Re: RARA-AVIS: Beamed...

From: Lawrence Coates (
Date: 26 Feb 2008

This recalls the story "Wakefield," by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's been so long since I read
"The Maltese Falcon" that I'd completely forgotten about The Flitcraft Parable.


---------Included Message----------
>Date: 26-Feb-2008 14:29:22 -0500
>From: "Steve Novak" <>
>Reply-To: <>
>To: "RARA-AVIS" <>
>Subject: RARA-AVIS: Beamed...
>Found this day in another delibitating rag called Guardian, UK...but maybe
>of interest...
>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
>[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
---------End of Included Message----------

Lawrence Coates Associate Professor of Creative Writing Bowling Green State University

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 26 Feb 2008 EST