Discussed in this essay:
• V., Thomas Pynchon. Harper Perennial. 560pp, $15.99
• The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon. Harper Perennial. 192pp, $12.99
• Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon. Penguin. 784pp, $20.00
• Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon. Back Bay Books. 208pp, $14.99
• Vineland, Thomas Pynchon. Penguin. 400pp, $16.00
• Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon. Picador. 784pp, $17.00
• Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon. Penguin. 1104pp, $18.00
• Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon. Penguin. 384pp, $27.95
“I said, Oh no, no, I been through this movie before”—Bob Dylan, “Motorpsycho Nitemare,” 1964
Since Thomas Pynchon’s recently published seventh novel, Inherent Vice, arrives as his third fictional representation of California in the period 1964-70 (following The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Vineland (1990)), it’s fair to ask: Why does Pynchon keep coming back here? I’m among those who have long considered Pynchon’s California novels as “lesser works” in his corpus—indeed, in the years between Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Vineland it was common to consider Lot 49 as a slight work, maybe not even a novel by Pynchon’s standards, a view the author himself gave voice to in 1984 in his introduction to Slow Learner, a collection of his early stories. That’s the year, as it happens, in which Vineland is set, and it’s possible that the latter novel was aimed to offer a “real Pynchon novel” on the period in question, as it flashed back to c. 1969, with student unrest, widespread drug use, endemic rock’n'roll, and counter-cultural attitudes deeply ingrained into its worldview—matters which were all present in Lot 49 as setting, but not so deliberately evoked as what Vineland calls “geist that could’ve been polter along with zeit.” In other words, Vineland returned to those days with something of the skeptical, jaundiced eye that four years of conservative Reagandom had made somewhat de rigeur, playing havoc with pipedreams of revolution as a poltergeist might, but also, as zeitgeist, reminding its readers that those glory days of Californian unrest occurred when Reagan was governor, thus, arguably, running the freak flag back up the pole to assert that “the geist” was still unbowed.
The critical reaction to Vineland has never put it on par with Lot 49, whose reputation has grown to the point that Lot 49 has come to be the Pynchon novel, especially for students of postmodern literature who are most likely find it on a college syllabus. One reason for the lack of enthusiasm regarding Vineland among Pynchon’s admirers is that it was deemed “no Gravity’s Rainbow,” and, as another take on those toujour déjá vu Sixties, was seen either as an aimless nostalgia trip or as a send-up of an era that had become a joke in the wake of Reaganism (recall how presidential candidate Clinton had to insist he “didn’t inhale” during his college years).
Literature, though, is not a seen-once, seen-for-all-time affair. The times themselves change and those changes can alter how we read what we read. The appearance of the shorter, obviously minor Inherent Vice after two huge Pynchon novels (Mason & Dixon (1997) and Against the Day (2006)) might serve a purpose beyond its accessibility and general lightness of tone: it might send us back to Vineland, and even to Lot 49, the better to assess what the “California trilogy” has in common.
Doing so is worthwhile on a few fronts. For one, it helps offset the view that Pynchon is a novelist of “hysterical realism” (to use James Wood’s phrase) whose fictions are nearly unreadable wildernesses full of systems theory, obscure facts, paranoid fantasies, evocations of entropic decline, stupid songs, and corny puns. While those elements certainly make up some portion of any Pynchon novel, we can find in his California novels grounds for seeing Pynchon as the delineator of a certain kind of American reality—call it hysterical, if you like, but it’s more properly reality as seen by the outsider, even the outlaw, an outlook set against what Inherent Vice calls “straight” or “flatlander” reality.
Indeed, the California novels are particularly vivid evocations of this outlaw reality because said reality was so prevalent in the late Sixties and early Seventies that it was almost an underground mainstream, to use an oxymoron. Although Pynchon’s historical epics are also written from this viewpoint, there much of the enjoyment comes from seeing the outlaw ethos clashing with other eras (the closing years of World War II in Gravity’s Rainbow, the pre-revolutionary American colonies in Mason & Dixon; late 19th-century America and Europe en route to World War I in Against the Day). But in the California novels, Pynchon’s “hysterical” realism is closer to the actual “enhanced” reality of those high times. Those who have a hard time with that are perhaps more content with a garden variety realism. One of the problems with such assumptions is that “realism” is itself a highly contentious term, or should be—think only of how often attempts to christen some new perspective use the term “realism”: surrealism, magical realism, hysterical realism. If modernism, and particularly film, achieved anything, it alerted us once and for all to the possibility that the work of art might make its own demands, and that a correspondence to “reality” comes under question when any view of reality, whether in newspapers, photographs, newsreels, or other supposedly non-aesthetic media, is already a manipulation. In the Sixties, two things became commonplace: there are all kinds of realities that don’t make the Evening News, the first edition, or the official account, and: there realities of “altered consciousness” that have effects on how folks live their lives. By participating in these kinds of reality, Pynchon’s California novels are not to be seen as instances of naive realism of the sort practiced by most of our novelists. They don’t simply “recreate” California as it was at the time, rather they relay a Pynchonian mock-up of California, formed from formidable imaginative and satiric associations, and founded on a perspective a bit more out there than most of us have ever ventured, in print at least.
One way that has proved more fruitful than “hysterical realism” in thinking about Pynchon’s approach to “projecting a world” (to borrow a potent phrase from Lot 49) is to think of it as projected—in other words, behaving as a film would. The importance of filmed media for Pynchon’s fiction has been a standard notion in approaching his fiction since his second novel. Though Pynchon’s first novel, V., references a few aspects of television (such as The Mickey Mouse Show’s theme song, and the theme song for Davy Crockett (a radio hit at the time as well)), by and large the frame of reference is literary, as young Pynchon is engaged in a pastiche treatment of high modernism. That all changes in Lot 49, in which the TV show Perry Mason becomes an occasion for reflections on the interplay between television’s reality and our own. Metzger, a lawyer who is a former child actor, tells Oedipa Maas:
A lawyer in a courtroom, in front of any jury, becomes an actor, right? Raymond Burr is an actor, impersonating a lawyer, who in front of a jury becomes an actor. Me, I’m a former actor who becomes a lawyer. They’ve done the pilot film of a TV series, in fact, based loosely on my career, starring my friend Manny Di Presso, a one-time lawyer who quit his firm to become an actor. Who in this pilot plays me, an actor become a lawyer reverting periodically to being an actor. The film is in an air-conditioned vault at one of the Hollywood studios, light can’t fatigue it, it can be repeated endlessly.
Note the extent to which levels of reality are still maintained as distinct: though the same person may be at times a real actor or a pretend lawyer, or a real lawyer “acting,” the fundamental fact of being either an actor or a lawyer isn’t in question. Identities don’t mix: even when Di Presso, a former lawyer, plays his friend, the former actor, as a lawyer, acting in a filmed courtroom, he simply places levels of simulation atop one another. There’s no reason to assume he ever doubts that he’s only acting and not really trying a case, all the more so as, because he was once a lawyer, he would know what the reality of trying a case would be like. So, while there may seem to be a vertinginous spiral here of the real and unreal, it is tempered by the fact of identifiable roles or jobs. The quote’s final statement, about the protective “air-conditioned vault at one of the Hollywood studios,” suggests an environment safe from the depredations of time and entropy. In other words, television and film are clearly separate from the world the characters of Lot 49 exist in. This is significant, because in Pynchon’s novels after Lot 49 this separation will not be maintained—in fact, the collapsing of such boundaries will become a crucial fact.
In two important essays, “‘You Used to Know What These Words Mean: Misreading Gravity’s Rainbow” (1985) and “Zapping, The Art of Switching Channels: On Vineland” (1992), Brian McHale analyzed the sense of “mediation” in the two Pynchon novels that followed Lot 49 as breaking down any easy schema of “real” and “media.” In the first, he argued quite cogently for the view that GR should not be a read as though an actual movie (as some critics had) but rather as a novel which implicates the reader through certain narrative strategies that make “us” experience the text as analogous to a film, or, we might say, experience the text as we would a film, particularly a film we are watching in an “altered state.” In the second essay, McHale sees “zapping” among various channels (as we all watch TV) as a creative act, one that subverts or countermands the official signal by “editing” it with extraneous content, creating crosstalk and overlaps with unpredictable associative possibilities. That in itself is a fair description of Pynchon’s method in GR where the segues are often profoundly disorienting. Indeed, in his discussion of Vineland McHale tends to read the use of television in that book as congruent with the use of film in GR: in Vineland the narrator uses metaphors borrowed from the other media, the characters at times understand themselves or speak of themselves as characters in, respectively, a movie or TV show, the orientation of the entire narrative assumes in the reader a familiarity with, even an obsession with, TV shows. McHale’s main point is that Pynchon uses both film and television to create “ontological plurality” in his novels: in other words, he freely smashes boundaries, not only complicating the relation of the reader to fiction but also creating uncertainty about what world or what kind of world they might be inhabiting. The tendency of almost all characters in Vineland is to relate the world as they know it to TV as the lingua franca of experience.
McHale’s argument establishes the transition from GR to Vineland in terms of the kinds of plurality both offer as an aspect of their mediation. But we might ask why this mediation is required. GR, predominantly written by Pynchon during the period covered by the California novels, purports to recreate the era of World War II (but in a different register from V.‘s literary pastiche to revisit certain crisis points in history from 1899 to 1958). The Forties in GR are not predominantly literary but cinematic—cinematic in a way that deliberately involves anarchic fantasy and layered hallucination, that involves, simply put, the Sixties as an ethos based on a willful “zapping” of one’s own mind. This method becomes a way of separating the context and content of the novel from whatever a “straight” World War II novel might be supposed to be. As McHale sees, and effectively argues, the predominant mode of GR aims to subvert any readerly expectations that might regulate its narrative to an explanatory logic or stable claim about how reality works, how history is shaped. But it’s done in the name of an outlaw mentality that Pynchon’s narrator seems to aim to inculcate in his readers because anything less would be a surrender to the logic of history.
Like other artists who give us always a world that operates according to the logic of their peculiar sensibility—the Kafkaesque, Felliniesque, Nabokovian—the Pynchonian adumbrates a world that is what it is because the author says so. Pynchon’s novels would not be what they are without the pretext of film and television and music and drugs because their basic aesthetic premise is that the material provided by those avenues, or “useful substances” (to borrow Pynchon’s phrase to describe marijuana in his Slow Learner intro), are ingrained in the way the narrator understands stories, tells stories, and visualizes them for our imaginations. And if this manner isn’t second nature to all of “us,” it certainly is for the ideal Pynchon reader, one who identifies with counter-cultural outsiders for whom mainstream America is like the movie under the carpet in Gravity’s Rainbow, or the internet in Vineland: open 24-7, running constantly, and sweeping everything we do and say (and don’t do and can’t say) into its flow. The effort of the Pynchonian narrator is to render the ongoing movie in his characters’ heads, as well as planting the ongoing movie of his fiction in his reader’s head: to make us viewers of a movie that could never be playing on television or at any movie theater because it’s only available in Pynchon’s fiction.
The final page of Gravity’s Rainbow famously designates us as “old fans who’ve always been at the movies (haven’t we)?” Offered in the characteristic knowing tone of the narrator, but perhaps fearfully, the question suggests the extent to which the Pynchonian narrator assumes a certain complicity between reader and narrator: the collective “we” here is one we might disavow, but, if we do, we place ourselves outside the assumed collectivity of the narrative. And what does that collectivity consist of? It assumes we are, in some sense, “freaks.” Movie freaks, drug freaks, rock or jazz freaks, lit freaks, more than anything Pynchon freaks. Otherwise we align ourselves with the ominous “They”: those unable to permit the kinds of imaginative proliferation of possibility that Gravity’s Rainbow, more than perhaps any “novel” beside Finnegans Wake, thrives on.
Much of the unsettling power of Gravity’s Rainbow derives from the complicity of that narrative voice: it knows how we would like to read the book in order not to be disturbed by it, how we would like to make it a film that doesn’t include us, or a novel that only plays at implicating its audience. Pynchon became the major counter-cultural author of the period because he alone was able to bring the counter-culture’s tonalities—its visionary glee, its absurdist mirth, its love of chaos and excess for their own sake, its anti-authoritarian brio and paranoia, its distrust of all means to control behavior, its sense of reality as permeated by the most outrageous imaginings—to bear upon whatever he chose to write about.
The instability is endemic to the outlaw position of the narrative itself, a position that might only be seen in GR by being put into the shoes of the narrator—a feat that the narrative itself does its best to render well-nigh impossible. Thus, the deliberate positing of a “We system” in the novel sets up a comic, and possibly doomed, scenario in which any attempt to identify with the victims of the “They system” finally must recognize the extent to which the narrator—in perpetrating the narrative and the world it adumbrates—is a “They,” a resolution that the narrator squirms away from by positioning, near the novel’s close, a “you” (potentially either reader or narrator or both) in a car with a caricature of Richard Nixon—Richard M. Zhlubb—on a highway in Los Angeles, en route to a movie theater where, eventually, a bomb will descend to threaten “us” all. No one is exempt, and with that inclusiveness—”Now, everybody—”—the book ends, or the film breaks, or the bomb explodes, or all three.
In other words, as GR goes on into its final section, “The Counterforce,” the force to be countered is the narrative itself as any subsumable or resolved tale. The anxiety of the narrator becomes so manifest that in one passage—after a depressing Tarot reading—the “chronicler” goes off to smoke and watch reruns of the Takeshi and Ikizo Show (about kamikazes) on TV. The narrator himself is in flight from the “bomb” of narrative closure, and from the unsettling implications of the novel’s ethos—equal parts radical and farcical—as yet another plot that falsifies history or normalizes aberrant excess. But he’s also, as it were, on a kamikaze flight into the abyss of a non-ending. And after that bomb falls there’s no new narrative for seventeen years.
Where does our “chronicler” resurface and when? In Vineland, in the middle of the Reagan period, and the novel is all about the resurfacing of the “Sixties types” in the increasingly less hospitable world of the Eighties. The narrator of Vineland, as McHale takes pains to argue, is not really as critical of “the Tube” as those who want further radical conceptions from Pynchon might wish. I will admit that at the time of Vineland‘s release I could number myself among those who found the endless TV-referencing a kind of sell-out, or at least a pandering to a younger or at least less “literary” readership. In such a reading, trying to argue that Pynchon is subverting television (or, as McHale would have it, “redeeming” it), comes as a bit of special pleading. The world of Vineland is quite simply the world as approached through television. But one could still argue that it’s the Eighties sensibility that is overwhelmed with television, not the world of the Sixties radicals, recalled through storytelling by Prairie’s elders, or by actual film footage from a group that saw the film camera as a weapon against straight society.
But one thing Inherent Vice, as Pynchon’s latest resurfacing in California c. 1970, helps to illuminate is the extent to which that is not true. Reading Vineland after Inherent Vice we can see more clearly how the earlier novel uses the common avenues of film, TV, rock music, marijuana, and LSD to dovetail the “movie” in the book with the “movie” any of us who lived through those times might find if we throw our memories back to the period 1964-1970. In Vineland Prairie Wheeler, born in 1970, learns about the Sixties by watching films that her mother Frenesi Gates made as part of an underground film collective. Canny director Pynchon jump-cuts, or “zaps,” between the content of those films and the other “film” (set in 1984, in which Prairie is on the run, and screening the past with her mother’s old running buddy DL Chastain and her karmic partner Takeshi Fumimota, and getting input from several fonts of memory, including a computer) to impress upon us how seamless is the continuity of the movie he’s making. So rapid-fire and yet contained are the various ellipses, segues, flashbacks, digressions, and jump-cuts that Vineland has begun to convince me that it might well be the quintessential Pynchon novel. Everyone’s on the run, everyone’s looking backward, and the concept of “karmic adjustment”—never given too much overt coverage in the novel at the level of plot—hovers over all the proceedings, as if there should be some way to re-shoot the Sixties and make it come out better in the final takes.
So how does Inherent Vice update this? The pop cultural reference points that permeate Vineland are worked into Inherent Vice but with even more openness to “product placement” accusations—familiar radio songs of the era, TV shows, lists of John Garfield movies, and so on. In fact, with Inherent Vice we find that Pynchon has released a trailer on YouTube and placed on Amazon a playlist of songs referenced in the text. Such obvious efforts to recreate the multi-media impact of movies’ trailers and soundtracks invite a further comment on Pynchon’s latest novel: of all his fictions, it’s the one that is most conceivable as an actual movie, and, with its rights sold in Hollywood, looks like it will be the first Pynchon novel adapted as a film. It’s fitting because Inherent Vice is indeed “filmable,” rather than “filmed” as GR and Vineland are. The new novel should be convertible, as so many novels are, to a screenplay that might reasonably translate the book into a different medium.
That fact in itself says much about what’s different about Inherent Vice compared to earlier Pynchon novels: in a sense genre fiction, it builds upon the fact that private eye or detective stories are popular both in fiction and films, that “film noir,” a style that greatly informs Pynchon’s filmed sensibility in GR, has done justice to much private eye fiction, and that a more contemporary version of that form, informed by the counter-cultural ethos of Pynchon’s fiction, might indeed make for an interesting film-going experience. Consider the degree to which films like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) have done some of Vice’s work of giving Raymond Chandler a “freak” treatment: Elliot Gould, as a throwback to Fifties noir in Goodbye, is at odds with Seventies California; that clash provides much of the humor and cultural cachet of the film. In Lebowski, Jeff Bridges’ The Dude staggers through an offbeat tale from material that recalls Chandler’s The Big Sleep, registered through the dominant viewpoint of a quintessential Nineties Californian slacker. In both cases the norms of the genre both clash with and complement the contemporary coloring, much as Inherent Vice’s Doc Sportello combines both the haphazard and clueless lifestyle of the inveterate stoner with the clued-in and knowing manner of the seasoned PI. The combination creates the most consistently “actable” role in all of Pynchon’s work. Consider also that Altman and the Coens, both outsiders to Hollywood, perhaps even “anti-Hollywood,” were both awarded Oscars in the 21st century. In 1970, the period in which Inherent Vice is set, it would have been quite conceivable to make an independent feature about an openly drug-using PI (kind of Chinatown meets Easy Rider)—but it’s only now that such a film could be a major feature film. The outsiders have come inside, and this is something Pynchon has had to acclimate his fiction to.
In other words, it’s not that Inherent Vice, if filmed, would be in any sense co-opted. Rather it seems in some ways plotted for that eventuality. It doesn’t really matter if the novel actually gets made into a Hollywood film, the point is that Pynchon has come as close as possible, for him, to writing a Hollywood film. It could be that Pynchon wants us to see Doc, likeable as he is, as just another deluded stoner who failed to see the signs of the times, but it’s more in keeping with the spirit of the book that we see Doc as another version of “geist” that’s “polter” as well as “zeit,” and what that means is being willing and able to understand pop culture as the only means of having common cause with the energies of any given day. The ironies that were available in Vineland, between “the way we were” in the ’60s and “the way we live now” in the ’80s, have been flattened into an unabashed “period movie.”
A telling instance of this change is in the handling of songs within the Pynchon “movie.” With his penchant for song parodies, Pynchon has always included in his fiction musical renditions that are recognizable as certain types of songs, whether show tunes or folk or pop songs. That feature continues in Inherent Vice but, in keeping with its more filmable aspects, the songs are for the most part “legitimate”—in other words, they appear when someone is listening to a radio or actually performing a song for others, as the novel’s hero Doc Sportello does, in a “Sinatroid” manner, late in the novel. We aren’t in a demented Hollywood musical any more, Toto, where people burst into outrageous songs for no apparent reason.
Indeed, ever since surfacing as an author—rather than simply the voice of an outlaw narrator—Pynchon has worked quotations from actual songs, often ascribed, into his prose. A tendency begun in the intro to Slow Learner, and continued in Vineland, has become in Vice even more clued-in to the notion of a soundtrack that’s being referenced because we can imagine it playing as we read. We can speak of this as “mediation” if we wish, but the effect implies that we’ve moved beyond having to pretend there exists a version of any 20th-century era—whether in fact (as a memory to be recalled) or as history (to be consulted via research)—that isn’t permeated with the music and movies of the time. Indeed, if the outsiders have come inside it’s because, perhaps, inside and outside of a “mainstream” or “straight” culture no longer make sense in the same way. Linked to that perception is the extent to which Pynchon’s “useful substances”—namely marijuana and LSD—and rock’n'roll create what Vice presents as an almost Proustian sense of what outsiderness once consisted of. In other words, if we think of how certain musical phrases and substances (a madeleine soaked in tea) confer a recall of place and time upon Proust’s narrator, we can find a “hip” version of that recherche into times lost via certain rock songs and the ever-present reefer in Inherent Vice, the mood of which seems to endorse this rather Proustian passage from Vineland: “And these acid adventures, they came in those days and they went, some we gave away and forgot, others sad to say turned out to be fugitive or false—but with luck one or two would get saved to go back to at certain later moments in life.” The narrator of these lines has, in a sense, passed to the narrator of Inherent Vice the wherewithal—still potent, smoking, and not yet played out—to “go back” to those moments.
And it’s that Proustian aspect of Inherent Vice—the sense of the past not as gone for good, finished, but as still firing certain synapses under the right conditions—that becomes clearer if we take into account how Pynchon’s three stagings of the period differ due to the context in which they appear. For the further we get from the period itself—that period in which Johnson’s Great Society gave way to the Nixonian reaction—the less seems to be at stake in evoking it. Watching this movie might “take you back,” but it’s not going to change anything you already think about what went down.
Lot 49 is set in 1964 with Goldwater a viable candidate against Johnson, but, in the year after the death of Kennedy, an unlikely victor; it’s also the year of the Tonkin resolution, so that the mention of Viet Nam in the novel is very much in the nature of current events. Published in 1966, the novel appears in the first flush of the Great Society and clearly points to the undercurrent of counter-cultural operations, both on the Left and on the Right, that might be said to be vying for the allegiance of Oedipa Maas, Pynchon’s Young Republican housewife experiencing paranoia as a potential illumination about the actual status of the U.S. The force of the novel comes in part from the fact that it’s not clear in which direction the country is going; Oedipa, in a sense, has her “consciousness raised,” to use a phrase that would become familiar in the later Sixties, but is the vision of America she has arrived at a paranoid fantasy or a view of what is actually rotten at the heart of the American dream?
Vineland, set in the year of Reagan’s re-election as president, appeared in print just after the Berlin Wall fell, an event that indicated the end of the Cold War that had governed, very deliberately, the concerns of Pynchon’s earlier fictions, from the exploration of political crisis points in V. to that unavoidable bomb falling upon us all at the close of GR. In other words, Vineland was uniquely placed to herald the return to a version of Sixties mentality in the grunge movement in rock and the rehashing of the Vietnam War in the candidacy of Bill Clinton, the first elected president younger than Pynchon himself. That fact alone might indicate why it seemed to many as if Pynchon were simply engaging in fond nostalgia for the times of his youth, but to consider Vineland as no more than that misses how fully engaged it is with its present moment—fully as much as Lot 49 was with the ’64-’66 period.
Reagan’s dissatisfaction with the elected government in Nicaragua in 1984 prompted efforts to undermine that government. In the novel, Reagan’s plans for a full-scale invasion of Nicaragua are alluded to, indicating that the detention camp to which Frenesi is sent is in place to corral the protestors that are expected to arise, in the manner of anti-Vietnam War protestors, once the invasion gets under way. In other words, the novel conceives of 1984, twenty years after the setting of Lot 49, as potentially the occasion for a reaction against Reagan’s policies that would mean those who fought him as governor in Berkeley and elsewhere would now have to fight him as president. The fact that Congress revoked funding for such an invasion and interdicted aid to the Contras is alluded to in the novel by the sudden yanking of funding for Vond’s project of rounding up Frenesi, her daughter, and anyone else he chooses. In other words, the position of the novel isn’t so much “paranoid” as deeply distrustful of the Reagan administrations manifest—and ultimately covert—intentions. The “They” is clearly also “Us” if by the latter we mean the United States, eventually found guilty by the International Court of Justice for violating international laws in its support of the Contras. If GR is a major statement of outlaw status toward history and official culture generally, Vineland can be said to be a more local statement, aimed at the Reagan-Bush and Bush-Quayle administrations, but also well aware of how little use the renegade druggies were in political terms in the Sixties and how even more dispersed their energies are in the Eighties. As Hector Zuñiga harangues Zoyd, Prairie’s dad, about the sanctimonious Sixties ethos: “Who was saved?”
And what of Vice: this most amiable of throwback narratives is set at the time when California dreaming is significantly eclipsed by the Manson murders and Nixon’s first year in office. The tone of the novel, under its levity, shares a mood found in such effective accounts of that era as Hunter Thompson’s statement, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971): “‘Consciousness Expansion’ went out with LBJ . . . and it is worth noting, historically, that downers came in with Nixon.” What he alludes to is that the use of psychedelics and hallucinogens as a means to “zap” reality and maintain “a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning” is passed or passing in 1970. Similarly, in her essay “The White Album,” Joan Didion states that for many people she knew “the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community . . . . The paranoia was fulfilled.” So that whether you date the end of the Sixties from Nixon taking office in January, 1969, or to the Manson murders—in which one particularly demented version of freak culture rose up against the straights—in August, 1969, or to the murder and violence at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, CA in December, 1969, where rock claimed a sacrificial victim, the point is that a way of telling time, historically, for “us,” for many people we know, a sense of collective purpose or zeitgeist has reached a moment of consciousness.
But what does that moment of consciousness entail for the narrative of Inherent Vice itself? It seems to exist primarily as a “flashback,” a way of dovetailing certain pregnant moments, in an almost Proustian way, so as to suggest continuity, perhaps even clairvoyance, but only as a means of asserting the view of the individual as not quite trapped in time past. One way of saying this, in narrative terms, is that Doc, as Pynchon’s most actable character, is also closest in some ways to his creator, or, better, that the narrator of Inherent Vice is never too far removed from Doc. So that Doc, in looking ahead at the end of the novel, is dovetailing with his narrator looking back. Indeed, it seems, from internal evidence, that Inherent Vice ends on Thomas Pynchon’s 33rd birthday, May 8, 1970, the night the Lakers lost game seven to the Knicks (alluded to at the start of the book’s final chapter). On that night, Doc Sportello drives the Santa Monica Freeway in dense fog, fortuitously linking in a “caravan” with the car lights of other travelers for safety.
The drive might recall the drive with Richard Zhlubb at the close of GR and also, not coincidentally, the very night (or rather 4 a.m. on May 9, 1970) that Nixon made an unscheduled appearance to “rap” with protestors at the Lincoln Monument about the bombing of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State, but is also reminiscent of Hunter Thompson’s ruminative drives in Fear and Loathing (significantly, Thompson recounts his ride in a car with Nixon in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72). The drive might also bring to mind Oedipa Maas, in The Crying of Lot 49, driving on the freeway at night “with her lights out to see what would happen.” Thus these dovetailings hover around the moment much as the palimpsest of past moments come at the bidding of a particular temporal trigger in Proust, but the moments are more internal, even if collective, rather than political. They make of the narrator, and of Doc, not outsiders of a mainstream, but riders within the stream of a certain sense of historical and narrative circumstance, a bringing together of past and future.
Doc wondered how many people he knew had been caught out tonight in this fog, and how many were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep. Someday . . . there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.
Here the collectivity isn’t an outlaw culture, it’s rather a haphazard community of communications freaks, linked via cellphone and web technology. It still conjures Oedipa’s vision, at the end of Lot 49, of an alternative America searching in the night for “that magical Other.” But it’s far less apocalyptic in tone than Pynchon’s writing in the Sixties, and far less saturated with the edgy disjunction between a then (the Sixties) and a now (the Eighties) than Vineland. Inherent Vice gives us a mellower view of the end of the Sixties than either Thompson or Didion, writing as it went down, do; Pynchon’s narrator, in the twenty-first century, is able to “look ahead,” as Doc, to the eventual outsider mainstream of DIY enthusiasms of our day, with perhaps an oldster’s somewhat ironic suggestion that all such connections are ultimately as transient, and fleetingly graceful, as a caravan of cars in a fog.
Published in the first year of the administration of Barack Obama, “a magical Other” whose campaign was notable for its use of the connective technologies of the Internet and for appeal to a youth movement of voters, Inherent Vice can perhaps be forgiven for being largely light-hearted, as though some kind of major karmic readjustment might now be taking place. And yet . . . Doc does come to the realization that he’s ultimately working for Them, the special interests that have their own reasons for making use of his talents for goals never quite divulged to him. And while he would like to imagine, when the fog burns away, “something else this time, somehow, to be there instead,” first of all, the fog has to lift, and, in terms of 1970, what would be revealed are the bummers that Thompson, Didion, and Pynchon himself, in GR, attest to. In terms of our current moment, the “something else” still sounds like a willed version of that “other America” Oedipa tries to glimpse via W.A.S.T.E., and that Mason and Dixon experience even as they commit themselves to the effort to corral and contain it.
Pynchon, perhaps simply resting after his twin colossal efforts to imagine “something else” in Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, has provided a droll and friendly romp about the way it used to be, but, unlike for Proust, the avenues Pynchon frequents are not necessarily as “fugitive, hélas comme les années” if only because of our ability to revisit the movies, the music, the acid adventures, effectively zapping our minds back to when it was possible to be an outsider and to disappear like Slothrop at the end of GR. But this time it’s done as a feature film, not one with the quick-cuts and various media and cinema verité footage that Prairie watches to learn what went down, but a genre—freak noir?—that might, if done well, look like a film that could’ve shown up on late night TV back in the day. Rather than translating the world into an anarchic film with a freak sensibility, Inherent Vice simply enacts that sensibility, for an audience poised to receive it, as remembrance of things past.
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate. He has published on Pynchon in Poetics Today and in Modern Language Studies.
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