Raymond Chandler vs. Nathanael West

Mid-century Los Angeles was a corrupting place. Prohibition (1920-1933) had made mafia bosses millionaires and an oil boom had brought all sorts of chancers to the quickly growing city. Coupled with people fleeing the Great Depression to seek their dreams in the movie business, you have a world of rapid rises and dramatic falls.

Two writers drawn into this web of desperation and deceit were Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and Nathanael West (1903-1940). The two men led quite similar lives. Both novelists had parents who were first-generation immigrants to the states: Chandler’s mother came from Ireland while West’s parents were Lithuanian. Both men moved to LA from other large cities: Chandler grew up in Chicago and London, while West was a New Yorker. Each man spent their younger years in Paris before taking up relatively humdrum occupations. Chandler worked as an oilman. West managed a small hotel. Eventually, their skill with the pen brought them to Hollywood, where they became successful screenwriters.

Cultural mores meant that the cinema of the time was a neutered beast where little of real life could be shown. Pumped out on a production line, the movie business would become the demise of many talented authors as their work was rewritten out of all recognition. To see LA as it really was, we have to turn to their novels.

The Day of the Locust (c) Penguin Design gray138

West’s classic is The Day of the Locust (1939). It is a dark, ambitious book. With its obsessive strangers living on the outskirts of society, it feels like a movie by David Lynch. As with Lynch’s films, women are the prime victim of much of the threat in the novel. The treatment of Faye Greener, an ambitious young starlet, is very disturbing indeed, especially when she moves in with a weird loner called Homer Simpson (yes, the inspiration for The Simpsons character).

Amidst the darkness, there is some superb prose:

But the going was heavy and the stones and sand moved under his feet. He fell prone with his face in a clump of wild mustard that smelled of the rain and the sun, clean, fresh and sharp. He rolled over on his back and stared up at the sky. The violent exercise had driven most of the heat out of his blood, but enough remained to make him tingle pleasantly.

Women also get a hard ride in Chandler’s stories featuring private eye Philip Marlowe. Like Faye Greener, they are usually femme fatales. However, the women that Marlowe encounters are rich, dangerous and occasionally murderous.

There is one other great threat in Chandler’s world: alcohol. Other than Marlowe, Chandler’s greatest creation is the alcoholic Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye (1953). A great lover of gimlets, Lennox becomes Marlowe’s drinking partner, even though Marlowe is not averse to giving him advice on how to go teetotal:

“It’s a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colours, a quieter lot of sounds. You have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know well will get to be just a little strange. You won’t even like most of them, and they won’t like you too well.”

“That wouldn’t be much of a change,” he said.

One other area of similarity is in their indifference to plotting. Perhaps in reaction to the strictures and rules of screenwriting, Chandler’s novels are peppered with dubious script devices. In The High Window, the entire plot revolves around the coincidence that a certain character has a camera ready at a certain time and in a certain place and, in the blink of an eye, took a compromising photograph. It’s utterly unbelievable but as it’s the pay-off to a beautifully written novel, the reader gives a shrug of the shoulders and moves on.

The High Window (c) Penguin Books Cover by Steven Marking

West is even more free-wheeling in The Day of the Locust. It’s a complex novel with multiple protagonists, no true plot, and a surreal, nebulous conclusion. By the end of the book, it’s not even clear why it is called The Day of the Locust at all (most people believe it’s a Biblical allusion).

Chandler and West are two writers from similar worlds whose books have stood the test of time. Reading them together is a great way of getting a peek at the real LA, the one that lay behind the silver screen.

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40 responses to “Raymond Chandler vs. Nathanael West

  1. Reblogged this on The First Gates and commented:
    I referenced Nathanael West recently in a comment on another blog, saying his “Day of the Locust” seemed very contemporary with its a huge undercurrent of frustration, fear, and dissatisfaction.” Here’s a great post for fans of all things noir by Alastair Savage, comparing and contrasting West and Raymond Chandler.

    • Thanks for the re-blog Morgan – I’m pleased you liked the post! West does seem astonishingly contemporary. I think he was a very brave writer in his own time, which has helped his work live on past his premature death.

  2. Hah! I had no idea that’s where Homer got his name 😛 But what an interesting article about the take of two crime writers on a place like L.A. I’m taking a class this year on French crime fiction and so much of it comes back to Anglo-American authors such as Chandler: I’ve never read him, though. I’ll need to make sure I do some day.

    • It’s funny how French authors fell in love with that whole US crime scene. They also love Westerns, especially in the comics field.
      Before starting the Day of the Locust, I didn’t know about Homer Simpson being in the book either. When I read his name, I did a double take and had to read it again to make sure that it was really true!

    • I read him for the first time this year myself. “The Day of the Locust” is one of those titles that you hear a lot, without ever really knowing what the story is about, a bit like “Night of the Iguana” or “The Manchurian Candidate”.It’s well worth a look.

  3. I’ve never read either of these authors, but your post makes me want to. You should check out Saul Bellow if you have not already. I think you would like his work.

    Sincerely,
    Julien Haller

    • Do you know, Saul Bellow has fallen under my radar. I’ve never read anything by him. What would be a good book to start? I read Playback by Raymond Chandler first which put me off a little (it was his last and least successful book). then I gave him another go with The Big Sleep and I was absolutely hooked.

  4. This a big deal post. Your pimp of Nathanael West has moved me to locate and pull back, “The Day Of The Locus” covers. Have read all of Chandler, including his letters and criticism and even a bit of his poetry. I too suggest Saul Bellow, maybe, “Ravelstein.”

    Thanks and

    Regards

  5. I enjoy comparisons between authors. You did an articulate and complete article. I congratulate you for being Freshly Pressed. I have always enjoyed the books by Robert Parker, especially the Spenser books. Interesting because I feel that RP was the current author (until recently he passed on) similar to Raymond Chandler. They both found their way into the media with RC’s movies and series,
    “Spenser” based on RP books and the more recent Tom Selleck depiction of RP’s characters in the Stone series.

  6. I love Chandler and the way he uses language. His style is instantly recognizable. I enjoy his writing so much that I’m willing to ignore the occasional plot hole (like the murdered man without a murderer in The Big Sleep). I’ve never read any West, though, so I’ll have to give him a try.

    • I agree. Chandler’s writing style is superb. I read a good biography of him recently by Tom Williams. He explains that Chandler used to type up his novels on tiny pieces of yellow paper, which was a way of ensuring the quality of his prose. It’s also amazing to me that he was in his forties before he even started his crime writing!

  7. Great post. I enjoyed how you brought these two together. West seems interesting in new ways as I read more George Saunders. Your post makes me want to go back to West and dig deeper. Thanks for that.

    • George Saunders: that’s a new writer for me. I’ll check him out. You know, one of the best things abut book blogging is discovering all these new books and authors. Thanks for the tip! I’m glad you liked the post!

    • I have to confess that i have never heard of Miss Loneyhearts before but now you’ve mentioned it, I think I would pick it up. West is such a good writer that it would be worth reading anything by him,
      If only he’d lived longer…
      Thanks for the tip, Max!

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