Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Not Just Weird, Stoner Weird, Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice Is An Atypical Mystery!

The Good: Great language, Sense of movement, Interesting characters, Wonderful narrative voice
The Bad: A lot of threads to keep track of.
The Basics: With his latest novel, Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon creates a funny and complicated mystery populated by stoners and government agents in early-1970s California.

I hate people who write the flaps of books when they write things that illustrate a clear lack of understanding of the book or author they are writing about. I mention this at the outset of my review of Inherent Vice because the book jacket made it sound like a mystery novel would be a departure for Thomas Pynchon. This is utterly ridiculous as anyone who has read The Crying Of Lot 49 well knows. In fact, most of Pynchon's novels do seem to be about characters trying to put it all together in one form or another. In the case of Inherent Vice, the book is just a bit more coherent than most of Pynchon's other works, so those looking for a more linear narrative are actually left with far less guesswork than usual! For those who have not fallen in love with the works of Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice is about on the same level as Slow Learner (click here for that review!) or Vineland (click here for my review of that novel) for coherency.

Last year, one of my earliest goals this year was to finish a Thomas Pynchon novel, though I figured that I would actually managed to get through Against The Day, which I began in January. That book, however, proved a bit dense for me with devoting time to travel and a new relationship. So, when August came around and I discovered Pynchon had a new novel on the market, Inherent Vice, I figured it's shorter length might well provide me with the means to complete my goal. A day after the goal expired, I finished the book and had time to contemplate it.

It's very Pynchon.

By that, I mean that Inherent Vice is exactly what one might expect from Thomas Pynchon. Those who read his works can expect quirky characters, fairly graphic and peculiar sex, and a plot that is confusing, convoluted or both. In the case of Inherent Vice, the novel is remarkably straightforward in that it is focused pretty tightly on its protagonist, Larry "Doc" Sportello, and his story diverges more through the weird turns of the case he is investigating than feeling like one is reading a book with a story that never seems to come into focus. As a result, this becomes one of Pynchon's works that is very easy to get into and easy to follow compared to his other works. But those without tolerance for eccentric dialogue and characters who are doing little outside getting wasted will find nothing to enjoy in the book. Oddly, I have a personal stance that is strongly against drugs and the banalities of drug culture, but Pynchon's prose is so wonderful (on its own, it can make one feel intoxicated) that the novel flows along in such a compelling fashion as to be enjoyable even to those who have a moral stance against the actions of most of the characters.

Doc Sportello is a P.I. in the early 1970s in Gordita Beach, California. He is constantly harassed by a police detective, "Bigfoot" Bjornsen and one night, his ex, Shasta Fey walks back into his life with a case for him. Out of sentimentality and curiosity, Doc begins to investigate the disappearance of Shasta's new beau, Mickey Wolfman, a billionaire land developer with a tie collection of all of the women he's had naked. Shortly after he begins his investigation, Doc finds himself at a site where a raid leaves Mickey's protection dead and Doc himself the prime suspect. While Doc, drugged at the time, is able to exonerate himself easily enough, he finds himself drawn deeper into a case that is no simple disappearance.

The case takes an especially personal turn when Shasta goes missing as well. This puts Doc on the trail of a seemingly-deceased saxophone player, Coy Harlington, who appears to be very much alive and working for the government to stop subversives. Doc finds himself relying on promiscuous stewardii, a prison neo-Nazi, a California computer hacker who has tapped into the government's ARPAnet, and his Justice Department girlfriend. Between pot trips and car rides up and down the beaches of California, Doc starts to see a pattern of people secretly working for the government which exposes the powers behind the power and puts Doc in danger more than he ever imagined!

Inherent Vice is surprisingly coherent for a novel by Thomas Pynchon and as a result, it tends to remain remarkably tight on Doc following leads to their next logical conclusion. There are remarkably few sidestories, which is an accomplishment for Pynchon and so long as one accepts that this one story blooms into a frayed wire of tangents, the book is exceptionally readable. While most of Pynchon's books take the reader on a journey with only middling potential to actually go somewhere, Inherent Vice actually has a remarkably recognizable beginning, middle and end. Most readers, though, would do well to take notes because there are so many characters with different initial and ultimate affiliations that it helps to keep them all straight.

While Doc follows the leads surrounding the disappearance of Mickey Wolfman, he discovers Coy Harlington and that tangential case soon provides Doc with insight into his primary case. Chief among the overlapping elements is the Golden Fang. The Golden Fang takes on different meanings as Doc digs into the case and it develops from a gang of neo-Nazis to a smuggling ship to a nefarious dental organization back to the boat. Those willing to enjoy such convolutions will find Inherent Vice is an enjoyable ride into the obscure and weird.

The key to understanding most of the book comes from a willingness, an eagerness, to appreciate Thomas Pynchon's narrative style. Inherent Vice is preoccupied with doped-up characters who are trying to extract meaning from their surroundings, but often become confused or distracted by other things around them. As a result, Doc will attempt to get answers from characters who are smoking weed and they'll get distracted by some memory of Gilligan's Island or the like. Characters frequently don't finish sentences and while the stoned out Doc interacts with the very literal, very sober Bigfoot, the humor takes the form of an uncomfortable narrative technique where Doc's inability to focus causes him to lose virtually every useful opportunity to get good leads in his case. Most frequently, the characters-under-the-influence speak with uncertainty embodied by virtually every line of hippie/stoner dialogue ending with a question mark.

This is not to say that all of the humor takes a lot of brain power to get and one has to be engaged to get it all. Some of the most pleasant moments come with some of the most ridiculous, but obvious moments of humor. So, for example, after Doc actually does something right and helps someone, "The Princess phone rang, and it was Hope Harlington. 'God bless you, Doc.' 'I sneeze or something?' 'Seriously.' 'Really. Like sometimes I forget if I did or not? and then I have to ask. It's embarrassing'" (362). Exchanges like that are common throughout Inherent Vice but the situation - a hippie stoned almost constantly working as a private detective - is what delivers the most consistent and enduring humor throughout the novel.

And for his part, Doc Sportello is one of Pynchon's best protagonists, if by no other virtue than he is trying to do a good thing and the reader spends enough time with him to actually care about his fate, if not the case. Sportello is a generally good hippie who is harassed by the law and tries to make good. He calls his family weekly, he cares about people like Shasta and his girlfriend and he just happens to smoke a lot of weed and get laid throughout. The idea that he is fighting the forces or order and control is surprisingly noble, despite his methods.

Outside a tolerance for sentences that do not seem to go anywhere, all one needs to get through Inherent Vice (outside time) is an understanding that if two words pop up next to one another that don't seem to make sense, they are probably the name of a specific variant of marijuana. You (like I) don't have to know anything about the specifics of the strain, just know that Sportello is getting high. If you accept that, and that Pynchon is having fun but going somewhere, you'll enjoy Inherent Vice. Anyone who wants a very different detective story and who has a love of great writing that puts you in an entirely different mind-set will enjoy Inherent Vice. This is not a beachreading detective story; it's for an engaged mind, even if many of the characters in the book aren't.

For other books with strong mystery components, please check out my reviews of:
Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart - Joyce Carol Oates
Bad Twin - Gary Troup
Juneteenth - Ralph Ellison


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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