My god, look at the time. It's almost 2012. Last time I glanced up from frantically doing all the things it was only half way through December. I made Christmas dinner, I herded children, I wrote essays, I bought presents, I gave presents, I made things and cleaned things and fed people and went places and did things and I also read some books! I think. I can't even remember, really. So these two reviews will be short and to the point, and then I will go lie down in a darkened room and rest for ever.
It's often published with, and almost the flipside to, Goodbye to Berlin (which I read and reviewed a few months ago). While Goodbye to Berlin sort of papers over all the terrible things that are happening politically, Mr Norris looks straight at them - which, oddly, has the effect of making its effect far less lingeringly stomach-churning than Goodbye to Berlin's.
For what is essentially a spy novel about the doomed Communist movement in Berlin, Mr Norris Changes Trains is - strange word, but the one I keep coming back to - unexpectedly charming. It's also the most gentle and funny look at homosexuality and extreme sexual fetishism that I've ever come across. The point I think it's trying to make (and, as far as I'm concerned, making very well) is that wanting to have sex with lithe German boys or asking a prostitute to whip you while you wear a dog collar and lick her boots is really far less offensive to humanity than going out and punching a Jewish man to death.
Mr Norris Changes Trains is a wry, witty and distinctly not-your-average look at Berlin's underworld during Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s through the eyes of someone who bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Isherwood (I get the feeling this may be a common theme throughout Isherwood's novels). It's exceedingly polite, exceedingly funny and an exceedingly good read.
Even people who haven't read a Chandler novel will know, vaguely, what one contains. It will be full of grim, similar men loping about with guns in their pockets and menace on their faces, while the cicadas chirp and the dust settles on the side of the road as a symbolic sign of civilisation's decay. Bodies will pile up in hotels and motels and parlours, impeccably dressed and generally clutching the remains of their last drink (if anyone in a Raymond Chandler novel is sober, it's either an oversight or a passing phase). But what is surprising about Chandler is that under all that slang and punching ("Hand over your gat, shamus, or the dame gets a sock in the kisser" and so on, interminably) he's an extremely accomplished and fairly beautiful writer. I think he writes pulp better than most Booker prize winners write at all.
Of course, there's a nastier side to all that tough talk and hard hitting. The book is catastrophically racist, sexist and homophobic. The women are living dolls who say no and mean yes and then dance about in front of Philip Marlowe with all their assets showing (most of the time he heroically resists temptation but slaps them about a bit to relieve his feelings), the gay men are evil like Disney villains and so weak they can barely stand on their pointy-shoed feet and the Mexicans laugh shrilly, twirl their knives and need constant verbal and physical abuse to keep them in their rightful place. I've written about the problems with reading this sort of fiction before - how do you, as a sensible, thoughtful human being, justify enjoying a book that refers to Mexicans (among many, many other even more horrific slurs) as 'cockroaches' and opines that their employers ought to beat them more in order to - if I understood this odd logical leap correctly - keep them sweet? My conclusion then, as now, is that you can't let your anger run away with you. It's vile, but it's just as much part of Chandler's cultural moment as the highballs and gats and outrageous suits. I like Chandler's writing - I really like his writing - but all the same, I think what he writes about is often fairly odious.
In this case, The Long Goodbye is about the strange and meandering case of Terry Lennox, who does something terrible (or maybe he doesn't) and Roger Wade, who is a mean drunk (or maybe he isn't). There's the inevitable cast of evil babes, wicked billionaires and hard-nosed policemen, and of course Philip Marlowe, who makes smartass world-weary comments and untangles the many threads in the case. It's weird, it's atmospheric and it's often distasteful, but for all its unpleasant flaws I still can't help liking it a lot.
(And, for those that are following my 1001 Books progress, I'm up to 18.88% on the list. Auspicious. Bring on the New Year.)