Dawn of the Unread II: “The Lady in the Lake”

by F.

I love Chandler as a storyteller and I love Philip Marlowe, but I didn’t love The Lady in the Lake. In fact, I quit after nine chapters. But why?

I mean, Chandler is a great writer. Marlowe is a great character. There’s usually great drama in Chandler—all the scenes have point, the protagonist has a goal, and there are obstacles preventing him from getting it. So what the hell is going on here?

Two things, I think, after some reflection and consultation with my library.

First, as in Farewell, My Lovely, I started wondering why Marlowe was doing all this stuff. Why is he trying to solve the mystery? And more importantly, Why doesn’t he just walk away? I mean, that’s what most of us would do. “Hmmm… a guy is trying to kill me. I’m done. Bye. I’ll solve some other mystery—one with a lower lethality quotient.”

Sure, Marlowe is a shamus and this is what he does. But there’s a problem with this situation, and it’s related to “the stakes,” I think—a problem pithily described by a fantastic observer of audience psychology: David Howard of USC. As he says in How to Build a Great Screenplay,

[i]f there is no price to pay for failure, only something to gain from success, it seems as if the stakes are too low in a story (144).

This feels right to me. And there’s something else that’s related to this. “Sure,” you might think, “there’s something to gain—to find the girl, to complete the job, to earn a buck. But there’s also something at stake: Marlowe’s life. He could be killed by the antagonists!

To which I say: “Yeah. I absolutely agree.” But this highlights the problem: Marlowe can walk away. He’s not locked in. Generally, by Act II of a story, where the main dramatic tension is established, the protagonist can’t walk away. Listen to what Howard says;

“You don’t want a prolonged circumstance where the character could simply change his mind about the decision and forget the whole enterprise. That will undercut the tension…(326).

Again, that feels right to me. Knowing the character isn’t locked it pushes me out of the story: I realize that I’m playing make believe, and that’s not what I want from a story. I want to make believe without knowing I’m doing it. It’s all about illusions. Illusion is essential to art, I believe, even music.

And now the second problem, which concerns the epistemological situation of the audience. Now, before you groan and think I’m going to get all philosophical on your ass, let me say that I use that big word merely because I can think of no better substitute. “Epistemological” means “having to due with human knowledge,” more or less, and in this case I’m talking about what Marlowe knows and what we, the audience, know in the story. Here’s what Howard has to say about it:

“From a storytelling standpoint, the weakest circumstance to create is one in which the characters know more than the audience…. In most instances, it’s a far better strategy to put the audience in at least an equal if not a superior position…. If we know a little more [than the protagonist], then not only do we understand the events and decisions, but also we are in a position to add a layer of hope and fear of our own (51).

In The Lady in the Lake, we (the audience) are in the same epistemic situation as Marlowe: we know what he knows when he knows it. This isn’t the weakest circumstance. It could be worse—he could be ahead of us, as in certain whodunnit sorts of stories (which I hate) where the protagonist gives us The Explanation at the end and we could never have figured it out. But it could be better, too. At least as far as my tastes go.

We are solving the mystery with Marlowe and so we are denied some drama—hoping and fearing. And I like lots of drama: I want lots of hope and lots of fear. I want to be put through the emotional wringer. If I come out of the seamless dream that is a story without feeling this way, I tend to think I’ve been cheated. Some storytellers almost never cheat you like this. Spike Lee is one.

Now, am I asking too much of Chandler? Maybe. But I don’t so much care about that. I just wanted to explain why I lost interest, and I think the above is the diagnosis: (1) Marlowe isn’t locked in and (2) I don’t know any more than Marlowe does, which results in a small amount of hope and fear

Interestingly, this may explain why I don’t like another author: Paul Auster. I would describe Auster’s books as “boring stories about boring characters who search meaninglessly for something which they usually don’t find for no reason you can fathom.” I noticed that on my paperback copy of Farewell, My Lovely Auster gives Chandler a laudatory (and characteristically ridiculous) blurb. And now I see the connection: Chandler + Beckett = Auster.