examples. (At their simplest, figures of speech are a form of speech artfully varied from common usage.) My eye caught on the metaphor in the Quote, as it felt fresh and apt, in a heartwarming way despite the mention of flesh.
John Banville in “Mefisto” describes a scene without verbs, masterfully. E. B. White would have had something to add to that.
Here is John Banville in Mefistodescribing a hospital setting. Read the Quote, then see if you can count the conjunctions and main verbs in each sentence—it’s easy, very easy. (Answer below.)
Sighs, groans. Shouts in the night. An old man puking up gouts of green stuff, leaning over the side of the bed, a young nurse holding his forehead. Slow, wet, coughs, like the noise of defective suction pumps ponderously labouring. In the huge, white-tiled bathrooms, little labels exhorting patients not to spit in the handbasins. Everywhere the same thick cream paint, smooth as enamel, clammy as skin. I wore a mouse-colour dressing-gown with faded red piping.
What makes the Quote quiver?
This may not be the most pleasant scene to paint, but it is well-painted. A lot of figures went into making it flow smoothly, but one particular figure is at the core: scesis onomaton, which means the relation of words, and it has something to do with verbs. How many verbs did you count in the Quote?
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeby Mark Haddon is a curious book indeed. It is written from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher who is good at mathematics, likes red things, but not brown, and has a photographic memory. However, he does not understand human emotions and can relate to other people only intellectually.
Christopher has Asperger Syndrome.
The book is insightful and well-written. I spent most of the time marvelling at a mind that could function just so.
Today’s Quote from The Curious Incident illustrates how an important and basic figure of speech can be employed to achieve a flow-of-experience impression.
(Ready Brek, Coco-Pops, and Shreddies are cereals, Dr Pepper is a carbonated soft drink—that’s for all of you, who like me, need to look up these things.)
Quote: For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milkshake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea I start thinking about Coco-Pops and lemonade and porridge and Dr Pepper and how I wasn’t eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room and Father wasn’t wearing a diving suit and so and even writing this makes me feel shaky and scared, like I do when I’m standing on the top of a very tall building and there are thousands of houses and cars and people below me and my head is so full of all the things that I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to stand up straight and hang onto the rail and I’m going to fall over and be killed.
Did you spot any metaphors? No? That’s because Christopher struggles with metaphors and hypotheticals and lies in general (although he did manage a simile). A little way down from the Quote he says as much.
This is another reason why I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.
And this is why everything I have written here is true.
Of course, the irony is that The Curious Incident is fiction, and not the diary of a real person. (But given that Christopher’s character is build around his inability to lie, it feels sneaky realising his statement can’t be true. Then you get into whether fiction is real, and if it is, in which way, and … you might get a headache thinking about it and hit a few paradoxes.)
What makes the Quote quiver?
Narrating unconnected thoughts and experiences sequentially without pause and punctuation, thereby creating the illusion of connectedness.
This could be said of most aspects of our lives, not just writing. Even the tiniest experiences can be mined for gems and insights. A paragraph down, Bradbury elaborates.
From now on I hope always to stay alert, to educated myself as best I can. But, lacking this in future I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it had observed when I thought I was sitting this one out.
We never sit anything out.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.
The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.
On repetition, redundancy, conveyed information, and emotional impact in paragraphs. Example from Bukowski.
Scream When You Burn.
If that were a writing prompt for a short story exercise, what would you write?
As it happens, Bukowski already wrote a short story with that title. While preparing Monday’s post featuring a dialogue sample from his Hot Water Music, I came across an excerptthat I’d highlighted in his Scream When You Burn. I thought the excerpt overwritten, and had marked it for analysis; I cite it below, as today’s Quote.
My impressions was that itrepeated sentiments, and that not all the sentence were needed to retain meaning and impact. Take a look. What, if anything, do you think is redundant in the Quote?
The Quote also explains the title of his story—if you’d thought of your own story idea to match the prompt, you can compare how he justifies the title with how you would do it.
He picked up Camus’ Resistance, Rebellion and Death…read some pages. Camus talked about anguish and terror and the miserable condition of Man but he talked about it in such a comfortable and flowery way…his language…that one got the feeling that things neither affected him nor his writing. In other words, things might as well have been fine. Camus wrote like a man who had just finished a large dinner of steak and French fries, salad, and had topped it with a bottle of good French wine. Humanity may have been suffering but not him. A wise man, perhaps, but Henry preferred somebody who screamed when they burned.
(The ellipses in the Quoteare present in the original text; I have not omitted anything.)
Here is Charles Bukowski in his short story collection Hot Water Music. If you naturally skim-read, I recommend slowing down and reading the following dialogue at as close to speech-speed as you can (out loud would be even better).
Back at the Red Peacock Louie went to his favourite stool and sat down. The barkeep walked up.
“Well, Louie, how did you make out?
“With the lady.”
“With the lady?”
“You left together, man. Did you get her?”
“No, not really …”
“What went wrong?”
“What went wrong?”
“Yes, what went wrong?”
“Give me a whiskey sour, Billy.”
Did you notice a difference between how you pronounced the two versions of What went wrong?
What makes the Quote quiver?
Repetition with different emphasis and raw dialogue, unencumbered by sophisticated descriptions.
On E. B. White’s “Style is an increment in writing”, and on Bukowski’s short poem “Style”.
Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzegerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use language, reveal something of their spirit, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito. — E. B. White, An Approach to Style in Strunk & White
White puts it so plainly, so delicately. Only skilled writers show theirspirit, their capacities, their biases because their expressive medium is no longer cluttered by ungainly turns of phrase and forced plot devices. Don’t his words make you want to reach that increment in writing where you too have style? (Not to say that you don’t already.)
White also reaffirms that hiding behind words is not possible: the better you write, the more each word says about who you are.
Perhaps I will now commit sacrilege—if so, please avert your eyes and ears, and click away—by placing alongside one of the most timid and decorous writers, E. B. White, the complete opposite: one of the most brash and indecorous men, Charles Bukowski.
Three is the most common number or repetitions, and we’ll see an instance thereof in the Quote.
More than three sounds weird in most places, unless it’s poetry. Here’s Edgar Allan Poe in The Bellswith two instances of epizeuxis:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
That’s seven bells!
Actually, it is possible to get away with extreme epizeuxis in prose, and in a short story at that. Here’s Hemingway in Hills Like White Elephants.
‘I’d do anything for you.’
‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’
If you ever encounter a sensible take on a more numerous epizeuxis, do let me know! (I note that Wikipedia cites Monty Python’s Flying Circus: I’ll have your Spam. I love it. I’m having Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam. But I reckon the baked beans spoils the deal, and it’s still only a seven-fold repetition.)
On teasing (asteismus) and on the hearing-unhearing boundary in Mark Medoff’s play “Children of a Lesser God”. Also, James Bond loves asteismus.
Today’s Quote is from Mark Medoff’s play Children of a Lesser God (1979), a romantic comedy exploring the conflicts arising in the professional and personal relationship between a former student, Sarah Norman, and her teacher in a State School for the Deaf, James Leeds. He is thirty-ish, she is in her mid-twenties.James is enthusiastic about his job at the school and motivates his students to speak through humour and fun. Sarah is deaf from birth, and she refuses to learn lip-reading, let alone to try learning how to speak; she communicates exclusively using Sign Language.
Prior to the Quote, James and Sarah have been going back and forth, between jokes and misunderstanding. He isn’t as good at signing as she is, nor is he as quick. She obstinately refuses to acknowledge any of his humour, and mocks his attempts to communicate with her.
It is assumed the average theater-goer doesn’t know Sign Language, therefore James vocalises Sarah’s lines for the audience; he signs and speaks his own words simultaneously. (I have inserted square brackets into the text to help remind you, as you read, that her words are not spoken but signed.)
SARAH. [Your timing is terrible and your signing is boring.]
JAMES. My timing is terrible and my signing is boring. If you could hear, you’d think I was a scream.
SARAH. [Why scream?]
JAMES. Not literally “scream.” That’s a hearing idiom.
SARAH. [But I’m deaf.]
JAMES. You’re deaf. I’ll try to remember that.
SARAH. [But you’ll keep forgetting.]
JAMES. I’ll keep forgetting. But you’ll keep reminding me.
SARAH. [But you’ll still forget.]
JAMES. I’ll still forget. But you’ll still remind me.
SARAH. [No. I’ll give up.]
JAMES. Maybe you won’t have to give up.
JAMES. Maybe I’ll remember.
SARAH. [I doubt it.]
JAMES. We’ll see.
In 1987, the play was made into a film of the same title starring Marlee Matlin as Sarah (she received an Oscar for the role) and William Hurt as James. If you’d like to get an idea of the dynamic—she signs, he repeats her line vocally, then he signs and speaks his lines—you could watch the first thirty seconds of the clip, up until he says “I’ll buy that”. Do not watch more, because it might ruin the film/play for you. (I couldn’t find a more appropriate clip, for example, one with the words from the quote, and I couldn’t truncate this video easily.)
Important point: In the instructions before the play the author insists that in any professional production of the play the role of Sarah and two other characters be performed by deaf or hearing impaired actors. (Indeed, Marlee Matlin has been deaf since she was 18 months old.) This is the reason I chose to discuss Children of a Lesser God; it may be a challenge for a play to explore the boundary of the hearing-unhearing world, but it can be done, with great success—a fact not so well-known, perhaps.
On the dangers of forming opinions based on one source, humorously put.
Where do opinions come from?
I won’t answer that (too complicated).
Is it responsible to form opinions based on fake news? What about news that is marketed as fake, also known as freshly published fiction?
I won’t answer that either (too political).
Let’s stay within the confines of the safe, if old-fashioned, world where books are a source of knowledge, information, and formative experiences.
What happens when you pick up a book about a topic you know nothing about?
That I will answer: you incorporate what you have just read into your general sense of the world. You might also make up your mind about the book, you may—gasp!—form an opinion about the chief topic discussed.
The opinion will be based on your experiences, your background, your imagination, your state of mind at the time, all as a reaction to the book.
On Oliver Sacks’s arguments in his essay “The Lost Virtues of the Asylum”.
I associate neurologist and author Oliver Sacks with serene-laughter. Don’t ask me to define the term. The best I can say is: look at the image of him that appears on the cover of his book Musicophilia.
I read his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat a long time ago, so I do not remember whether he employed magnificent figures of speech, or merely decent ones. But I do remember that his case-studies were not oppressive, despite the seriousness of the conditions he described. The New York Times called him the poet laureate of medicine for a reason.
Ideally, I would quote the introductory paragraphs here, then dissect their arguments below, but the post would become too cumbersome. Instead, I urge you to read the first few paragraphs of the NYR page to feel the power of his argument, before having me ruin its effect.
New York, September 1887. Twenty-three-year-old journalist, Nellie Bly (real name: Elizabeth Cochran Seaman) has agreed to go undercover in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum and write a report about her experiences for the New York World. After her employers promise that they will somehow get her out, she is left to find a way in. At the time, to be sent to an asylum, a judge had to declare you insane, after two physicians agreed you were of unsound mind. Nellie fears she cannot fool them.
Quote: But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.
On hyperbole and mental illness in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
A hyperbole is an exaggeration for emphasis or humour that beats you over the head with its meaning.
(Unless, like in the previous sentence, it’s been worn trite.)
Consider the following Quote taken from the first chapter of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). It describes the Big Nurse, Mrs Ratched, preparing to punish three black orderlies in the mental institution where she works. The narrative is provided by Ol’ Chief “Broom” Bromden, a huge half Indian, who has been a Chronic patient on her ward since the Second World War.
Quote: She goes into a crouch and advances on where they’re trapped in a huddle at the end of the corridor. … She’s going to tear the black bastards limb from lib, she’s so furious. She’s swelling up, swells till her back’s splitting out the white uniform and she’s let her arms section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times. … she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load.
Just when you think that’s it, you’re brought back to the image.
…all the patients start coming out of the dorms to check on what’s the hullabaloo, and she has to change back before she’s caught in the shape of her hideous real self.
After about two pages, you realise the language of the Quoteis there to stay. The psychedelic descriptions, as well as, the motif of size—whether of the nurse, of the narrator, or of any other patient—repeat throughout the book.
What makes the Quote quiver?
Unapologetic, prolonged exaggeration.
It swings the mood between hallucinogenic and macabre, showing the reader both the insanity of mental illness and the insanity of the proposed cure.