Book review: “Inherent Vice” by Thomas Pynchon

In 2009, Thomas Pynchon published a (for him) short 369-page mystery novel “Inherent Vice” about a hippie private investigator trying to puzzle out a host of intricate and seemingly inter-related crimes, deaths, “deaths,” disappearances, hallucinations, scams, drug deals, relationships and betrayals.

And was accused of betrayal by some critics and longtime Pynchon fans for slumming in genre fiction.

On that question, I have nothing to say. Many years ago, I gave Pynchon a shot, trying and failing to get very far into a couple of his earlier novels. (Not much of an effort, I must admit.) So I’m in no position to judge whether he’s slumming.

Yet, for what it’s worth, after reading “Inherent Vice,” I’m going to take a stab, sometime soon, at one of his “literary” works.

Beside the point

Actually, the distinction between literary and genre books is somewhat beside the point for a writer as talented as Pynchon.

“Inherent Vice” is and isn’t genre fiction. Yes, there are mysteries aplenty, and Pynchon’s PI Larry “Doc” Sportello is an appealing character. The genre framework makes this book more accessible to general readers than Pynchon’s other books. Still, Pynchon doesn’t let himself be too constrained by the mystery conventions.

Indeed, in “Inherent Vice,” the puzzle element is of secondary importance. Instead of a core question that Doc digs to answer, there are myriad questions, and, even though Doc answers some and is given answers to others, there is no punch of surprise or pleasure of solution for the reader. There are just too many questions on the table, and their links to each other and to Doc become obscured in the sheer weight of Pynchon’s story-telling.

Not that I, for one, minded.

A moment in history

Overwhelming these plot elements is Pynchon’s desire to depict the Los Angeles of the first half of 1970 and the lives of those who had created a subculture in contradistinction to the straight world and were getting hints that all was not well in Paradise.

The moment in history is important. It is after the bloody, pointless and, thereby, terrifying murders by the Charles Manson clan, but before Manson went on trial for his crimes.

The title of the novel refers to an insurance term for a fault in something that is so integral to the thing that it can’t be removed or avoided.

Does this refer to the fragility of the whimsical idealism and hedonism of the hippie life-style in the face of the evil that was Manson? Does it refer to Los Angeles and California as a place on the San Andreas Fault? Or as a community of people? Does it refer to the human condition?

Yes, yes, yes and yes.

“Inherent Vice” is, in fact, a literary novel masquerading as a genre work. (And a much better effort than Norman Mailer’s 1984 attempt to do the same thing with “Tough Guys Don’t Dance.”)

“The fist of God”

As evidence, let me trot out some of Pynchon’s writing which is well beyond the normal scope of a mystery author.

First, some images:
• A mansion in the hills: “They went winding through Bel Air, up hillsides and canyons, arriving at a mansion with another gate, low and nearly invisible inside its landscape gardening, seeming so much constructed of night itself that at sunrise it might all disappear.”
• A living room wall covered “with an enlarged photo of a gigantic monster wave at Makaha last winter, with a tiny but instantly recognizable Greg Noll cradled in it like a faithful worshipper in the fist of God.”
• A rainstorm: “Ahead, someplace over Pasadena, black clouds had gathered, not just dark gray but midnight black, tar-pit black, hitherto-unreported-circle-of-Hell black.”
• Driving in a fog that “blew in in separate sheets, but soon everything grew thick and uniform till all Doc could see were his headlight beams, like eyestalks of an extraterrestrial, aimed into the hushed whiteness ahead…”

“Suicidal brand loyalty”

And, now, some longer passages where Pynchon swashbuckles his way through the story with humor, insight and some sort of hyper-sensory perception:
• Visiting a finance company: “Inside, the woman at the front counter gave Doc the impression of having been badly treated in some divorce settlement. Too much makeup, hair styled by somebody who was trying to give up smoking, a minidress she had no more idea of how to carry than a starlet did a Victorian gown. He wanted to say, ‘Are you okay?’ but asked to see Adrian instead.”
• A cop talking about the paranoia after the Manson murders: “It spreads, like blood in a swimming pool, till it occupies all the volume of the day. And then maybe some playful soul shows up with a bucketful of piranhas, dumps them in the pool, and right away they can taste the blood. They swim around looking for what’s bleeding, but they don’t find anything, all of them getting more and more crazy, till the craziness reaches a point. Which is when they begin to feed on each other.”
• The same cop talking about the fascination with Manson: “We’ve found the gateway to hell, and it’s asking far too much of your L.A. civilian not to want to go crowding on through it, horny and giggling as always, looking for that latest thrill. Lots of overtime for me and the boys I guess, but it brings us all that much closer to the end of the world.”
• A dopey dopehead with a sudden thought about the StarKist commercial featuring Charlie Tuna: “It’s all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, so desperate to show he’s got good taste, except he’s also dyslexic so he gets ‘good taste’ mixed up with ‘taste good,’ but it’s worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, like, obsessive death wish! Yes! he, he wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumer capitalism….”
• Dopers at a restaurant decorated with large nickels on the wall: “Now and then, late at night, they would be interrupted by one of the plastic images up on the wall, as Thomas Jefferson turned from left profile to full face, unfastened the ribbon that held his hair back, shook everything out into a full-color redheaded freak halo, and spoke to selected dopers, usually quoting from the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights, which had actually been of great help with many legal defenses focusing on search-and-seizure issues in particular.”

Ah, what wonderful stuff.

And the genre it fits into isn’t mystery or crime or noir.

It’s the category of great writing.

Patrick T. Reardon

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