Inherent Vice – Thomas Pynchon

If anybody tries to tell you that Inherent Vice is “Pynchon-lite” or a good “way in” to his unforgivably dense and complex early books, don’t believe them.  It’s not that Inherent Vice isn’t light-hearted or readable or particularly insouciant, it’s just that: it’s not really Pynchon. I can’t recommend it as any kind of gateway novel to the harder stuff of Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon (or whatever), simply because it carries none of the postmodernist leanings, esoteric vocabulary or anti-structural abandon that so pervades those earlier works.  I can, however, recommend Inherent Vice as one of the better examples of the hardboiled revivalism that’s currently so modish and en vogue.  Usual comparative touchstones for reviewers of Pynchon are the higher echelons of the modernist cannon – you know, all those extremely long and opaque novels rampant with metaphysical concerns (Joyce, Kafka, Forster, Wyndham Lewis et al and etc.) – but the genre brothers of Inherent Vice are strikingly more low-brow, even pulpy (a term I use without prejudice): Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Elmore Leonard.  The significant point of difference being that Pynchon re-appropriates the stylistic and aesthetic mores of noir fiction that saw their hay day in the late twenties/early thirties and sets his novel instead in 1969. All of the narrative hallmarks of the hardboiled remain intact; the cold and apathetic portrayal of hard violence, the playing-it-fast-and-loose-with-the-law/whatever-it-takes approach to solving ‘the case’ and the iniquitous relationship between the police and certain individuals: but here they’re augmented by contemporary 1960/70s issues: recreational drug use, a free and easy approach to sex, bad haircuts and, er, surf rock.

Inherent Vice entails a characteristic hardboiled plot that’s so convoluted and tricksy as to make the act of précis fundamentally reductive and unhelpful.  Furthermore, and requisite of the book’s enormous cast, I had to maintain a system map of characters and their relative relationships (see my scan below) as an aide-memoire for reference during reading.  I also worry that giving a convoluted blurb will destabilize the fine tightrope that Inherent Vice walks between homage and pastiche by impressing on you good readers a sense that the book is either i) entirely parody or ii) the opposite: utterly serious; and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the narrative leans heavier to one side than the other, so masterfully balanced is Pynchon’s prose. Very briefly then: Doc Sportello is an L.A. P.I. inconveniently tasked with several simultaneous missing persons cases, one of which forces him to abandon the ideal disconnect between his work and personal life coming, as it does, at the behest of his ex-girlfriend.  Predictably, all the cases are soon revealed to be eerily interconnected.  Oh, and Doc’s also a massive stoner.

This isn't even the entire cast...

I’ve always had a critical blind spot when it comes to noir; the private-eye-as-social-outlier trope, functioning beyond the law yet ironically working to uphold its vagaries, appeals to me on some level that transcends the technical flaws or problems any given work within the genre might possess. Yet for all its preoccupation with the ‘cool’ of neo-noir, Inherent Vice is equally concerned with the ironies and moral inconsistencies of the genre. There’s a definite tension between the ad hoc, casual hipness of recreational drug use, and the darker truth that such substance abuse offers a mode of escape from the genuine emotional damage that bubbles under the surface of almost every character.  While it’s a blast to read about Doc’s frantic traversal of L.A. as he fumbles his way through various and sundry meetings with contacts and suspects, carried forward more by the impetus of luck and weed than any genuine investigative clout, there’s always an underlying sense of comic pathos due to his “doper’s memory” and the prevailing suggestion that behind his hardboiled, womanising and violent-cool exterior lie the more significant character traits of chronic loneliness, addiction and self-doubt. Beneath every quip, one-liner or somehow hilarious bad pun (Pynchon’s penchant for those remains intact) is Doc’s inveterate concern over where his next hit’s gonna come from.  Inherent Vice marries farce and fun with a nonetheless ubiquitous sense of buried pain and existential despair that permeates the period: drug-fuelled car chases, comic banter with the ‘acid guru’ and constant casual sex occur in scenes deliberately contrived to highlight the emptiness and transience of such encounters, but in such a subtle way that it’s left to the reader whether or not you engage with this narrative depth, or merely read the novel for the bonkers crime caper it is on the surface.  Thus Pynchon forces the same choices upon both reader and characters alike: bury the emotional pain, or set it in opposition to all the psychedelic campness, and thereby potentially expose the wild, neon-lit fun as the shallow cover-up for despair and lack of direction that it maybe, maybe was all along.  That’s not to say that Pynchon denigrates or maligns the sixties/seventies; he’s clearly enamoured and much in love with the decades of his youth, as made clear by his meticulous attention to the details of fashions, pop-culture, language etc. The onus of the story is ‘the sixties were free, fun and amazing’ the subtext says ‘but we’d be foolish to want it back’.  It’s a lament, more than a love letter.

As you’d expect, Inherent Vice is exceptionally well written, if somewhat of a culture shock in comparison with its more bombastic forebears. Long compound-complex sentences are still the grammatical standard, but here the technical esoterica of Pynchon’s earlier novels is substituted for the slang and cant argot of the sixties’ L.A. idiolect, so expect to read lots of ‘groovies’ and ‘bummers’ along the way; a few too many, in places.  Pynchon also brings forward his lively preoccupation with reproducing song lyrics, this time from the aforementioned surf rock genre. And while this works well in his earlier novels when counterpointed against his other, high culture concerns, here it falls flat: unmitigated by any austere contradictions or oppositions, the constant barrage of bad lyrics is just a bit naff, easily skipped and of mostly nostalgic significance.  The homage to noir also leans dangerously close to cliché in places, never more so than when Doc begins one of his long, clearly well-rehearsed speeches about how much he hates ‘The Man’; a flaw mirrored in its tedium by straight-edged cop Bigfoot’s parallel rants on the subject of hippy hating, and how they all need to “get a haircut”.

But let’s not end on a low note.  Inherent Vice is, above all, just ridiculously good fun.  Sure it’s been somewhat mis-sold as nothing more than a frivolous and psychedelic private eye escapade; there’s definitely more to it than that; but the novel’s ironic handling of genre conventions and its moral examination of 1960s’ social attitudes are threads that’re im- rather than ex-plicit.  If you’re just after a frequently hilarious, convoluted but ultimately satisfying hardboiled crime adventure, then go for it; after all, there’s nothing wrong with that.