Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon – 2009, Penguin Press)

1970.  I wasn’t there. And don’t pretend that you were, either. But I’ve seen a lot of movies, and that probably counts, right? Future generations will get a startlingly real idea of what the last two decades have been like based purely on the advertisements that survive, much less substantive things like news clips, youtube videos, and the summer blockbusters. What I’m saying is, 1970 was probably something like a thick cloud of marijuana, a summer that never ended, a lot of hippies, and the entire country was SoCal listing endlessly on the crash of the surf while bands played whose legacies probably amounted to little more than a bigger hit off the bong after the stage lights had darkened.

I may not have been there, 1970, atop the SoCal mesa of sedation and fear of authority, and fortunately for us, neither was Thomas Pynchon; if he’d been there, he wouldn’t have been capable of writing a book about it. Ask Ken Kesey. Or Alan Watts. Er—wait… I mean…

What kicks off as a smoke-addled, surfer bum neo-noir about a hippie PI taking the case of a kidnapped real estate mogul quickly becomes a vague, paranoid, probably somewhat-hallucinated investigation into surfer bands, police sting operations, and a mysterious entity that may or may not be involved with dentistry known only as the Golden Fang. Intertwined are the lives and fates of his attractive ex-girlfriend that he never exactly got over, some women that do massage work, modeling, and swindling, a cop he has a long antagonistic comradery with, and his lawyer. FBI agents, his current DA mistress, a double-agent that may or may not be a government op, and something about a boat. So, basically, the 70s squared; likewise Pynchon toned back by a figure vaguely resembling the square-root of himself. Just kidding. I don’t really know what any of that means, and fortunately, neither would anyone in Inherent Vice.

Which brings me about to explaining what the book did well and what it didn’t, and the truth is, there comes a point in a writer’s career where it simply doesn’t matter anymore. Pynchon is so established as a staple in the literary world that people will buy just about anything he releases. They’ve been doing it since he established himself with V. back in ‘63. And for good reason: the man’s wordsmithy is out of this world; his style and prose alone place him firmly in whatever loose conception of canon for the latter-half of the 20th century that could exist right now. But where his stories, varied as they are, demonstrate the man’s virtuosic talent for depicting a vast pallet of different moods, often even with in the same chapter or scenes, the stories themselves are usually so muddled or difficult to make out amidst the chaos of tangents that they end up being intangible by the common YA-reading audience.

This makes Inherent Vice something of an anomaly and reading it all the more puzzling. It’s definitely Pynchon in same senses that V., or The Crying of Lot 49 are Pynchon, but it’s accessible, readily apparent, flat, somewhat dynamic, and I’d even say restrained by the writer’s standards. It’s a fun wild goose chase full of the twists and turns that any good neo-noir or hardboiled story has, but turned up to eleven and chock-full of humor and a sardonic wit so rife that it makes me wonder if he’s writing it specifically to aim at the hipsters and pretentious pseduointellectual coffee shop almost-novelist critics so popular in universities—the ones that read Gravity’s Rainbow or at least claim to, the ones who believe DFW’s spiels about sincerity in fiction (or worse, the ones that have some wisecracking faux-facade about how ironic DFW’s statements—and whole body of work, for that matter—actually were, a sentiment DFW himself probably wrestled with), the ones who talk about Harry Potter in the same breath as Faulkner in between mouthfuls of lattes that they’re making no pretenses of buying for any other reason than to be seen standing there holding lattes while drinking them and talking haphazardly about literature that they haven’t read very much of. You know the sorts of people I’m talking about. Don’t pretend you don’t.

What was I talking about? Oh right.

I guess its ease of reading is something to be expected. Inherent Vice hit shelves only three years after Against the Day, Pynchon’s longest and most intimidating work to date, was released, a work itself released a good nine years after its precursor. And Inherent Vice reads and feels like American iron on cruise control, locked at 60mph without brakes and point in the direction of busy SoCal downtowns. Fast. Fun. Deranged. Detached. Drug-addled too, I guess.

The title stems from an insurance term that relates to a thing’s intrinsic brokenness, the aspect of a physical object that contributes to its gradual and constant deterioration and destruction; fitting, given the nature of the characters, portrait of the times, and instability of the factors involved. It’s the kind of book that will make you want to listen to guitar music very loudly at night on a beach while lighting up illegal bonfires and fleeing from people who probably aren’t federal agents. Just kidding. You’ll probably just wish you were an interesting person and secretly hope that reading a book by Pynchon will miraculously bring such a change about. Maybe if people seem me reading this, they’ll ask me what this book is about! Well, it’s uh, it’s about like, weed and this kidnapping, and there’s this chick, right, and Las Vegas and there’s this really funny cop guy in it. And uh.  Shit, I can’t think straight!  Serves you right.

Pick it up. It’s something like a tryst with a girl you only just met but have seen around at the same bar a few times. Fast. Over a little too quick, kind of awkward but the awkwardness goes away after one or both of you have gotten drunk enough. Likeable. Mysterious. And at the end of it, when all’s said and done, untraceable and unintelligible save for the fragments of images imprinted upon your memory as to what has just transpired.  Like the taste of bile in your mouth after drinking, or the lingering smell of smoke the morning after.  Or the stained sheets.

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