Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Joseph Conrad and Lew Archer

Last weekend, as I was reading Joseph Conrad's spooky, gripping short novel The Shadow-Line (1917), I found my thoughts unexpectedly drifting to Ross Macdonald. I've praised Macdonald recently, impressed anew by his talent after reading three of his Lew Archer novels in the space of a week, and while I'll admit that it's at least a tiny bit of a stretch, I do find similarities between the two writers. Conrad's protagonists tend to be isolated men who are racked--or even undone--by questions of honor, which is often all they have to cling to in a society that fails to understand its necessity, let alone its value. Their isolation can be geographical, but these are men who would discover--or generate--that isolation even in a crowd: finding their fellow men wanting, they would choose, rather than judging them, to look for signs of that same failing in themselves, and to use any hint of it as an unholy combination of hair shirt and armor. They are loners by trade, hopeful fatalists by nature, and they prefer a noble failure to a tarnished success.

All of that could describe Lew Archer, too--that is, if you could find a way to make room for his sense of external duty, his deep-rooted belief that someone must be the champion of the afflicted, and that a flawed champion who is honest is at least marginally better than none at all. But last weekend I realized, in reading a blog post from trusted reader Jon Faith, that Archer's qualities are cumulative, not necessarily apparent on first acquaintance. The first Archer novel I read, several years ago, didn't impress me all that much. I enjoyed it--a well-told crime story is always a pleasure--but I didn't understand why people praised Macdonald so highly. It was only when I read a second, and even a third, that I realized that somewhere along the line, without quite realizing it, I'd gotten to know Lew Archer.

Macdonald's technique is cumulative, even pointillist. Whereas someone like P. D. James will alternate chapters of plot with chapters focusing on the lives of her recurring characters, Macdonald is content to sneak in a sentence here and there in the midst of his narrative. We learn about Archer through quick asides, judgments of character, expressions of regret, moments of self-recrimination. These accumulate, novel by novel, so that by the time we've read half a dozen or so, we ache in advance every time Archer decides--ignoring the wisdom gained from his long experience--to trust. Yet we also understand why this romantic cynic insists on trusting, understand that for him the short-term cost of external betrayal is always less than the long-term cost he'd have to bear to avoid it entirely.

So if you read one Macdonald novel and aren't convinced, I'd urge you to consider trying at least one more. It's what Lew Archer would do, after all.

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