on July 28, 2009
4.5 out of 5: Cloaked as a detective thriller, Inherent Vice contains the snappy dialog, complicated plot, and criminal underworld types typical of the genre. Don't be fooled by the packaging, though. This novel is pure everything-including-the-kitchen-sink Pynchon with satirical song lyrics, paranoia, drugs, pop culture, lawyers, sex, politics, zombies, more drugs, and a side-trip to Vegas. The neat resolution of a convoluted plot is not really the point. Instead, let go of your need for closure and join Pynchon for a buoyant romp through the psychedelic haze that was L.A. in the late 1960s.
Doc, an amiable, drug-addled personal investigator, stumbles onto a vicious international crime ring as he works on a case brought to him by his ex-girlfriend. By turns brilliant and bumbling, Doc exudes a kind of humble innocence and is the likeable center of this novel. He's both trustworthy and trustful and never far from questioning his own abilities and actions ("Did I say that outloud?"). In a typical example of the endearing workings of Doc's logic, he tries to deduce the origin of a postcard he receives "from some island he had never heard of out in the Pacific Ocean, with a lot of vowels in its name":
"The cancellation was in French and initialed by a local postmaster, along with the notation courrier par lance-coco which as close as he could figure from the Petit Larousse must mean some kind of catapult mail delivery involving coconut shells, maybe as a way of dealing with an unapproachable reef."
In Doc's world, postcards delivered via coconut catapults make perfect sense.
Clearly, Pynchon is having fun with the detective genre. In one scene, Doc drives to a mansion protected by a moat with a drawbridge. After the drawbridge descends "rumbling and creaking," "the night was very quiet again--not even the distant freeway traffic could be heard, or the footpads of coyotes, or the slither of snakes." Beneath all the humor and satire, there's a darker message here. The fun is almost over for Doc and his fellow hippies as paranoia, the harbinger of future oppression, overtakes the fun-loving sixties "like blood in a swimming pool, till it occupies all the volume of the day."
At times Inherent Vice is overly constrained by its purported genre as Pynchon weaves together the complicated plotlines of a detective story, maintaining too tight a grasp on a linear reality. The excessive plotting hampers some of the book's whimsical exuberance. But, unlike much of Pynchon's previous work, Inherent Vice is eminently readable and even, at times, actually suspenseful. At under 400 pages, Inherent Vice is also one of Pynchon's shortest novels. If you've been too intimidated to attempt a Pynchon novel up to now, try this one.
on August 6, 2009
As many have already written, Thomas Pynchon is an acquired taste, like jazz and silent comedy (two other tastes I have joyfully acquired). I first tasted Pynchon, like most readers my age, in his debut novel, "V." Somewhere between the silliness of the "whole sick crew" and the all-too-seriousness of Stencil's Oedipal search, I realized I was reading someone who was a literary personification of a Jerry Garcia dictum: "It's not enough to be the best at what you do. You have to be the only one to do what you do." I was (am) hooked.
Not that Pynchon hasn't let me down. I did not like "Against the Day" after page 250 or so (or once we left the Colorado miners behind), and "Vineland," I thought, was a bad joke. "Gravity's Rainbow" is probably still his best, but for warmth and humanity, "Mason & Dixon" tops it. Many reviewers are already referring to his new book, "Inherent Vice," as his warmest, but I still vote for Charles & Jeremiah.
What "Inherent Vice" is, is a wonderful joyride. It probably doesn't hurt that I was an idealistic hippie in the spring of 1970, somewhat younger than protagonist Doc Sportello, but just as disgusted with what Pynchon calls "flatland." There are the usual Pynchon foibles - too many stupid names, too much loveless sex, too many bad punchlines. But there is something so easy about reading it - and that is certainly unusual for Pynchon. I'm not sure if all readers will have as easy a time as a Pynchon devotee like me, but I don't see how this novel could present any real difficulties. Just remember that plot continuity is not really all that important in any PI novel. Raymond Chandler agrees with me on that last point, and Pynchon is obviously lovingly parodying Chandler and Hammett in "Inherent Vice."
The greatest element of the novel is the aforementioned Doc Sportello, who, although referred to in the third person, is the narrative point of view through which the tale is told. We see all of Gordita Beach and Greater Los Angeles through his pot-clouded senses. Doc shares something with all of the great detectives of the genre like Chandler's Philip Marlowe or Hammett's Continental Op -a code of honor. In Doc's case, he is loyal to the hippie subculture that is trying to eke out an existence by the waves instead of joining the decrepit and meaningless straight world. As one character puts it, the tug is between the hippie lifestyle of "freedom" vs. "that endless middle class cycle of choices that are no choices at all." Doc sees that his and his friends' way of life has a short expiration label, but he does everything in his power to keep it running as long as it can. And, of course, in the spring of 1970 in L.A., it was running out quickly, what with Manson and his family, who are eerily in the background throughout the novel.
I won't give anything away. I will tell you that Pynchon's novel, if not his warmest, is definitely his most comic. I mentioned earler that there are too many flat punchlines. Did I mention that there are hundreds of good ones?
Michael Santa Maria
on August 4, 2009
Those that know, know the writing of Thomas Pynchon can be a rough row to hoe--featuring convoluted, paranoid plotting, byzantine sentence structure, alternation of genres and modes of presentation within a single opus--sometimes even a single page--funny names and multi-layered puns, revisionist history and anachronisms galore. And pizza--plenty of pizza. What most folks who've read Pynchon expect is a rough but rewarding time decrypting encoded messages pointing to vast conspiracies both right and left, and being able to pat themselves on the back for being so wickedly erudite as to be able to follow at least some of the multiple, overlapping plotlines found within each of his six novels. Those that don't know Thomas Pynchon usually bail out on page 150 of Gravity's Rainbow.
But note this down and burn this deep into your collective forebrains--Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon's seventh and funniest novel, is a beach read.
The grand master of literary obfuscation actually did it this time--either he made a conscious decision to express himself via comparatively stable characters and plotline of a more traditional make & model or he said "screw it--it's time to cash in!" Inherent Vice has sentence structures and vocabulary more akin to Tom Robbins than Henry James, an overall shape more like Christopher Buckley than Henry Adams. You'll knock this one back like chugging down a Corona during a Fresno mid-summer heat-wave. Inherent Vice is cool and refreshing and funnier and easier to comprehend than anything else Pynchon's written so far.
And yes folks, in spite of various smack-downs from some of the more self-conscious members of the professional lit-crit establishment, Inherent Vice has meaningful connections to Pynchon's larger collection of cabals and conspiracies including a lot of what appears to be the author's personal back story. There is a major element of autobiography to this novel, a Palimpsest buried in so deep that it's more like a solid concrete foundation--you'll need some heavy-duty construction equipment to work your way through it. Once I opened the book I knew that this stuff had to be ripped from the tattered casebook of Thomas Pynchon, professional cryptic `n sleuth--from cloak and dagger to croak and stagger!!! I was seeing where stuff in Gravity's Rainbow could have come from--what lunch might be like Under The Sign Of The Gross Suckling, places where you'll find boysenberry yogurt and marshmallows on your pizza --or a joint along with your hamburger available during Tommy's Hamburger's 2-4-1 special. No fear dude, this little pamphlet will be plenty re-readable, with loads of evidence of mindless pleasures to unearth as you dig through the narrative rubble.
While many readers of Inherent Vice will note the resonances to The Big Lebowski, & some to the Robert Altman/Elliott Gould "Long Goodbye"--fewer still recalling "Nick Danger, Third Eye" and an even more miniscule slice of that demographic recalling Bonzo Dog Band's "Big Shot"--the key element connecting all these works is Raymond Chandler. If any writing of the last 100 years deserves James Wood's Lit-Crit damning-with-faint-praise pejorative "Hysterical Realism," it's Chandler's Noir with Literary Pretensions. The Firesigns, the Coens and Altman 'n Gould were all making variations, comments and carom shots off of Chandler's high-gloss pulp. As does Pynchon. The nominal Dame of these stories, usually a lady who's doing her best to reinvent herself with a different haircut, clothes, identity, address--is THE figure at the core of Noir.
In Inherent Vice, that "Dame" is Shasta, ex-girlfriend of hazy P.I. and protagonist Doc Sportello--a L.A. beauty queen who wanted to make it big in the movies but settled for money from her rich, married-to-someone-else real-estate-mogul boyfriend, Mickey Wolfman. Wolfman has been kidnapped in the immediate wake of the Tate-LaBianca Murders, leading to many a nervous mishap among hypersensitive members of the L.A.P.D. Naturally, as in Raymond Chandler's Pulp Fictions, things get really complicated real fast and the rot leads all the way to the top of L.A.'s food chain. The symbolism of Shasta can be spotted by anyone who knows what Pynchon was writing about in Vineland. By the time you've zipped through Inherent Vice's 369 pages, you'll probably want to start all over again to figure out what you missed. The name on the cover changes nothing, this is still a beach read.
Who'd 'a thunk it?
on September 14, 2009
"It was like finding the gateway to the past unguarded, unforbidden because it didn't have to be. Built into the act of return finally was this glittering mosaic of doubt."
Imagine a surfer-noir novel set in L.A. and environs in the spring of 1970 by Thomas Pynchon. Could anything be better? Answer: Inherent Vice is better! It's everything you could imagine, and then some. Every sentence is hugely entertaining, sort of the way Cormac McCarthy is entertaining, and also P.G. Wodehous. You just relish the diction. The plot is pure Chandler in its schematics: that is, characters are multiplied unnecessarily all for the dazzling color they give to the story; plot trots behind trying to keep up and just about succeeds in catching every character before they hit the ground. As in Chandler the characters who matter sort of only slowly emerge from the carnival, some very late: but that's the point of a carnival. Everyone matters to some gum-shoe or -sandal: we're concerned here with the ones that Marlowe or Doc are concerned with.
And Pynchon is so different from the writers I've lately been thinking about, writers who narrate the experience of narration. Reading Pynchon is a little like reading Shakespeare or Hammett: I'm just a wide-eyed reader again, not a person figuring out the experience of writing this book. I mean I am that sort of audience too for fun TV and Elmore Leonard and Neal Stephenson, for example. I like being just that. But for TV or Elmore Leonard I like because I can just enjoy the easy enjoyment of the thing. Whereas Pynchon requires -- no he doesn't require, he REWARDS -- the same kind of concentration I give Woolf or Geoff Dyer: a lot of concentration. But there's something wonderful about not concentrating on the experience of the book as an act of writing. You just concentrate for your own pleasure. And, man, he writes a good last line.
It's not that Pynchon as writer isn't an issue in the book. He is. But he's astonishingly good natured as a writer. What other real writers are? I can't think of any, not even Fielding.
Anyhow the first half of the book (when it's explaining something) repeats very occasionally -- sparsely even -- and very hauntingly two versions of the same phrase: "in those days"; "at that time." This plus a reference to Vineland as a place, plus one bracketed movie date at the end, are the only authorial self-references, the only sense that you have that an author is telling this to the reader instead of the voice coming off the page as part of the laid-back generosity of the narrative atmosphere. I love those phrases. They disappear from the second half, which is part of the very sadness the book's about: the end of an era, with Manson & Nixon (Doc must be called Doc partly as a descendent of Mason's, one of whose sons is called Doctor Isaac.)
Doc is slightly younger than Pynchon himself, pushing thirty in 1970, as we learn in a great, casually sad passage:
"Plastic trikes in the yards, people out watering the flowers and working on their cars, kids in the driveways shooting hoops, the high-frequency squeal of a TV sweep circuit through a screen door as Doc came up the path of the address he was looking for, to be followed by the more worldly sound, as he reached the front steps, of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour. According to Fritz, the sweep frequency was 15,750 cycles per second, and the instant Doc turned thirty, which would be any minute now, he would no longer be able to hear it. So this routine of American house approach had begun to hold for him a particular sadness." (P. 199)
Yes, I remember that routine. I thought TV's didn't do that anymore. But they do. Pynchon remembers this sound, which he can no longer hear, from forty-two years ago, when he reached the untrustworthy age of 30.
And yet the novel is entirely without self-pity, which might be why some of the smartest people I know don't like Doc much as a character: he's not made for pity: the book doesn't pity him either, it just lovingly recreates "those days," "that time" ("That time, O times!" as Cleopatra says) -- a time of endless betrayal as all times are for Pynchon, but a time when there were so many people to betray. The stoned hippie belief in innocence is ridiculous and yet something to cherish. Doc is cynical as all get-out, but still cherishes it, which means he's part of the innocence he's cynical about. He gets all this and still likes his world. You don't think people can really be like that? Pynchon is.
on September 6, 2009
I've been an admirer of the vintage Pynchon--V., The Crying of Lot 49, and of course Gravity's Rainbow. I understood that Inherent Vice is a walk into Genreland, but it's been disappointing to see just how generic it is. Inherent Vice is set in L.A. near the end of the Sixties, and the protagonist is a detective named Doc Sportello, an aging hippie who smokes weed on the job and falls off roofs. And that's about as good as it gets.
The novel is laced with references to the popular culture of the period--Country Joe and the Fish, Zig-Zag papers, Charles Manson, head shops, psychedelic posters, and dope dope dope. Often this texture seems forced, a sort of authorial obligation, and this is especially true with the language of those gone days. Doc is supposed to be our refresher course in Sixties slang, but it's annoying how often Pynchon gets it wrong. When asked if he will accept an I.O.U., Doc replies, "I'm groovy with that." Hey, I was there. No one with an ounce of hip would have used "groovy" that way. Old slang is embarrassing enough even when the author gets it right.
If you're simply looking for a detective story, Inherent Vice will probably do you fine. But if you're looking for the Pynchon of yore, you'll be BUMMED OUT.
on December 8, 2013
This review pertains to the audiobook, read by Ron McLarty.
The audiobook of Pynchon's "Inherent Vice" may be the best road trip aid yet devised. Maybe it's that highway driving is a sort of drug trip, and thus serves as a gateway into the mind of permanently stoned PI Doc Sportello. Maybe it's the way Ron McLarty's rough and ready voice navigates the range between Jade's massage parlor coos, Bigfoot Bjornson's V8 rumble, and several rousingly sung anthems of surf, cars and Vietnam. Or maybe it's that the covering of many hundreds of miles clues the listener in to Pynchon's essential road-ness: the comic names that go flashing by, the repetitions of cultural markers, like truck stops on the Interstate, the diverting conspiracies, never fully resolved, that branch like byways from the novel's neo-Noir blacktop heart. Whatever it is, this is a great way to lean back in your seat, reach out with your awareness, and let your cares drop away in the rear-view mirror.
on November 11, 2009
I liked this better than anything Pynchon's written since Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon's not much of a novelist in the classic sense: his plots are byzantine rambling wrecks in which loose ends are never tied up; his women are all "sexy chicks" or older female relatives; you can barely tell his characters apart if they talk for more than a couple sentences, because they all sound like Thomas Pynchon, and they certainly don't motivate his plots. But who cares? Not me, because he's the epic poet of our disintegrating age.
In Inherent Vice, Pynchon waxes nostalgic for the lost era when some of us thought that, given enough LSD, we could save our greedy real estate crazed violent society from itself. The vehicle for expressing this nostalgia is Doc Sportello, a pot-head detective who tries to stay groovy with everything, and my favorite of all Pynchon's characters, perhaps because he's more like Pynchon than any of the others, so hearing Pynchon's thoughts in Sportello's brain seems natural.
Perhaps due to age, Pynchon's gotten a bit careless about detail, or maybe I just didn't know enough about WWII to notice the time slips in Gravity's Rainbow. According to the Wiki commentary, the novel takes place between March 24th and May 8th, 1970, but during the present tense time of the narration, Lew Alcindor has already changed his name to Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, which didn't happen until 1971, and the Manson trial, which didn't start until June 15th, 1970, is taking or has just taken place. Maybe it's all that pot Sportello's been smoking that keeps him from being firmly anchored in time, or maybe Pynchon was in too big a hurry to do the research needed to pin all the novel's events down firmly to one consistent time line. I've said it once, and have to say it again. Who cares when Pynchon's endlessly original and evocative poetry tumbles out of almost every page? This is a novel that's making me re-think my abhorrence of "language" literature. Most novelists can't pull it off, but in Pynchon's case, his voice is almost (except in the case of Mason & Dixon) enough.
on July 27, 2010
This is no more a mystery novel than any of Pynchon's other novels are mysteries. Although the protagonist is a private eye, he is no more on a quest than are Oedipa Maas, Herbert Stencil, Tyrone Slothrop, or Mason & Dixon. Some readers think of this present Pynchonian installment as hard-boiled, a characteristic that is associated with the mystery genre, but there is also another possible interpretation: Rather than hard-boiled, the style is meant to describe a mean and desolate civilization, one completely void of compassion, of human warmth, or, for that matter, human contact. Characters who are not drugged, are caught up in pointless pop culture. If there is indeed a mystery to be solved, few are coherent enough to care. If some care, few are articulate enough to express this, even to themselves. As we make our way through Pynchon's fictions, from the renaissance of Mason & Dixon through the turn of the twentieth century of V. and Against the Day, and to the World War II of Gravity's Rainbow and the 60s of Lot 49, perhaps we can sense the beginnings of the coldness that comes to dominate Inherent Vice. In any case, if this book is a comedy, it is not playful. It may be Pynchon's most realistic story to-date.
on October 19, 2014
So there's an Inherent Vice movie coming out in December and I'm not too proud to admit that it's the movie that got me motivated to finally read Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name. You know Pynchon, that genius author of giant books? While epics like Gravity's Rainbow or Against The Day might require a few months of heavy reading and a book bag strong enough for heavy lifting, Inherent Vice has been dismissed by some as "Pynchon-lite." I'm here to tell you that that is not a bad thing. 369 pages of Pynchon is a damn fine way to spend your time.
Pynchon's hero, Doc Sportello, wobbles his way through a woozy, sex and drugs and rock and roll exploration of the psychedelic landscapes of 1971 Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Don't let the pot haze fool you, Doc is a keen observer with his own code of conduct that is every bit as consistent and admirable as that laid down by his spiritual fore-bearers, Phillip Marlow and Sam Spade. There's mystery upon mystery here, brilliant wordplay, astounding dialog and some terrific humor.
Inherent Vice sneaks up on you. It's light, mysterious and fun but there's something deeper here. Like all Pynchon, there's a layer of paranoia that should not be ignored. There's more going on every day than most folks see and Pynchon is a master of providing glimpses through the fog. If the movie and this book get more people looking where Pynchon is pointing, I have to see that as a good thing.
on November 7, 2014
In light of the movie being released, I just reread this book. I wanted to see how anyone could make a Pynchon book into a movie. I'm so glad I read it again. It is probably the most linear plot line, and least complicated, of any of his books. So yes, the most readily adaptable to a movie. Keep in mind when I say "least complicated" I am only comparing it to other Pynchon books. It is by no means an uncomplicated plot. There are so many "who-dun-it" questions in the book that you finally figure out the real "who-dun-it" doesn't involve the characters, but rather society. The question of the book is who killed the 60's? Or, maybe more subtly, who killed the nascent enlightenment? The battle between enlightenment and dark, primitive forces of deliberate ignorance is a theme through most of Pynchon's writings.
Doc is the main character and I found myself comparing him, this time around, to Stephaine Plum (Hey! No judgement please. The Stepahine Plum books are really fun). He's this lovable hippie PI who cares about the people in his life ands wants to see them safe and happy. I really love Doc and he's a fun guide through this weird and wonderful tale.
If you are new to Pynchon, this is a great first Pynchon book.
Read the book before you see the movie. That's always good advice.