“Nature is commonplace. Imitation is more interesting.” (Gertrude Stein)

Last month Kaggsy wrote about enjoying Pistache by Sebastian Faulks. It sounded good fun, do head over to her Bookish Ramblings & read Kaggsy’s excellent review. In this year of my book buying ban (still in effect & being adhered to, much to my utter amazement) I’ve put my name on the waiting list for Pistache at the library, and managed to hunt down two pastiche novels in my TBR mountain.

When I was doing my English degree, there was much talk of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-lots of things I didn’t really grasp (which I would mention in essays hoping my tutors didn’t question me too closely on them – a flawed strategy as it turned out). How I wish I had read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy then, because he takes notions of post-whatever, such as the instability of meaning, the non-specificity of language, the fragmented self, and uses them to weave a fascinating pastiche of the hard-boiled detective novel. I realise I’m not doing him any favours in this summary but trust me, it does work.  It’s done in a humorous way, and there’s enough of a narrative to pull you along, although at times my brain hurt trying to think through all that Auster was discussing.

In the first story, City of Glass, Auster begins by questioning his role as author:

“ ‘Is this Paul Auster?’ asked the voice. ‘I would like to speak to Mr Paul Auster.’

‘There’s no-one here by that name.’

‘Paul Auster. Of the Auster detective agency.’

… ‘There’s nothing I can do for you,’ said Quinn. ‘There’s no Paul Auster here.’”

There is of course a ‘Paul Auster here’ – his name is on the cover – but exactly where is a matter of debate. Quinn, the writer in City of Glass, is mistaken for Paul Auster and finds himself impersonating a private eye:

“Private eye. The term held a triple meaning for Quinn. Not only was it the letter ‘i’, standing for investigator, it was ‘I’ in the upper case, the tiny life-bud buried in the body of the breathing self. At the same time, it was the physical eye of the writer, the eye of the man who looks out from himself into the world and demands that the world reveal itself to him. For five years now, Quinn had been living in the grip of this pun.”

So, multiple identities, multiple meanings, utter confusion. Quinn locates the man he has been asked to find, someone who spends his days wandering the streets, picking up junk and re-naming things:

“I have come to New York because it is the most forlorn of places, the most abject. The brokenness is everywhere, the disarray is universal. You only have to open your eyes to see it. The broken people, the broken things, the broken thoughts….I find the streets an endless source of material, an inexhaustible storehouse of shattered things”

Throughout this and the two stories that follow, Ghosts and The Locked Room, Auster explores how people are ‘shattered things’, how easily identity and the language used to construct it fall apart. For him, unsurprisingly, this is all bound up in the storyteller’s art:

“We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person inside the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another – for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.”

The trilogy was originally released separately but I think it works best read together. The stories interweave and reflect each other, and so build on the sense of a ‘fractured whole’ being reflected in the structure of the book we hold in our hands. It may be that “these three stories are finally the same story”, but they are different enough to enrich each other and at no time did I feel my attention wavering. It’s a great achievement: stories that deconstruct the very thing they are made out of – language – and yet still hold together.

“Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible. It is odd then, that the feeling that survives from this notebook is one of great lucidity.”

Secondly, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (2007), an alternative history detective novel. Chabon takes the idea that a settlement for Jewish refugees is provided in Alaska during the Second World War (an idea was proposed but rejected in 1940) and this has developed into the metropolis of Sitka. Policing this city is Meyer Landsman:

“According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead.”

The first of those two moods is under threat: Sitka is going to become part of the USA again and no-one is sure what will happen when it does but they’re fairly sure it won’t be good (reading this in post-Brexit Britain, it took on a whole new resonance):

“On the first of January, sovereignty over the whole Federal District of Sitka, a crooked parenthesis of rocky shoreline running along the western edges of Baranof and Chichagof islands, with revert to Alaska. The District Police, to which Landsman has devoted his hide, head, and soul for twenty years, will be dissolved. It is far from clear that Landsman or Berko Shemets or anybody else will be keeping his job. Nothing is clear about the upcoming Reversion and that is why these are strange times to be a Jew.”

“Strange times to be a Jew” is a recurring refrain throughout the novel. Landsman lives in a seedy hotel and is investigating the murder of fellow resident Mendel Shpilman. Spilman was a drug addict and also the son of the most powerful organised crime boss and local rebbe, from whom he was estranged. As he undertakes the investigation Landsman manages to annoy absolutely everyone, from the powerful crimelords to his ex-wife and boss, Bina. Chabon has fun with the form, but doesn’t go overboard on the pastiche of hardboiled crime. He employs colourful turns of phrase:

“The space recently occupied by his mind hisses like the fog in his ears, hums like a bank of fluorescent tubes. He feels he suffers from tinnitus of the soul.”

But The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is always its own story and not a gimmick-laden creative writing exercise. Chabon is exploring ideas of identity, home, belonging and justice alongside an appreciation for Raymond Chandler.

“For the first time the traditional complaint, tantamount to a creed or philosophy, of the Sitka Jew – Nobody gives a damn about us, stuck up here between Hoonah and Hotzeplotz – strikes Landsman as having been a blessing these past sixty years, and not the affliction they had all, in their backwater of geography and history, supposed.”

I don’t rate this quite as highly as other novels by Chabon that I’ve read – it was a bit overlong and I think it could have been 100 pages lighter, but still an ambitious and interesting work and I’m glad to have novelists like Chabon are around, attempting to do something different.

To end, trying to come up with a pastiche song that’s bearable was a tough call. In the end I chose The Divine Comedy, who offer pastiche of several things all at once. I opted for Something for the Weekend as I think it references Cold Comfort Farm with the repeated reference to ‘something in the woodshed’ and so is the obvious choice for a book blog:

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #96)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

Now that I have some of my life back after a period where I was deranged enough to both work and study full-time (what was I thinking???? etc etc ad infinitum) I’ve decided I need to get back on track with my reading challenge, and I’m easing myself in with the slim novel The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep is the first of Chandler’s novels, and the first I’ve read. It’s a mark of how far his style and the hardboiled detectives he created have become assimilated into modern culture that I could hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice in my head reading every word:

Having finished the novel it’s a source of constant disappointment to me that I don’t have Bogie’s voice in my head narrating my daily life, although admittedly if he did turn up he’d probably leave out of utter boredom:

“I walked to the kitchen. A cat appeared from nowhere, making his disgust at the lack of crunchies in his bowl known.  I poured a cup of tea. The kettle needed descaling but I couldn’t be bothered. I was out of milk. I debated whether to drink it black or go to the shop. The tea in the cup was as dark as the night outside. As dark as my soul. I put on my coat, knowing the wind outside would be colder than the welcome awaiting my return if the cat bowl remained empty.”

Hmm, it’s not really working, is it? Let’s see it done properly, with tales of blackmail, murder, riches and glamour in Los Angeles, rather than domestic banalities in south London. Private eye Philip Marlowe is summoned by the affluent and moribund General Sternwood:

“His long narrow body was wrapped – in that heat – in a travelling rug and a faded red bathrobe. His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. 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 showgirl uses her last pair of good stockings.”

This is the real joy of Chandler, his much-parodied use of simile, inventive and atmospheric. The images he uses accentuate the world-weary knowingness of Marlowe: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” but I must confess that my sheltered existence meant I didn’t always understand all of them: “Her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust”. Whaaat? Anyone?

As Marlowe investigates the blackmail case the General has employed him to uncover, he is drawn into the seedy underbelly (I think the phrase ‘seedy underbelly’ was probably coined to describe Chandler’s oeuvre) of Los Angeles – “It seemed like a nice neighbourhood to have bad habits in”– pornography, drugs, murder, and of course, sexy ladies at every turn:

“She got up slowly and swayed towards me in a tight black dress that didn’t reflect any light. She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores.”

The plot is convoluted, with everyone double-crossing everyone else and Marlowe at the centre of it all, trying to hang on to some sort moral compass:

 “I got up feeling sluggish and tired and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets.”

He is compelling narrator, wise, brave and so much cooler than probably any of his readers (definitely me, as much as I wish I looked like this):


This is a novel to accept on its own terms – one where atmosphere and style top anything else.  Famously, director Howard Hawks queried a plot-hole with Chandler when he was filming The Big Sleep. Chandler confirmed he had no idea as to the answer.  But for escapist entertainment, a quick read with a confident narrative voice (Humphrey Bogart’s to be precise), The Big Sleep is a great example of the hard-boiled genre.

“The coffee shop smell from next door came in at the windows with the soot but failed to make me hungry. So I got out my office bottle and took the drink and let my self-respect ride its own race.”

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