The OF Blog: Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn't seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she'd never look.

"That you, Shasta?"

"Thinks he's hallucinating."

"Just the new package I guess."

They stood in the street light through the kitchen window there'd never been much point putting curtains over and listened to the thumping of the surf from down the hill. Some nights, when the wind was right, you could hear the surf all over town. (p. 1)

Detective novels often begin with a client, sometimes known, other times a mystery into themselves, approaching a detective or private eye and asking for help. The reader usually knows nothing more than what the detective reveals in the opening pages - how are the streets, who are the scum, what problems the private eye is facing, when the mystery/murder is said to have occurred. Out of all the interrogative questions, it is the "why" question, why these events are unfolding before our eyes, that usually is the last to be answered, if it is ever answered directly. In his seventh novel, Thomas Pynchon plays around with these interrogatives in a way that ended up creating a mostly satisfactory reading experience.

Inherent Vice opens in Los Angeles in the summer of 1970 (although the dates are not explictly stated by the characters, passing comments about the Manson Family trials, the Lakers/Knicks NBA finals, Governor Reagan and President Nixon's first terms of office, etc. serve to ground the story). The Summer of Love is fading into a hedonistic world in which sex and drugs serve to provide the novel with a seediness worthy of the blackest of noir settings. "Doc," the private eye from whose point of view the reader interacts with the story, has been approached by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, to investigate her new married lover's dealings as a real estate investor. Shortly afterward, her lover disappears and Doc is on the trail.

The novel revolves around Doc's explorations of 1970 L.A. and the people that populated some of the hangouts that Doc would frequent. As with many of Pynchon's novels, there are copious cultural references and character names like Adam Velveeta that would be as much at home on a 1960s-era Bob Dylan album as they would be cruising Sunset Boulevard at night looking to score some snatch. One example of the ambience that pervades Inherent Vice can be found in this scene where a friend of Doc's, Denis, is talking to Jade, one of the more colorful character in this novel:

What he couldn't also help noticing in the mirror now was that Denis and jade were striking up a friendship. "And what's, like, your name?" Denis was saying.

"Ashley," said Jade.

"Not Jade," Doc said.

"My working name. In the Fairfax High yearbook, I'm just one of, like, a thousand Ashleys?"

"And the Chick Planet salon..."

"Never considered that a career. Too fuckin wholesome. Smiling all the time, pretending it's about 'vibrations' or 'self-awareness' or anything but," sliding upward into an old-movie society-lady screech, "hoddible fucking!"

"Southern California," Denis chimed in. "No sympathy for weirdness, man, none of them darker type activities."

"Yeah really like where's that at," Jade, or Ashley, sympathized.

"And people wonder why Charlie Manson's the way he is."

"Do you eat pussy, by the way?" (pp. 134-135)

And so it goes, with Doc and his cast of sometimes strange, sometimes awkward, always intriguing associates opining about how life was changing, how the sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll were sometimes not enough or sometimes just too much, how Reagan was the sign of the end times, and so forth. For many readers, a detective novel, especially that of the noir style, is not about the case, but the people who are associated with the case. In Pynchon's case, the real story becomes these zany characters and not the mystery surrounding Shasta's lover's disappearance.

If anything, the main weakness of Inherent Vice revolves around the imbalance between the attention focused on developing the plot compared to the detail that went into creating the ambience for the novel. As hilarious as the Pussy Eater's Special or Jade's murmurings may have been, some readers might find themselves wondering if Pynchon would ever "get on with it" and delve further into the mystery that purportedly is the center of the story. To a degree he does dawdle a bit too much in places, but it would be a mistake to judge the merits and deficiencies of the novel solely on its ability (or inability) to develop a hard-hitting, fast-moving plot that zips through from scene to scene until the end is reached.

Pynchon's novels generally deal with characters and the insanities of life. Although Inherent Vice perhaps is more straightforward than his other novels, a large part of the fun in reading it deals with the deciphering of the cultural references. Readers who are willing to dwell a bit longer at the narrative beach, soaking up the stylistic sun, those are likely going to be the ones who will enjoy this novel the most. Others, especially those who want a more linear plot, may find that Pynchon has overindulged too much in this novel, creating a story that is fun in places, but with an uneven plot that does not support the setting as well as it should. For those readers, and I am one that is in the middle of the two camps, this novel perhaps would be viewed as a worthwhile read, but one that fails to match Pynchon's narrative power in earlier novels such as Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and (more recently) Against the Day. But even though Inherent Vice might indulge too much in its hedonistic vices, it still is an enchanting, albeit flawed read, that many might enjoy reading. After all, when in a purple haze, the ethereal just seems to be just within reach, making for a warm and fuzzy recollection.

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