Thursday, June 23, 2011

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

It’s not often I agree with Michiko Kakutani, but when she calls Inherent Vice ‘Pynchon-lite’ she has it about right. That’s not to say it’s lightweight or inferior, but more that it seems to exist in its own amiable bubble, occupying territory somewhere between thriller fiction and 1960s counter-culture nostalgia. It’s part Gregory McDonald’s Fletch series, part Jim Rockford and part Hunter S. Thompson. To be sure, the novel does approach some typical Pynchon questions, but the overall sensation is still of Pynchon-on-vacation-with-his-feet-up-by-the-pool. Or maybe not. I still haven't decided.

But this begs the principal question: we know that Pynchon is a great literary novelist, but can he produce the goods within the context of what really is a humorous thriller? We know he is a great pastichist, of course – Mason and Dixon and Against the Day most recently – but can he hack it in the genre world normally occupied by Michael Connelly or Carl Hiassen. The answer, in the end, is no.

There’s much to enjoy in Inherent Vice. In particular, there are some wonderfully crazy set-pieces and the stoner dialogue is cringingly funny – "You are one crazy white motherfucker." "How can you tell?" "I counted." And the scene where three of them sit watching a “programme” on a television still wrapped up and unplugged, and don’t want to give up until ‘they’ve seen how it ends’ is howlingly good. But as a thriller, which is what should be driving the heart of the novel, the problem is that it’s not especially thrilling. The plot – a missing mafioso-type being hunted by the Feds, the LAPD and our investigator-hero, the pot smoking and acid munching Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, meanders along in an almost entirely tensionless way and the denouement, when it arrives, is a bit of a shoulder-shrug of indifference. It could do with some of the menace of Chinatown or the grit of Chandler or the intricacy of Michael Connelly’s plotting. For sure, the plot is convoluted, but not in a way that intrigues.

The novel is set in the post-Manson era of ‘circa 1970’, specifically the winter of 1969 and summer of 1970. It’s a fascinating period of history, the end of the dream, the summer of love brought to a shattering conclusion by political assassinations (MLK in April 68, Bobby Kennedy in June 68), the Tate murders (August 69), Altamont (December 69) and and the festering sore of Vietnam. Doc, the owner of “Location, Surveillance, Detection”, or “LSD Investigations” (ah, Pynchon, he loves his verbal humour) is largely oblivious of such concerns, wafting about as he does in a haze of pot-induced amnesia. This, of course, is a wonderfully funny inversion of the usual Columbo-type memory man who traps his criminal by remembering every tiny shred of evidence and turning it against him. Doc, on the other hand, has only the dimmest recollection of his most recent activities. Ultimately, though, he turns out to be more competent than his habitual demeanour would suggest.

His ex, Shasta Fay, embroils him in the central drama when she asks him to investigate a plot being hatched by the wife of her lover, Mickey Wolfmann, a local bigwig with shady connections. Wolfmann is subsequently kidnapped, with Doc left unconscious in a compromising position at the scene of the abduction. He is picked up and questioned by his old sparring partner, LAPD Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen. Sub-plots are developed: Coy Harlingen, the maybe not-so-dead musician; Japonica, the stoner rebrobate with the parents from hell; the Golden Fang, a shady organisation that seems to be either a dentists’ conglomerate or something more sinister; FBI agents who seem as interested in Doc as they do in Mickey Wolfmann; and more. So far, so good: a tight, interesting plot with plenty scope for development.

From here, though, the narrative becomes overwhelmed by Pynchon’s attempts to establish the world as a paranoid place of conspiracy and confusion. The trouble with depicting stoners in novels is exactly the same as dealing with them in real life: for a while, their spaced-outness is amusing, but after a while it becomes tedious, and ultimately an absolute pain in the neck. Pynchon’s drop-outs are attempting, in their out-of-it way, to warn us of something sinister in the turnings of the world, but ultimately we tune out of them as readily as they tune out of society.

This is a pity, because Pynchon weaves some great material into the narrative. The Manson murders are a recurrent theme, as are Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. What we have, then, is a United States that has lost its way, indeed some sense of its dignity and innocence. I have a little difficulty with this, I have to say: it seems a pretty willful overlooking of, say, 1950s McCarthyite paranoia or 1850s Manifest Destiny’s Indian genocide.

But perhaps that’s unfair: rather, it could be argued that, like Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon routinely sets his novels at periods of rupture, where society is changing, not usually for the better, where dreams and aspirations are being lost to paranoia and darkness. This is Pynchon’s rage against the dying of the cultural light: in Inherent Vice, he is asking us to view Doc Sportello as the spirit-of-the-sixties ascendant, some form of alternative-reality triumph of the dream they dreamed in that beautifully naive summer of love. And that’s a noble enough aspiration.


Ken Hannahs said...

Couldn't agree more with the "Pynchon Lite" analogy... however, for the uninitiated Pynchonite, this is a great one to start with I think.

I have recommended this book to several of my friends so that they could get a taste of him before I directed them to some of his (I think) better works such as Mason and Dixon and Gravity's Rainbow.

The one thing that I did find to be utterly tiresome about halfway through the novel was indeed the stoner lethargy of Sportello... everything that you said about the character, I agree with. There is something immediately uninteresting about drug users, inside or out of a novel. Inherent Vice continues that tradition. I don't think that's necessarily a failing of Pynchon, I just think the character is tacitly predetermined to be boring and uninteresting, which is a shame.

One of the more colorful works by Pynchon, I think, but ultimately also one of (if not THE) worst that I have read by him... still not a waste of time to read, though.

As always, love these write-ups.

Jim H. said...

I haven't yet dived into IV. One word in your terrific review, perhaps, captures my ambivalence: nostalgia.

I have been looking for some light reading for summer vacay. This might be it. Thanks for re-calling it to my attention.

Tor Hershman said...

A wonderful lady by the name of Michiko babysat for us waaaaaaaaaay back in Porkland, Oregegun waaaaaaaaaay back when.

Talk about stoners...PORKLAND, yikes!

Stay on groovin' safari,