By Jon Rachmani Oh, bespectacled swooners for Mr. Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern fantasia, hold onto your lattes, because here comes Inherent Vice. The title itself portends the Vicovian ricorso of the naughty spirit of naivete and the dissolution of the disillusioned. Abandon all hope ye hopeless who enter here, for this is the innocent world as we know it, where propositional logic reigns, where the signifier fits the signified like you-know-what you-know-whats you-know-what. Mr. Pynchon’s usual patchwork of pastiche has become in this latest novel not a pastiche per se of a detective story but the article itself: yes, Mr. Pynchon has written a beach novel and finished it in time to vie for our eyes with Memorial Day bikini-clad strangers. How many hipsters, allergic to human emotion, died of anaphylactic shock when they reached page 116 and read the following description of the protagonist’s father: “Leo gave him one of those hesitant smiles that fathers use to deflect the disapproval of sons.”? How many of Mr. Pynchon’s aesthetic sons felt that very smile directed their way? And is the narrator at long last heaving a resigned sigh and using it to pant some breath into all those flattened blow up dolls that passed for Pynchonian characters for all these decades? Does Ben Marcus’s “regressive realism” rear its ugly rear of all places here? Will the 21st Century play more like the 19th than the 20th? Might James Wood read Inherent Vice and smugly grin? Are we living in a post-apocalyptic zombie land where Thomas Pynchon is less heir to his eccentric ancestors who protested The House of Seven Gables than to its writer?
Determinately: no. In our culture of bald-pated Brittanys and mangled-to-death Michaels it seems cultural commentators have come to love nothing more than late capitalism’s sure clipping of hubristic wings, its relentless revelations of our shared inherent vice. But sorry, Mr. Pynchon seems wise to you all and will not soon appear on Oprah with eyes aglitter. And for the reviewers who claim that we have a simple potboiler on our hands: that’s not it either: unless our author is secretly at work on his very own rocket of last resort let’s assume that the Pynchon coffers are not the issue here. What’s the big secret, folks? As one of the stalled elevator or so of people on Earth who actually read Mr. Pynchon’s previous novel, Against the Day, straight through, allow me to put Inherent Vice in context: where Against the Day, as I asserted in my review (hyperlink), stubbornly refused even the paranoiac ordering principle of the earlier novels in favor of the true anarchic freedom for which its heros fight, thereby completing perhaps the dominant strain of his work, Inherent Vice comes as that most natural of codas: an autobiography. Soon after pulling his grinning father remark, Mr. Pynchon writes of his detective protagonist, Doc Sportello, “. . . in the business, paranoia was a tool of the trade, it pointed you in directions you might not have seen to go. There were messages from beyond, if not madness, at least a shitload of unkind motivation,” writes our congenially clear-spoken narrator of our equally congenial protagonist, Doc the detective. If Doc can be read as a stand-in for Pynchon himself, then the message would seem to be: no, reality was never really askew, but only by achieving the slant—through drugs, psychosis, bad company—could the writer and the narrator ever rise above (or is it below?) the plane of the real and give us a hint of its layout. The charming irony of this reading is that for Mr. Pynchon to achieve sustained metafiction, only a simpler more conventionally ordered narrative style can do. And yet how fitting that, even if a tad nostalgia-heavy, these reflections come encoded in fictionality itself?
So who is Doc, who is Pynchon? In this incarnation, he’s a hippy private eye living in 1970 L.A. and starting to feel the first wooziness of that long collective hangover to come. He is launched by his ex-girlfriend into a knotty plot of shady real estate development, international drug running, right-wing Nixon freaks, and New Age dentists in a storyline structured much in Raymond Chandler’s spirit. The running joke is that unlike the hard-nosed Marlow, whose drug of choice clinks in its glass, the cold depressant that matches and encourages his cynical despair, Doc is an inveterate grass smoker, and is thereby as lost in the complexities of plot as the most casual reader, propelled into a paranoia that repeatedly saves his ass. And his paranoia is lighthearted, cheerful even, and well-calibrated to keep him high enough to see through the clouds of refer smoke. His friend in the LAPD, Bigfoot Bjornsen, whose animosity for the counter culture renders him incapable of speaking a word without mockery to poor Doc, is painted ultimately not as a sinister agent of The Man, but rather a decent cop who wears his caricatured features with some laughable charm and is partially vindicated by revelations of past trauma. Indeed, Inherent Vice is short on true villainy, and even Mickey Wolfmann, the kidnaped Trump-like real estate developer who’s turning L.A.s beach-side communities into slick developments had been planning a Bucky Fulleresque system of rent-free domes just prior to his disappearance. The would-be bad guys are always proving themselves redeemable. Even the squares, Docs parents and his on and off lover, who is an F.B.I. agent, can’t resist reaching for an occasional toke. And it seems like that’s all it takes to uncover the cruelties of our society and reveal people with whom we might care to share a slice of Cali-style pizza.
What does the relative lack of true evil portend? The books epigraph, “Under the paving-stones, the beach!”, a Situationist motto and Parisian graffiti slogan of ‘68, is by extension shown to be true of the characters as well. Just beneath the surface—and yes, in this book Pynchon does dare to glance “inside”—it looks like hope is not lost. In some sense, the resigned, inward-looking tenor of post-‘68 culture is salvaged as a viable route of cultural recovery. I hesitate to say, though it seems this is what Pynchon ventures, that these hopes are aflicker in post-Bush America. If that’s the message, might this novel merely reflect that easy-going optimism of the typical older gent? Perhaps, but it does also stand as an eminently readable self-commentary on Pynchon’s cultural role throughout his career, as trippy and good-natured detective navigating on wobbly legs the landscape of the hyper-real. That said, it would be hard to imagine Pynchon moving back into super-drive after this charming and brief excursion into readability. When a writer begins to speak in self referential meta-language we usually enter hermeneutically murky territory, but with Pynchon the effect has been a lightening, and in its way a festive reminder to those in doubt that all those maddening pages that came before were not just the jabbering of a lunatic, but the chosen mode of a self-aware artist.