Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Rachel Watson reviews Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality

Fredric Jameson. Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality. London: Verso, 2016. 96 pp. 

Review by Rachel Watson     

Revised out of older essays, the three slim chapters that make up Fredric Jameson’s consideration of Raymond Chandler’s fiction have the feel, on first read, of a series of high level forays into potentially productive lines of analysis. There is a brilliant, meandering quality to the first two chapters, and reading them one gets the sense that—to paraphrase a comment Leslie Fiedler made regarding the pattern of his own work—a funny thing happened to Frederic Jameson on his way through The Big Sleep.

For a fan of the formal and philosophical significance of American crime/detective fiction, The Detections of Totality is a rigorous and exciting read; for someone looking for historicist insight into Chandler’s rich and bizarre work, it might be disappointing. Or irritating. Despite his repeated interest in tracking the “typological systems” upon which Chandler’s narrative worlds depend, Jameson repeatedly relegates Chandler’s deployment of women and nonwhite characters to parenthetical asides—despite Chandler’s conspicuous obsession with reifying stereotypes around both. (One such aside in Chapter 3 even takes uncritical recourse to the phrase “politically correct,” as dismissive a term as we’ve got when it comes to implying the irrelevance of such matters.) A reader less familiar with Chandler might get the mistaken impression that his fictional universe is not, in fact, obsessed with women: identifying them, capturing them, bedding them, controlling them, beating them, selling them, photographing them, avoiding them, instrumentalizing them, manipulating them, assessing them, pacifying them, observing them, missing them. Considering Jameson’s interest in scopic fantasies and commodity fetishism in Chapter 1, it is surprising that he would not see more analytical value in the living objects of Chandler’s relentlessly inhuman women. One could say that it makes a certain sense for him as a Marxist critic to be less interested in “identitarian” critique, but the way he diminishes its thematic presence in Chandler’s work suggests instead a narrow view of the textual evidence that might illuminate his own insights, particularly regarding what he calls the “aesthetic deception” that characterizes Chandler’s ultimate withholding of meaning, or the “empty” functioning of intellectual desire (p. 28).

Otherwise, the first two chapters offer theoretically dense and intellectually exciting formal assessments of Chandler’s work as a whole. The structure, however, is dizzying; at times it seems as if each paragraph opens a new door of analytical suggestion and possibility. In the simplest terms, the first chapter concerns the narrative/detective gaze and its endless attention to social types and material objects; the second chapter concerns the systematization of various kinds of space, both natural (for example, the sky, as understood through the weather) and artificial (for example, offices and dwelling places), and their relationship to political economy. The third and final chapter aims to bring the accumulated analytical evidence into synthesis with a consideration of the aspect of Chandler’s work for which he is most famous, and which gives his readers the most pleasure: his prose style, particularly his unmatched use of what Jameson calls the “outrageous simile.” Jameson’s analysis of Chandler’s formal relationship to the realist detail here is one of the more illuminating and elegantly written considerations in a book that suffers at times from an opacity that can feel unwarranted.

This final chapter also takes an unexpectedly metaphysical turn. Beginning with a startling, and persuasive, reading of “the enlarged figurative category of the office” (p. 69) as a space into which all other “dwelling spaces” are subsumed, along with their associated individual people, the chapter then moves quickly into the book’s key claim: that the various Chandlerian “systems” Jameson has identified in the preceding analysis “find articulation” in Heidegger’s theory of the work of art, specifically in its capacity to both emerge from and live within the “rift” between the dimensions of World and Earth. Jameson recasts these dimensions as “History, or the social project on the one hand, and Nature or matter on the other,” the cleaving of which produces a “gap” which cannot be resolved, but must be accepted and “lived in” as such:

the implication that we all live in both dimensions at once, in some irreconcilable simultaneity, at all moments both in History and in Matter, at one and the same time historical beings and ‘natural’ ones, living simultaneously in the meaning-endowment of the historical project and in the meaninglessness of organic life. . . . The function of the work of art is then to open a space in which we are ourselves called upon to live within this tension and to affirm its reality. . . . Chandler’s novels seem to me extremely suggestive for precisely this task. [Pp. 77-78]

Jameson insists on this “unresolvable tension,” which must not be “theorized away,” but rather “held open” in a state of “blinding simultaneity” (pp. 80-81). Here, Chandler’s work exemplifies literary art operating at its highest capacity, engendering for readers what amounts to a spiritual ethic—a practice of balancing in the void. In other words, for Jameson the artistic accomplishment of Chandler’s work appears to be its formal evocation of the big sleep itself: “I claim, indeed, that it is this opening onto the not-World, onto its edge and its end, in the void, in non-human space, in death, that is the ultimate secret of Chandlerian narrative” (p. 86).

Here, the book’s conclusion appears to offer a solution to the rudderless accumulation of analytical evidence in the first two chapters; though writing about Chandler, Jameson might be talking about his own book in the penultimate paragraph:

From the point of view of abstract curiosity we might expect the reader to have a reaction not altogether unmixed: satisfaction at the solution of a puzzle, irritation at having been misled through so much extraneous material which had no real bearing on it. And on the aesthetic level the irritation remains, but transfigured. [Pp. 86-87]

We then realize that over the preceding eighty-five pages Jameson has taken us unwitting through a critical iteration of the Chandlerian “typology” itself, where the multiple, elaborate analytical threads hardly resolve themselves into a bow, but nonetheless give the impression of meaningfulness by virtue of our simple act of being suspended within them. In the final paragraph, we learn that for Jameson the hovering “totality” detected in Chandler’s work is nothing less than an ongoing encounter with mortality itself:

And all our formal distraction at last serves its fundamental purpose: by diverting us with the ritual generic aim of the detection of the criminal and of his transformation into the Other, it is able to bring us up short, without warning, against the reality of death itself, stale death, reaching out to remind the living of its own moldering resting place. [P. 87]

A pretty dark ending to a work of literary criticism. But one of which even a jargon-averse Philip Marlowe might approve—though with an added nostalgia for the figure of the object-woman who never reappears:

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. . . . On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.”[1]


[1] Concluding passage of The Big Sleep; Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely (New York, 1995), pp. 230-31.