Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Airport books come with their own sorts of baggage. It's not that my expectations are low going in so much as that they're negative. Unless you're lucky enough to have that big Borders store in your terminal (which will stock a fair supply of canon and cult, for irritatingly precious travelers like myself), then the selection is geared toward more saleable names (I don't know what kind of books Nicholas Sparks writes, and I don't want to know), political and economics schlock (the cover with a white background, high-contrast typeface, and either a catchy graphic or a picture of some sweat-soaked hack trying to look stern), paperback mysteries and romances (the two science fiction books are of the embossed cover variety), and recent literary fads (you can bet that they're stocking up with Jonathon Franzen as I type). Also, David Sedaris, who's entertaining enough those rare times I catch him on the radio, but I'm disinclined to read something called "when you are engulfed in flames" as I fly.

My best bet is usually to pick up the popular-but-indeterminate-genre selection (i.e., the fad) if I can find any connection to it at all. I've come across lots of people with tastes similar to mine who like Pynchon, and there's a stable of authors who can't avoid saying dropping an homage every once in a while. And Inherent Vice, unlike the doorstops he's more famous for, is nice and short, so I figure it was a good time to introduce myself to the author. It was important for the blurbs to communicate that there's an essential Pyncon represented here. It's not a good sign when the pocket reviews invoke an indescribable style to tell me why I should read the book: it's not convincing for a newbie, and it's not a good sign if the faithful need to be reassured like that. You can find a good normal-length review here of Pynchon's early book, The Crying of Lot 49, which, looking at in hindsight, comes out as a good guide for Inherent Vice as well. So let's call the style discursive, willing to take a detour for humor's sake or to showcase an entertaining character sketch (not inconsistent with the guy who broke his lifelong reclusiveness for a silly guest spot on The Simpsons), some intentional blurring of perception and reality, and a simmering critique of the social order. (See? Blurbs aren't so hard.) I am given to understand that Pynchon also likes to indulge in point-of-view experiments and shifts that are nearly Joycean (which, I must admit, could be a good deal more enjoyable to read in a contemporary author with a worldview closer to my own—same playground, lower monkeybars), but that's not so much in evidence with this novel.

Our hero in Inherent Vice is Larry "Doc" Sportello, P.I. and connoisseur of beach culture, and if his grip on reality is slipping by a claw or two, then all the weed isn't helping. I've said it before: intoxicated people are funny when they accomplish stuff, when they're successful in spite of their best efforts. Acting nonchalant in unlikely circumstances is a timeless humor device. Doc admittedly appears to be sharp at drawing connections (even the questionable ones), and the indignation and paranoia endemic to the counterculture serves him well, but he's easily distracted, by women, friends and acquaintances, unlikely food, good tunes, and kind bud. The forced and unforced detours he finds on his investigation are made up for by some certain cosmic juju imparted by (entertaining) bodily excursions and the general grooviness that gives him a needed perspective. Among the various characters of his acquaintance, Doc's admirably countered by the hyperarticulate Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornson (got him as Kevin Smith meets Jesse Ventura), a Nazi square of a cop who, when they fall into moments of honesty, occupies only a small blue shift from Sportello on the spectrum between humanity and authority.

Doc doesn't sound like the private dick type, but part of the brilliance is just how well these styles mesh. I'm not a bit mystery guy, or noir guy: I'm not, as a rule, convinced that the trip through discovery is honest in these kinds of books. In mysteries, it's always easy enough to manipulate the reader by just lying about the stuff, or failing to divulge key information. I generally like the uncovering of a theme better than I like the gradual discovery of an act, but then, I have to be careful with those sorts of statements, as everything's always in the execution anyway. I am just suspicious of mysteries, in a way that's obviously not fair. I am always reminded of seminal stuff like The Murders in the Rue Morgue, trying to outguess the reader by moving beyond reason. It was an ape, Edgar? That's fucking stupid. Or maybe I just don't really impressed by superhuman deduction when the author is always able to whisper in the protagonist's ear. In any case, when I find myself in certain kinds of mystery—and noir is one of those kinds-- I'm not willing to fatten up my own conclusions with the author's early fodder, not without a sign that such attention is worth it. I let the case wash over me as it develops, trusting the writer to guide the thing along or not. If it's a good book, it'll have made sense all along and when I look back, I will be happy. If the plotting is sloppy, at least I can hope for some interesting scenery to accompany the ride. I finally clicked on Pynchon when I realized that he's a good enough writer to be playing with those not-necessarily-rational leaps. He is cognizant enough of his style that the flood of random-looking, significant-sounding, and culturally-referential information, which may or not be connected very well, is a knowing part of the whole mystery-solving schtick. I mean, Sportello is basically following Batman logic to crack the case, but getting along through inherent brains (vice?) and a certain infumated Grace. It's a funny understanding of noir, and it's perfect for druggies, not to mention the uncertain strain of semiotics that Pynchon likes to monkey with.

From my personal perspective, I can spot another common element between the Chandler-esque mystery and the Pynchon-ified plot. In both cases, I'm more familiar with the influences than I am with the original material. Detective fiction often enough serves as an entertaining cross-genre experiment (and since I have, like, four readers, I'll note that it ain't hard to derive a common genealogy for Sportello and the likes of Tom Robbins' Switters). When it comes down to it, the combination of jokes, winking technological revisionism (I remain puzzled how ArpaNet fit into the plot, or how what we saw fit within 1960s computational capabilities), deep cultural and mythological signifiers (Lemuria, frex), and vague shadow conspiracies (a minor word about the Golden Fang in a sec) may fall better among the small handful of science fiction authors that you don't know you're missing out on--I mean, I loves me some Neal Stephenson novels--but Pynchon gets big points as an innovator, for such a strong sense of his own flavor, and he wins hands down when it comes to the zany and the madcap. He gives us surreality that is sneakily real. I don't think Joseph Heller and Hunter Thompson are young enough to be Pynchon's heirs, but that's more of the same school.

I have read that deep conspiracy is a big part of Pynchon's M.O., but it took some time for this novel to get there. If it introduced thematic elements as fast as it introduced characters, I'd have been more down with it at the beginning. The connections to the Golden Fang eventually start to bring heavy drama, and [spoilers follow, but I don't think they're the hurtful sort] I like how it culminated with some token rich old fuck shipped in as a proxy to argue for The Man ("the bums always lose..."). I don't know if Pynchon really puts so much stock in the hippie as a revolutionary; they're steeped in their local American cultures far too heavily to be very useful, and they're still consumers, part of the machine like everyone else. In fact, Sportello's intermediate life as a private investigator might be telling: here he is, half cop and half citizen. The band's corrupted by an unspecified zombie mojo, and, for one dude, by the sinister attention of the Fang. It took the whole novel to finally force a confrontation with the string-pullers, and not unusually, it was like a man screaming attention from the universe. Which is unsatisfying, solves nothing, but seems like a worthy effort just the same.

[Minor edits. I was sipping glasses of loudmouth as I wrote that up last night, and if the prose fell apart by the end of the fist draft, then that's why. I have no excuse for the second draft.]


Cindy said...

My husband really enjoyed this book. He laughed out loud at night reading it, and kept wanting to read me snippets.

I usually have a lot of patience with this. But I think I just missed the generational boat with this book. It never grabbed me.

Joe is 14 years older than me, and so at 65 I think he felt it a funny send up and paean to his own memories. Whatever. I just barely admit to myself that I am part of the Baby Boomer cohort, and this is one of my arguments that I don't belong: I don't "get" Thomas Pynchon half the time.

That said, I did find an "Inherent Vice" playlist online and downloaded it to his iPod. He thought that was hilarious. I know there is some irony in there somewhere.

I would also like to say again, that you should pitch your Book Reviews as a book to some indie publisher. Really.

Keifus said...

Hey Cindy. It took me a while to get into it, and the setting was a big part for me too. Pynchon is obviously celebrating that cultural element, but he's not doing much to take a stranger there. (Great, and now I'm wondering who in my family would have connected to it. Not most of 'em, but then I bet I might be surprised.)

That's a cute gift.

Cindy said...

I have these grown "kids" who often say they "love" the 1960's and early '70's. They're usually talking about the music (Bob Dylan, Jimmy Hendrix, The Beatles, Jim Morrison) or the hair (long, straight) or the vintage clothes they've picked up at Goodwill.

Joe, however, is truly a man of the time and so his connection is an interesting one. Well, he didn't go to Vietnam, and he didn't protest it either. He went to college, drank like a fish, thoroughly enjoyed the hallucinogens, and I think he read every book that came out that was considered scandalous and banned.

I think he is deeply and sincerely a fan of Pynchon ... because of Gravity's Rainbow. But this one was kind of a double-winner with the nostalgia for the old days.

He is also completely sucked into Mad Men. I imagine for the same reasons.

I'll try to find that link to the Inherent Vice playlist.

Cindy said...

It's on Amazon:

# "Bamboo" by Johnny and the Hurricanes
# "Bang Bang" by The Bonzo Dog Band
# Bootleg Tape by Elephant's Memory
# "Can't Buy Me Love" by The Beatles
# "Desafinado" by Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto, with Charlie Byrd
# Elusive Butterfly by Bob Lind
# "Fly Me to the Moon" by Frank Sinatra
# "Full Moon in Pisces" performed by Lark
# "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys
# The Greatest Hits of Tommy James and The Shondells
# "Happy Trails to You" by Roy Rogers
# "Help Me, Rhonda" by The Beach Boys
# "Here Come the Hodads" by The Marketts
# "The Ice Caps" by Tiny Tim
# "Interstellar Overdrive" by Pink Floyd
# "It Never Entered My Mind" by Andrea Marcovicci
# "Just the Lasagna (Semi-Bossa Nova)" by Carmine & the Cal-Zones
# "Long Trip Out" by Spotted Dick
# "Motion by the Ocean" by The Boards
# "People Are Strange (When You're a Stranger)" by The Doors
# "Pipeline" by The Chantays
# "Quentin's Theme" (Theme Song from "Dark Shadows") performed by Charles Randolph Grean Sounde
# Rembetissa by Roza Eskenazi
# "Repossess Man" by Droolin’ Floyd Womack
# "Skyful of Hearts" performed by Larry "Doc" Sportello
# "Something Happened to Me Yesterday" by The Rolling Stones
# "Something in the Air" by Thunderclap Newman
# "Soul Gidget" by Meatball Flag
# "Stranger in Love" performed by The Spaniels
# "Sugar Sugar" by The Archies
# "Super Market" by Fapardokly
# "Surfin' Bird" by The Trashmen
# "Telstar" by The Tornados
# "Tequila" by The Champs
# Theme Song from "The Big Valley" performed by Beer
# "There's No Business Like Show Business" by Ethel Merman
# Vincebus Eruptum by Blue Cheer
# "Volare" by Domenico Modugno
# "Wabash Cannonball" by Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseans
# "Wipeout" by The Surfaris
# "Wouldn't It Be Nice" by The Beach Boys
# "Yummy Yummy Yummy" performed by Ohio Express

Keifus said...

Wait, the couple of songs that were in the book weren't real bands were they? Was there a real Doc Sportello and Spotted Dick that actually played stuff?

I mean, I recognized a handful and all, but I half-suspected that Pynchon had made a bunch of 'em up for color.

I think it's great that the book has a soundtrack.