Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mining The Maltese Falcon

I found myself with a detective novel. I started An Exaggerated Murder in 2002. It's been altered, shuffled, changed, set aside for five years, rethought and rewritten. People have asked me about its origins and I've never had a good answer because I don't really remember how it started. (I suspect Trike and Lola's names came first, but where the names came from is a complete mystery.) I know I was reading pulp fiction and Poe. The detective character generally permeates our artistic and entertainment cultures. I might have started reading Conan Doyle by then. And, of course, Ulysses was in my head and Ulysses can make detectives of us all. I found myself with a marble slab of language and ideas whose contours suggested a detective story. It doesn't take much research to learn you've got to read The Maltese Falcon if you're an American attempting a detective story. (Especially if you want to put your detective in a trench-coat.)

Reading is not a homogeneous action. It is a genus of actions and interactions, relationships and efforts, dialogs and dialectics. You read differently when exploring a book's potential, as I did the first time I read The Maltese Falcon, than you when are interrogating it as a guide for your own creative endeavors, as I did the next five times I read The Maltese Falcon. In the later reading, every event is itself and its rationale, every image itself and its composition, every sentence, every line of dialog, every word, itself and the choice to include it.

Once I was familiar with the story, I was able to examine its composition directly, reading less for the art of the book and more for how the effect of art was generated. I paid attention to the words Hammett used to describe the characters and the setting. I looked at how information was given to the reader; whether it came from dialog, a statement by a character, or included in the narration. I listened to my own emotions and reactions and tried to isolate the exact sentences, and the emotional, information, and significant composition of those sentences, to determine, as much as possible, how Hammett made me feel and think what I felt and thought. I maintained a split consciousness with Josh the Reader relentlessly surveyed by Josh the Writer.

I underlined phrases. There is more color in a book you read for guidance. I transcribed the annotations in a notebook. Faces have more features. I subjected some annotations to study, others to alchemical permutations. Bodies have more dimensions. I reapplied those permutations in my book to join and sustain a conversation. Cities are more certain. I exploited connections. I expanded my lexicon. I closed my eyes and saw yellow-gray eyes even though I'm certain I've never actually seen yellow-gray eyes. I learned a thing or two about what to tell readers about what is going on. I mined the source for all its worth and ended up with a battered book and a notebook of additional potential.

But I didn't want to be Borges' Pierre Menard. Not every lesson was applicable. Not every reference productive. Not every storytelling technique was right for the story I was telling. There was far more in that notebook left out than incorporated. Some examples. Sam Spade is so consistently surrounded by demonic imagery, being described as looking like a “blond Satan,” you wonder if Hammett wants us to see him as a hero. The Maltese Falcon is deeply misogynist, yet includes Effie Perine, one of fiction's most inscrutable female characters. The hubris of knowing the truth. The playful character names. The choice between justice and love. The casually mysterious disappearance of Gutman's daughter. The difference between postmodernism and cynicism. The moment Sam Spade knew who killed Archer and the long wait before he told us. And then there's the falcon itself, the engine and fuel for all this conflict and death. I won't spoil it for those unfamiliar, so I'll just say that in 1929, Dashiell Hammett created one of the most coherent and evocative images of postmodernism in that lacquered statuette.

But if there was one particular moment in that first interrogative reading that showed me how much more The Maltese Falcon had than I needed for my project, it was the moment I re-examined the Flitcraft Parable. Spade tells a story about a man who had a near death experience and then completely vanished. The disappearance baffled the authorities and eventually the formal investigation was called off. A few years later, Flitcraft was found, in Spokane instead of Tacoma, but otherwise living the exact same life he'd lead before nearly being killed by a falling girder. It was not the complexity of the statement on identity that struck me, at least not in the course of this particular reading, but the fact of the digression in and of itself. Detective stories, including those inspired by The Maltese Falcon usually don't include idle conversation. And yet, here is a scene in which the characters are just killing time. Instead of an expository sentence or two getting them through the night and back to the action, we get a three-page parable about the nature of identity and its relationship to death-denial. Jesus Christ, a cornerstone text in the hardboiled detective fiction genre includes a three-page parable about the nature of identity and its relationship to death-denial.

As An Exaggerated Murder neared completion, I found myself with every specific needs from The Maltese Falcon and so read it in yet another way, this way closer to an archaeologist sifting sand for artifacts. In some ways, it could hardly be called reading at all and yet the archaeologist was easily vanished by the moments of art that resonate beyond detectives, con artists, and statuettes. When I read Spade saying, “If they hang you, I'll always remember you,” for the first time or the fifth time, my breath fell out of my body and it felt like underlining it would somehow be an affront.

At the beginning of a literary project, I see no benefit in tempering your ambition. There is no reward for humility in the first draft. Joyce should be in your sights. Your goal should be to write the greatest whatever it is that has ever been written. But, at some point, you have to grapple with what you've actually accomplished, to confront the work's actual potential, and then strive to make it the best whatever it is that you can write. When I confronted the actual potential of An Exaggerated Murder, I knew I needed a source of diction, technique, guidance, and inspiration and when I mined The Maltese Falcon as a source, I discovered another impossible target.

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