Lengthy Valedictions & the Coolness of Being Alone

Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Library

Lengthy Valedictions & the Coolness of Being Alone

Philip Marlowe Photo

Loners are a breed explored again and again in literature and cinema. If such an archetype exists in order to provoke self-reflection in the viewer or reader, then it would be fair to say that loners are the vessels with which you are forced to acknowledge your own mortality. Without the company of others as a distraction, there is nothing obviating the fact that one day, as we all came from the womb, we are, of course, bound for the tomb.

With that discomforting thought behind us, though, it is also fair to say that loners just look cool. After all, solitude lends a certain degree of mystery, depth, and even danger to one who chooses the company of himself over others. It is all the more alluring when a loner wears a trench coat while cynically assessing the world at large, or drinks gimlets with wealthy coevals he cautiously befriends, or narrowly dodges licentious ladies who want him dead.

It is never stated that Phillip Marlowe—the heartbreakingly compelling detective-protagonist in Raymond Chandler’s gorgeously written novel The Long Goodbye—wears a trench coat, but he certainly knows a thing or two about solitude, death, and the gritty underside of life.

What is so compelling about a detective novel is its likeness to a beautiful tapestry being woven and then surreptitiously unwoven—in the form of cliffhangers or deux ex machinas or what you will. The pull that tantalizes readers is the juicy now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t quality: no one, no matter what he may claim, likes a story simply handed to him baldly. It is the magic of a writer’s restraint that seduces readers to keep turning the page.

This novel is no different. Smart and solitary detective Philip Marlowe befriends Terry Lennox, a war-damaged cuckold resigned to his beautiful, cheating wife. When the wife ends up in bludgeoned to death in her secluded guesthouse, Lennox appears on Marlowe’s doorstep with a gun. This creates a chain of circuitous, crime-ridden incidents, peopled with tough-talking cops and relentlessly cruel mobsters.

Though to be perfectly frank, the story is secondary to the writing, and the almost mythical suaveness of the protagonist. Indeed the plot becomes unnecessarily convoluted in the middle, and the denouement, while somewhat surprising, felt almost like an afterthought. This is, of course, completely forgiven in light of the gorgeous prose. It is little wonder that Raymond Chandler was made famous (and, bizarrely, sometimes vilified) for his tersely descriptive sentences:

“I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.”

“An hour crawled by like a sick cockroach.”

“I caught the rest of it in one of those snob columns in the society section of the paper. I don’t read them often, only when I run out of things to dislike.”

And despite being continuously harassed, sassed, and gashed, Marlowe never once loses his cool. His ability to deliver intelligent, witty monologues to the people who mercilessly abuse him is an estimable quality that would probably never survive outside the realm of fiction. But his decision to remain an outsider, too, to work independently, to be no one’s fool, even to play chess against himself late at night—these things, mind you, are a choice, not an imposition the world has forced upon him, and there are many people outside of literature who have adopted this way of life. Indeed, that is the beauty of this character, and of loner-dom proper: you may be alone, but not necessarily lonely. And that realization is a goodbye, no matter how long it may take to say it—to your dependence on people, to transient validations from outsiders—worth saying.

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--My Nguyen