A review of Karen Huston Karydes,
Harold O. Wilson
The way we choose to remember the past has a significant impact on how we invent the future. In her book, Hard-Boiled Anxiety Karen Huston Karydes has chosen to remember three detective writers, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald through the lens of Freudian analysis. Not a random choice: In 1956 Macdonald underwent Freudian analysis following a tragic accident precipitated by his sixteen-year-old daughter Linda Miller. Both changed Macdonald’s life and his writing. A moody girl, Linda Miller sat alone in her car and drank almost two quarts of wine. She then drove at speed through a group of thirteen-year-old boys killing one and maiming another. She continued on and crashed into another car. Free, awaiting trial, she slashed her wrists but didn’t succeed in killing herself. At her trial she was found guilty and sent to a prison hospital.
By the time of the accident, Macdonald was already an accomplished academic and author of twenty detective stories. He had successfully rescued himself, (Karydes uses the term “reinvents himself”), from a disastrous childhood—a childhood in which his father was basically absent, his mother a hysteric. And according to Tom Nolan’s biography, “came to crime writing honestly. Virtually fatherless and growing up poor, Kenneth Millar (later writing as Ross Macdonald) broke social and moral laws: having sex from the age of eight, getting drunk at twelve, fighting violently, stealing.”
But his first books, again according to Nolan, “patterned on Hammett and Chandler, were at once vivid chronicles of postwar California and elaborate retellings of Greek and other classic myths.” For twenty years he was a successful author; then his drunken daughter killed a thirteen-year-old boy with her car. To say the least, Macdonald was devastated and a huge cash of guilt was opened. To expiate his guilt, Macdonald wrote the confessional “Notes of a Son and Father.”
“Notes of a Son and Father” is a mea culpa in a spiral notebook in which Macdonald reviews his own life and judges himself guilty of not loving his family enough even though the absent father and unhinged mother didn’t offer much to love. According to Karydes, the act of writing “Notes of a Son and Father” along with Freudian therapy set Macdonald on a new quest in his writing—a quest to find himself through the writing of “self-realizing” fiction.
“He finally could write about his past, in the guise of Freudian fables within the structure of the hard-boiled genre. These later books, and particularly the best ones—The Galton Case, The Chill, and The Underground Man—got Macdonald to the far side of pain, to a place where he could make the best of the rest of his life.”
The retelling of this account here is important because it sets the tone for Karydes work. Ross Macdonald’s open use and discussion of Freudian symbols and mythology and his confessional “Notes of a Son and Father” are the foundation of Karydes’ thesis. She says this unpublished work is a keystone for her book. “That Macdonald was and wanted to be engaged in confessional self-analysis when writing his novels, she says, is one argument of my book.” And with Macdonald’s help she makes this argument very well. The analysis of Macdonald and his work takes up the greater part of the book.
Karydes then takes the leap and argues that Hammett and Chandler “were similarly engaged while adamantly not wanting to be…” To establish her argument she uses Freudian analytical symbols and other Freudian based techniques to show how Hammett and Chandler wrote themselves into their fiction. For example, both men won the Oedipal contest, she says, by cutting themselves off from their fathers. Hammett went on to identify surrogate fathers in both his real life and for the detective Continental Op in his novels. In addition to her opening chapter on Sons and Fathers, Karydes goes on to organize her book into chapters on sons and mothers, sons and lovers, and even sons and ghosts. The ghosts that haunt Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald are depicted as refused lovers.
In addition to the Oedipus myth, Karydes exploits such Freudian ideas as repetition compulsion, the phallic mother, fear of castration, regressive crisis, anxiety as helplessness in the face of danger, and the all pervasive presence of guilt in her analysis of the the self-actualizing nature of Hammett and Chandler’s work.
Andrew Klavan in his review of Hard-Boiled Anxiety in the Wall Street Journal says that the book makes him think “of the stifling circularity and reductiveness of Freudian thought: its absurd genitalization of human existence, its tiresome and ubiquitous symbolism, and its suspiciously repetitive revelations of hidden sexuality.” Freudianism offers a feedback loop, he says, that explains away its own inconsistencies. Other critics of Freud offer that his theory is basically sexist and is based solely on a male perspective.
Well, we know all this. The world of psychology has moved well beyond Freud into the realm of cognitive neuroscience, the nature of memory itself, the way memory insinuates itself into a person’s brain, coping strategies, refined medications, and on and on. Freud’s psychosexual theory of behavioral development is basically passé today.
Karydes’ book, however, is not a psychological thesis or a psychological analysis of Hammett, Chandler or Macdonald. It is a literary analysis supporting the understanding that all authors write themselves into their work. She has used the overlay of Freudian theory, to suggest the startling integration of the authors’ lives in their work. The choice of Freud is appropriate because, as Karydes says, it was the zeitgeist of the day. And if we don’t get hung up on the psychosexual quaintness of its theory, if we discard our Freudian fundamentalism and view her framework as a guiding metaphor then we gain great insight into the writing of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald.
There is one place, however, where I do wish Karydes had stepped out of her Freudian framework and that is to follow up on the significant insight she expressed about the Hammett and Chandler narrators. She characterizes these detectives as believing in “the power of self-determination and despair that the self had no power in the world. This can function as their definition of hard-boiled fiction: an existential man in a nihilistic world.” The world offered in their novels is certainly nihilistic or an absurd world in Albert Camus’ terms, there is no question about that. If the fiction is self-realizing, however and reflects the authors’ effort at both finding and/or defining themselves then only one of the detectives is “the existential man”—Hammett’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Spade is a unique character and stands alone in the genre. He does not need the world to tell him who he is; he defines himself by his choices and actions, and certainly creates his own meaning in life. This is why he turns in the murderer Brigid O’Shaughnessy after having taken her to bed. If he had not bedded her, he would not have been Sam Spade. If he had not turned her in to the police he would have chosen to be someone other than who he is. One thinks of Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger.
Karen Huston Karydes has written an excellent book. Now we encourage her to give us more please; leave Freud and take the further step by exploiting her insight that the definition of hard-boiled fiction is an existential man in a nihilistic world.