Published August 4, 2009
Reviewed February 26, 2010
Despite my position as a nigh-infallible authority on the world of literature, I’m willing to admit that there are a few gaps in my lexicon of readings. Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Heller, the recently departed J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn – if someone made a list they could stock a small town library. As I’ve written before, I make no apologies for these omissions, preferring to come to these authors when the mood strikes me rather than giving into the same mass hysteria that tends to turn me off popular trends. (I’m looking at you, “Lost.”)
However, these gaps in my reading history do occasionally offer me some interesting opportunities, and such is the case with Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.” Having never read any of Pynchon’s groundbreaking tomes (with the exception of browsing through the phenomenally splendid illustrated version of “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Zak Smith) his latest work affords me an entry into an authorial canon differently than the way most readers approach him traditionally. It also frees me up from the need to compare it to the epics that have defined his career as other reviewers have done, and judge it on its own merits as a mystery/work of historical fiction. And on its own merits, it’s a work that can certainly stand up on its own, despite its tendency to stumble and occasionally giggle randomly.
“Inherent Vice” takes place in the surfer’s paradise of southern California, as the 1960s are preparing to give way to a much more repressive decade but the culture of free love and free drugs still has some life left. Larry “Doc” Sportello, a part-time PI/full-time pothead, is happy to get as much of both as he can – until his old girlfriend Shasta walks into his apartment after a year’s absence. With barely a hello, Doc finds a series of cases (almost) snapping him out of his haze: a land developer surrounded by neo-Nazi bodyguards, a yacht that may be smuggling counterfeit bills or heroin or dental tax dollars, and a junkie saxophone player who shows up a lot of places for someone who is supposed to be dead.
And those cases are just the start of the path Doc steps on, with a road map that feels like it’s been tie-dyed one too many times. The book has a massive cast of characters with esoteric names – Fabian Fazzo, Amethyst Harligen, Bigfoot Bjornsen, Puck Beaverton to name a few – and the action takes Doc from Los Angeles to Santa Monica to North Vegas. Plot points are abandoned only to be picked up about fifty pages later, and for a book that tips the scales at 350-plus, it’s hard to tell which threads and characters are supposed to matter. It also doesn’t help that Doc’s a third-person unreliable narrator, an investigator who’s surprisingly good at disguises and bullshitting but whose investigative tactics and smoking habits owe more to the Dude than Philip Marlowe.
But in many ways, the fact that the book so regularly gets lost in its own story helps it achieve the atmosphere a novel with this subject matter needs. This book is rooted in the counterculture of the Sixties – a fact Pynchon regularly reminds readers of, throwing out film titles and television shows and even the lyrics of songs popular at the time – and most of its residents are happy just to go with the flow. As such, a reader is encouraged to do the same, taking events for what they are and trying to make sense of it later.
It also helps that while the book’s mind might be a little shaky, its body is constructed of iron in how well it uses words. The language is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s journalistic features on the psychedelic world, with long and winding sentences that go into countless details on the cast and climate. Sharp metaphors are mixed in with the long random dope fiend conversations on TV shows, giving a lot of weight to what you’d normally think of as throwaway. And just when things seem totally fragmented, a truly masterful passage like this one comes along:
“Offshore winds had been too strong to be doing the surf much good, but surfers found themselves getting up early anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which seemed like a visible counterpoint to the feeling in everybody’s skin of desert winds and heat and relentlessness, with the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing with microfine Mojave sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-warning skies.”
Sentences like that give you a contact high with how well they’re done, and the fact that so many of them are tied to actual drug experiences only exacerbates the mood. A friend of Doc’s comments that “PIs should really stay away from drugs, all ‘em alternative universes just make the job that much more complicated,” and more than once the cases seem to shift dimension. An acid trip where he learns he is an interstellar being named Xqq who can pass through drywall without problems (except for the wall studs) is a fine example, as is a later instance where a joint laced with PCP splits his body and mind into two parts and creates a giant wolf to the tune of the score from “The Big Bounce.”
Yet for all the fun and games the cast undertakes, the book is also aware of the unpleasant turn history is about to take. The world of “Inherent Vice” is fast approaching the crash of the 1960s, its energies “all wired into a survival trip now… aggressively dissipated by the rush to self preservation” as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Pynchon is no less prescient on what that means for the hippies, with Charles Manson’s rampage still fresh in everyone’s memory and the specter of surveillance rearing its head in the ARPANET prototype one of Doc’s sources is fooling around with.
Even Doc, for all his distractable nature, can see real unsmiling men in the gray wool suits in the party’s background, and while they may or may not be keeping tabs on him he knows what their presence means: “If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.”
Again, I am unable to comment how Pynchon’s fans will perceive this book, but from my separate perspective I can recommend “Inherent Vice.” If you have the patience to wade through a plot that not even the main character seems too terribly focused on, the fluid language and eccentric cast all come together to create a fairly remarkable reading experience. You feel good but loopy after reading, and won’t be sure if you learned anything but you’ll know it was worth the ride.