RARA-AVIS: Beamed...

From: Steve Novak ( Cinefrog@comcast.net)
Date: 26 Feb 2008

Found this day in another delibitating rag called Guardian, UK...but maybe of interest... Montois

Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog - books

When digressions get right to the point

Chris Routledge

February 26, 2008 12:32 PM


Roundabout route ... Dashiell Hammett in 1951 being taken to court accused of abetting communism

Like most readers, I often wonder what it is that makes some books more appealing than others. It's an impossible problem to solve definitively, but the explanation I'm finding most persuasive this week is that part of it - possibly the greater part - is in the digressions. Digression in writing is risky: nobody wants to read 500 pages when 250 will do. But in the right hands it's exhilarating.

This is especially true in the kind of writing that otherwise gets right to the point. In fact one of the most remarkable and arresting digressions I've ever come across is the "Flitcraft parable", which appears about a third of the way into Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.

By reputation Hammett is a writer of tough, pared-down prose and ought not to be associated with digression. His detective novels are plot-driven and fast-paced, with an A to B momentum that barely lets up. His audience in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly the readers of pulp magazines such as Black Mask, were not looking for philosophy when they went to the newsstand in the morning. They did their reading for entertainment, not enlightenment.

Yet as literary digressions go the Flitcraft parable is near perfect: it is completely unexpected, forcefully significant in an oblique kind of way, and beautifully formed. In the three pages or so in which Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy the story of Flitcraft, who "left his real-estate office, in Tahoma, to go to luncheon one day and never returned", we are presented with a glimpse of Spade's hard-boiled world view and a little treatise on the arbitrariness of life. Like O'Shaughnessy we are left baffled by it.

The story of Flitcraft is a simple one. A successful real-estate agent, with a happy family life and money in the bank, Flitcraft steps out of the office for lunch. A beam from a building site falls on the pavement near to him and he is lucky to escape with his life. But instead of returning to the office he just walks away, finally returning to the Pacific Northwest years later when he takes a job in Spokane, Washington under the name Charles Pierce. He remarries, and when Spade finds him he is living a very similar sort of life as before, but with a new wife, house, and responsibilities: "He adjusted himself to beams falling and when no more of them fell, he adjusted to them not falling".

The parable itself is curious enough, with its hat-tip to the pragmatist philosopher Charles Peirce, its fascination with the ruthless lack of moral values in a man whose life is otherwise respectable and mundane. But the mode of its delivery is also extraordinary. Spade and O'Shaughnessy are in Spade's apartment waiting for the arrival of Joel Cairo. It is as if this is a digression not just for us, but for them too. She is "more engaged with his purpose in telling the story than with the story he told". It's almost as if she too is wondering why the plot has paused and she has to wait, but she is drawn in to what Spade is saying.

Hammett's digression is soon over and the plot of The Maltese Falcon resumes. But the Flitcraft parable hangs over the rest of the novel. The idea that anything can happen, that even stable family men can switch at any moment, makes for a disturbing, distrustful atmosphere. This is not a digression in the usual sense; it is not additional information or an interesting side-issue. The Flitcraft parable is a beam falling onto the centre of the novel and, it turns out, the key to its aesthetic: that everything you know and trust can be gone "like a fist when you open your hand".

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