RARA-AVIS: Macdonald, Gatsby, etc.

From: Mark Coggins ( coggins@immortalgame.com)
Date: 30 Nov 2004

If there's one person on this list who I wouldn't want to cross swords with about Macdonald, it's Fred Zackel. (See page 370 of Tom Nolan's excellent Macdonald bio for the reason.)

Fortunately, I think Fred has got it right. There's a sympathy or understanding about the human condition that I don't see in the other writers' work. We don't even have to call it compassion; we can call it empathy. I don't think Hammett or Chandler have much empathy for the people who do wrong in their books. Macdonald does.

Another way to think about it is Macdonald is more concerned about motivations and causation than the other two are. And, typically, the causations in his books have to do with family history, or, more properly, family karma. And if you read the Nolan biography, you might conclude the empathy came from personal experience.

I've read all Macdonald's books and I admire him very much. What I don't like about his writing is the somewhat stilted "intellectual" tone his descriptions--and particularly his similes--assume. When he tries to out-Chandler Chandler, I think he fails.

Here are some examples. I pulled two books at random off the shelf. On page 3 of my paperback edition of the Doomsters he says about a coffee maker,
"The grounds in its upper half were like black sand in a static hourglass that wouldn't let time pass." I'm not sure what the point of that is and I
*am* sure it didn't add anything to the description of the scene. Nothing like a Chandler, "A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock" which drives home the image of a failing General Sternwood.

On page 7 of the first of The Instant Enemy, "Two people were striding along the fairway, a man and a woman, both white-haired, as if they'd grown old in the quest for their small white ball." There's way too much meaning being invested in this older couple out for a game of golf, and it's a meaning that doesn't have anything to do with the scene in which its inserted.

Who did Macdonald influence--or who writes in his tradition? I think a comparison to Lehane might be appropriate. Does Lehane have empathy for his characters in Mystic River?

back to lurkdom,


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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 30 Nov 2004 EST