Inherent Vice is Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, whose publication in August 2009 was a matter of excited anticipation for those of us who count ourselves as Pynchonites. He had written nothing since Vineland, published in February 1990, and then we were treated to two books in a decade: the massive Against the Day and this most recent, less expansive work.
Doc Sportello is a hippie PI working in California, 1969. He has to find his missing ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay, whose lover, a powerful property developer, has gone missing. He also gets involved in trying to track down a supposedly dead saxophone player whose wife believes his death was faked. He wakes up next to a dead biker to add to his problems. In addition to all this stress, he is regularly hassled by a cop with a grudge against him, the loquacious Bigfoot Bjornsen, who tries to turn Doc into an informer.
So far, so conventional. But this is a Thomas Pynchon novel, so it gets weird and metaphysical and trippy, larded with what he once referred to as ‘irresponsible Surrealism’.
The perennial Pynchonian themes are all here: references to paranoia with subjective, multiple-viewpoint interpretations of the world; a vast cavalcade of characters, some only given a brief mention of a line or two; charismatic individuals on spiritual quests or bestowed with unique intuitive talents; people with comical names (my favourite is Dr. Buddy Tubeside); oddball restaurants and bars; an organisation of sinister bent with conspiratorial agendas; seemingly authentic insider references to all kinds of phenomena, for example the technicalities of getting a good saxophone sound or elements of surfboard design; a surf-rock band that appear to be zombies; and all written against a backdrop of American history (the 60s Counterculture, the development of ARPANET, the FBI and its machinations): the directions in which the currents of history cause the author’s creations to drift.
Doc is dragged into a strange world of synchronicities and oneiric scenes where outside forces seem to be directing events. Druggy consciousness? Or is it something to do with The Golden Fang, the menacing criminal organisation that may be something more? He rides an acid trip with a Polynesian god for a guide and spends most of his time stoned. As ever with Pynchon’s tales, it is difficult, a matter of epistemological conjecture, to decide whether the narrative is underpinned by an objective or consensus reality or if every scene is presented entirely from a character’s perspective. The authorial voice blends almost imperceptibly into Doc’s or that of one of the other cast of eccentrics, outsiders and authority figures. Thus the story structure undermines any hope of certainty, but that uncertainty for Pynchon is always the starting-point of Possibility. The forces of power (cops, The Golden Fang, the FBI, Nazi bikers, capitalists) are the ones who would seek to enforce a uniform interpretation of the world, deadening the creative, living impulses of humanity. Subjectivity is a free psychic space where the human spirit can bloom with its thousand flowers; consensus is rigidification, a spiritual morbidity. As ever, it is a struggle of Man against The Machine, against the mechanisation of the soul. These ideas inspire some typically lyrical moments, when the true voice of the author seems to break through. Among the jokes, sex scenes, references, song lyrics, the science, the history and all the rest of this mad mad fictional world, these jewels of wistful, emotional musing endow the narrative with something beyond cleverness and philosophy.
By Pynchon’s standards Inherent Vice is a short book, a brief 369 pages, but it packs all his obsessions and tropes between the covers. It is arguably a slight work compared to his great novels, reminiscent in particular of Vineland and The Crying of Lot 49, with which it shares a geography and the employment of a single central character. It might even be seen as an attempt at giving the reading public some ‘Pynchon Lite’ in that it exploits the form of the classic private-eye story (there are strong hints of Hammett and Chandler in the plot’s complexity, and the darkness of Ellroy casts its pall over the resolution of the plot) to gather together an entertaining compendium of his moral concerns, fascinations and comic modes in a highly readable linear tale.
But it seems to me that while Pynchon has perhaps sought to create something more easily digestible than his more complicated books, though not exactly mainstream or blatantly commercial (I don’t get a sense of him ‘writing down’), he is definitely playing a game with his fans. He has bolstered the story with all the classic Pynchonian moves so that the reader who knows his work can play spot-the-trope. And there is material that hints at an autobiographical basis too; the legendary rumours of his hippy life on a Californian beach in the 60s are perhaps being toyed with here. He’s having some fun with those of us who so eagerly await his latest publications, winking at us like a jovial psychedelic uncle and saying: ‘This one’s for you guys.’
This self-parody is perfectly rendered, a literary strategy: no longer content merely to play games with the styles and themes of other authors, he has taken the ultimate metafictional leap and decided to parody Thomas Pynchon. In so doing he has given his fans a highly enjoyable postmodern romp in which he has presented them with everything they could want from a Pynchon novel. I loved it.