The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman

by rthieme on December 31, 2007

If you love Raymond Chandler …

Reading these seven prior reviews, it stands out that all of them are pretty much right. The strengths of this book are its strengths and the weaknesses are its weaknesses. But that isn’t the whole story.

The Long Embrace is a subjective account of a subjective experience that in turn requires a particular frame for the subjective experience of the reader in relationship to Raymond Chandler.  If you love Raymond Chandler and his work as much as Freeman, you will love this book. It you don’t like Chandler or are neutral to his work, you might not like it. It’s a homage, and a reverie, and a critical work, and above all, the projection of an author in search of both objective and subjective correlatives for her vision and life experience. Objectively she is struggling to map her own biography and history with the history and the landscape of Los Angeles, but not just any Los Angeles – it’s the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler’s fiction that constitutes her quest, an imaginary landscape more real to her than the smoggy basin she inhabits. That makes the search doubly difficult. So she spends energy and time driving the city streets in search of markers for the many way-stations with which Chandler and his wife Cissy mapped their own erratic trajectory through life, his career, and a city that devours itself daily. Because Chandler’s vision seized Freeman’s heart and soul as well as her agile and creative mind, she needed to build a three-dimensional tic-tac-toe-like representation of all this, and as I say, if you too have loved Chandler and his special gift to us, you will appreciate, savor and understand the compelling necessity of her quest.

Young people who have not experienced the constant destruction of the markers of our histories as American cities cannibalize themselves by enabling predatory builders to bulldoze the external signs of our past may not appreciate the emotional impact of Freeman’s journey, her attempt to overlay transparencies of the current physical city in which she lives on the even deeper emotional landscape of Chandler’s fiction. Maybe only middle-aged people and older ones can really appreciate why this book exists.

And people who do not intuitively understand why noir is the appropriate lens for those of us who grew to maturity in post World War 2 America may not resonate with this quest. When Freeman cites the film Chinatown as the “most brilliant movie of them all,” either you know exactly what she means, or not. You sit up and quack like a duck, or you don’t. Since I cite in my own work – my speeches and my non-fiction collection, Islands in the Clickstream, in particular – Chinatown and Blade Runner, another LA-noir classic, more frequently than any other two films, I think I do understand. If you know what I mean when I say that, if you smile with recognition, you will love reading this book.

Yes, there are passages you might scan, when Freeman indulges herself in her own experiences and observations on site, but that might also be because her existential journey which this book represents is not your primary interest. That’s fair enough. But if you can see yourself vicariously tracing the footsteps of this enigmatic couple in order to under their relationship, so constitutive of the identity and energies of this uniquely American writer, then you will linger over those passages too. It is precisely the ephemeral nature of her observations – who she sees, the time of day, the smell and look and feel of places present to her and to us through her writing and only through her writing through which she attempts to divine the former essence of what was there, once, and is gone forever – that call attention to the ephemeral nature of our own memories, linked to the books or films that meant so much and which have become even more real to us than the places they depict.

What is needed now, of course, is someone who explores Judith Freeman’s life to understand her compelling need to understand the dynamics of this relationship, her obsessive pursuit of “Ray,” as she calls him; what is needed is someone who visits all the places Freeman lived, explores her relationship to friends, husbands, lovers, and her childhood history. That subjective biographical quest would in turn be imposed on hers, inviting alas another quest, one in search of Freeman’s biographer, and on and on, turtles all the way down, as they say, and perhaps that is the crux of this lovely, insightful, well-written book:  primary materials, no matter how abundant, never fully explain the mystery of the Other, and when that Other has affected us deeply, we always write as much about ourselves as the one we describe. Memories link, blur, and recede in infinite regress, pointing toward poetic or spiritual writing as the ultimate frame of the illusion of objectivity, an illusion we inherit from the twentieth century, too, and which in fact is the foundation of the detective story in the first place. We solve mysteries vicariously through these books, pretending that a scientific method is all we need, because we know deep in our hearts that we can never solve the real mysteries of life.  We are all searching for coherence and meaning and harmony in a symphony hall full of dead spaces, filling in the blanks with the contents of our lives.

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