Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon. Penguin. 368pp, $27.95.
With his seventh novel, Thomas Pynchon proves he hasn’t lost his knack for rendering California as it existed during the 1960s. Pynchon first took on California in The Crying of Lot 49, set in the Golden State in 1964; his 1990 novel, Vineland, though set mostly in California in the year Reagan was re-elected president, features flashbacks to the earlier era. Now, Inherent Vice, set in 1970, bookends the decade.
In other words, no matter how far-flung the settings of his epic novels—V., Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day—Pynchon’s internal homing device keeps circling in on a certain place and period: California in the years bracketing The Great Society, the years from Pynchon’s mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Accordingly, in Inherent Vice one detects a feeling that recalls Proust’s lament that “streets and avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” Not only is the L.A. of that time lovingly re-created, it is also enthusiastically re-imagined as the endless, stoned-out summer many would like to remember it as.
Pynchon comes up with the perfect character to send out into those fugitive streets in those fugitive years: a pot-smoking detective called Doc Sportello, whose seemingly feckless attention to the types who fill the world Pynchon has wrought is what makes the whole thing move. Sure, there’s a story: Doc’s main task is, at first, to help his old girlfriend Shasta Fay protect her current love, a real estate magnate named Mickey Wolfmann, from his wife and her lover. Later it’s to find out who kidnapped Mickey, and where he is. And then it’s to find out where Shasta is, while also helping a supposedly dead musician named Coy Harlingen look after his wife and kid, while maybe freeing him from the zomboid clutches of a band called the Boards, or is that freeing him from the clutches of a rabid right-wing group called Vigilant California?
Of course, Doc’s clients are just the beginning. In the midst of all this there are recurrent run-ins and repartee with LAPD tough guy, Bigfoot Bjornsen, who may be mixed up in more than Doc knows about, or may be trying to get Doc in over his head one time too many. And what about the ship known as The Golden Fang, and that strange, fang-shaped building called the Chryskylodon Institute, where they do things to people’s minds? And what about Puck Beaverton, the guy with the swastika tattoo on his head, believed to be scamming in Vegas with his partner Einar?
Pynchon’s readers already know that such a sprawling, beside-the-point plot is just par for the course. Pynchonians don’t want answers, nor do they want backstories that explain how so-and-so got to be such-and-such, nor character development and catharsis; rather they want Pynchon’s unmatched brio for the tonalities of a sentence, both lyrical and satirical, his cool, older-brother chuminess that always seems to know the ropes already (no matter how arcane, fanciful, technical, or uncomfortable their implications), his unflagging sense of caricature whose humor pushes beyond the absurd, the zany, the hip to announce, again and again, the alternate universe we might imagine co-existing with the everyday world we inhabit—where, for instance, someone is pushing money with Nixon’s picture on it, or where Godzilla pays a call on those castaways of the S. S. Minnow, or where Asymmetric Bob launches into a song about a returning Vietnam vet that manages to send-up Dylan, the Boss, and the kind of acid-blues number rampant on FM airwaves in those days.
Ever since Lot 49 gave us that sense of being on “the leading edge of revelation,” Pynchon has served readers what John Keats called “negative capability . . . when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Inherent Vice once again delivers the trademark rollicking with-it-ness of an author who doesn’t create fantasy worlds so much as show us our own world at its most fantastic. This time, however, it’s mostly for fun, a high-five for those who were there then, a glimpse into the groove of it all for those who otherwise can only daydream while sampling what Burbank hath bequeathed, whether Adam-12 re-runs, or those Warners/Reprise samplers on used vinyl.
If the main strength of Inherent Vice is its particular sense of a time and a place, this is helped by being the first Pynchon novel since Lot 49 that is focused through one character. In fact, the generally accepted idea that Lot 49 was a take-off on the basic private eye plot, visited upon an unsuspecting but not wholly hapless Republican Californian housewife, here finds its complement in an actual private eye, one armed with the goofy stoner charm some readers find in Oedipa’s estranged husband Mucho Maas (the first character in Pynchon to opt for LSD-inspired savanthood) and in Vineland’s Zoyd Wheeler.
But Doc is a tougher customer than those worthies, since, after all, he does make some kind of living as a gumshoe, or as Bigfoot would have it, “gumsandal.” Whatever else he may be, Doc seems to be an homage to the late Hunter S. Thompson, whose persona as a journalist more inclined to tackle a job when he could be blitzed while doing it produced a druggy but sharp prose derived from the same California-based fount that fed Raymond Chandler. In Doc, Pynchon has created a character with the ethos of Thompson and the moxie of Phillip Marlowe, and that, as readability goes, is cause for praise.
And the novel’s weakness? It’s that very same fondness for the perhaps regrettable over-indulgence of the period it depicts. Keats notwithstanding, if you’re of the mind that there are many good reasons to reach for fact and logic, you might become irritable indeed with the “to be young then was very bliss” tone that Pynchon never ironizes or critiques. He’s playing stoned straight, in other words, not bending the realities of the times to suit some 21st-century ideological purpose but just reliving the high times. As with Vineland—where the politics seemed as canned as sitcom laughter—Inherent Vice makes all the predictable moves about who the bad guys are without really giving us much hope for the good guys. But if you were there then—or anywhere in the vicinity of the era—you’ll swear he must’ve been in the same room with you, soaking up stoned commentaries on commercials and TV shows.
Late in the novel, Doc, on the beach with the disarmingly sexy Shasta, has an epiphany that seems, unfortunately, to hit a little too close to Pynchon himself:
Doc followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did. The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not. Shasta had nailed it. Forget who—what was he working for anymore?
The “future” for Doc’s past is 1970, a year that is already visiting ugly changes on what the ’60s might have led to. But the larger future—our present—might make anyone still producing work charmed by a phantom muse of those times wonder “what for?” The novel’s final sentence gives a possible answer, predicated on the idea that something like negative capability might yet reveal “something else.”
Pynchon, finally, isn’t a Gatsby, trying to repeat the past, or an aging rocker repeating the same riffs. The pasts he evokes are fueled by a sense of the present. Gravity’s Rainbow closed its evocation of the end of WWII by suddenly inhabiting California, c. 1972, making explicit the sense that the world the novel evoked was part of the present. Inherent Vice, light-hearted, funny, a quick end-of-summer read, aches at times with that peculiar double-vision found in all Pynchon’s work, in which the past and the present bear witness to one another, holding each to a condition of truth neither would admit to on its own.
Donald Brown lives in New Haven, teaches at Yale, and writes for The New Haven Review. His website is available here. He is currently finishing a novel set in the late Seventies while looking back to the late Sixties.
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