Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett.


Part of the noir reading list I put together for my thesis with the help of Robert Polito and Jeffery Allen. As such, it was "required reading."

This is actually the second of the "assigned books" that I picked up, but it has such an undeniable place in the canon that I feel I have to address it first. I'd seen the Humphrey Bogart film a number of years ago, but it's been awhile and I didn't remember much. In fact, what I do remember was a sense of slight disappointment... the film didn't terrify me, or even make me feel ill-at-ease, and I had a sense of where the plot was going even though I couldn't predict individual twists and turns.

That's the problem, I think, with reading in the 2000s what was intended for the 1930s. We know the sultry dame, the wise-cracking detective, the hot-headed police sergeant all too well. It says something, however, that in spite of being saturated in such images, and having already heard the plot once in a movie, the book was still a page turner.

Or maybe I'm just a very forgiving reader.

Beyond all that, here's are some other things I've been given by this book:

  1. A superficial conundrum: We feel an almost instinctual compulsion to carry out our duties, to act with fidelity to certain roles or relationships, however distasteful we may find the people or responsibilities involved.
    However superficial the argument may be, it comes through with panache and style.

  2. A much deeper conundrum: An object or goal desired too much becomes abstracted from itself, and is unattainable literally and metaphorically because the quest evolves into a more tangible subject than the object/goal itself.
    In short, another aspect of the "Enkidu moment."
    This wasn't as central to the plot as the point above. It was, subtly evoked.

  3. Fog and San Francisco. Frequently seen and always sexy, but close to an original here.

  4. Alcoholism never looked so glamorous.

  5. On the other hand, the story didn't dress up its misogyny as well as it did its booziness. I often think that what people classify as "misogynistic" would be better called "clueless obnoxious ignorance." The Maltese Falcon, however, is about as misogynistic as anything I've ever read.

I don't have much more to say, actually... genre fiction gets a bad rap, which I think is unfair, as literary invention and skill can flourish within genre conventions just as well as within our less acknowledged literary conventions. That said, The Maltese Falcon was and is remarkable for the vividness of the hand it shows, rather than a corresponding skill of deployment. The best literature, I believe, demonstrates both skill and vividness. I recognize the importance of this novel and enjoyed it. I would not, however, describe it as "astonishing."

You'll find I'm vague at times here, or at least lacking specific examples. I'm not being a jerk. I don't want to give the endings away.



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