Inherent Vice (2009), By Thomas Pynchon


Thomas Pynchon, now in his seventies, has written these novels: V.; The Crying of Lot 49; Gravity’s Rainbow; Vineland; Mason and Dixon; Against the Day; and, most recently, Inherent Vice.

I’ve known/know some novelists who admit they have tried hard but never finished Pynchon’s masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow (1974), and, variously, some of Pynchon’s others. I’ve had better luck with four of his others, including Inherent Vice.

I’ve only come close on Gravity’s Rainbow which refers in its title to the flight arc of the V-2 rockets launched by the Nazis against Great Britain, a time in which much of the story is set. As always, Pynchon’s research is superb, brightly illuminating Gravity’s Rainbow. He is not a dilettante but an encyclopedic genius who spent time reviewing and soaking up information from V-2 rocket archives held by Boeing as well as learning about missiles when early on he did technical editing of manuals for Boeing on its surface-t0-air military missile Bomarc (Boeing-Michigan Aeronautical Research Center). Gravity’s Rainbow is a formidable read because it contains hundreds of characters, several themes which recur in Pynchon, great shifts in viewpoint and place, and several literary styles. You might well become lost. Perhaps you become fearful in some or other sense and escape the fastest way–by closing the book. Like A Brief History of Time, Gravity’s Rainbow, I’d imagine, has sold a fair number of unread copies.

Pynchon is greatly admired by some critics and scholars of high literature. Harold Bloom, who has fought The Good Fight against today’s “English Departments” who seem too often peopled with poseurs who hate literature, thinks Gravity’s Rainbow a great novel. I think Bloom is right. (But I’m not sure Bloom is a trustworthy judge, for he thinks Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a great novel, too. Bloom to me is a non-commissioned officer going down to noble defeat in an aged academic army whose generals have all been killed or gone missing in action. Someday, I hope, there will be a turn of events and he’ll be decorated posthumously, hopefully too grandly.)

Pynchon’s seven novels call to my mind the Angkor Wat temple complex. You can see that Angkor Wat is a great monument, a work of art, before you enter it: the beautiful architecture, the massive grandeur, imposes as you approach the splendor.

How much time will you be able to spend in Angkor Wat, especially in contemplating its many bas-reliefs? You could spend untold hours. Did the artists imagine you would? I would guess they did not think much about it. They thought about time, creation, and preservation: time being short and creation being painfully implausible in fullness because of there being so much of those artists’ worlds, real and imagined and mythical, that they loved; preservation, including of themselves, was entirely dependent on their art. Is there anything as powerful as preservation to bring forth enormous ambition in storytelling?

So go all large artworks and their creators.

Pynchon most definitely included.

He is called “postmodern” and said to have written “metafiction.” Beware of Lit 101 categories. It’s better to talk specifically about what Pynchon loves and what he observes about the human condition and what he would draw as wisdom.

Here Inherent Vice may be thought of as a streamlined drama of Pynchon’s thinking. It’s a Southern California Private Investigator novel set in the late 1960s in LA near the beach. PI Larry “Doc” Sportello, like his predecessors, knows that things are never as they seem. Doc is a hippie, does drugs, says “groovy,” is casual about matters of the heart (and has many such matters), and, despite his laid-back style, is a dogged, hardworking sleuth. I think Inherent Vice, besides being a fond look back at the late 1960s reminiscent of The Endless Summer and the surfer world with its sex-rock ‘n’ roll-drugs, is a helpful epilog to Pynchon’s other, much more formidable novels. There are many more bas-reliefs in the earlier novels, but Inherent Vice provides some key ones. It’s a sort of Abstract Summary of Pynchonian outlooks.

The first theme is epistemology. Pynchon dramatizes in Inherent Vice and in his other novels the lament among some philosophers and historians about how poorly we humans can know the present world, previous worlds–there are many allusions in Inherent Vice to Atlantis and Lemuria–and speculative worlds, whether alternate histories (“If only we’d done this, that might have happened”) or distant future ones. The psychedelic theme of the 1960s–turning on and tuning out to take “inner trips” to drug-induced worlds–is portrayed as futile, although it is presented as one of the inevitable human responses to the Grand Confusion in our bewildering experience: mysticism and mysterian perspectives get us nowhere but infect all, or nearly all, of us. As to recovery of our past: If Trevor-Roper says deep history is impossible because it eludes narration, Pynchon takes this lament much, much further and fashions narratives like Inherent Vice in which, to cite but one of dozens and dozens of examples throughout the Pynchon I’ve managed to read in which you encounter unforgettable signs of the darkness of the intellect in inscrutable human experience, a fabled ship is introduced called The Golden Fang but whose original name was Preserved and which is seen at different times to be a pirate ship, a drug-smuggling ship, a pleasure craft central to a legal tax write-off scheme by a group of dentists, and other wildly disparate identities. What, really, is the ship?

Not surprisingly, then, Pynchon contemplates “the vortex of history.” One of his novels, Against the Day, is partly about the onset of the First World War; it’s not so much that he disagrees with, say, Barbara Tuchman; he laments as a novelist and, I’d say, more profoundly, if far less accessibly, than she and like-minded historians do about the almost farcical lead-up to the Great War: what we might call the Great Helpless Drift. Even worse: how are we to know in this and in other passages of dire History what actually is taking place?

The second Pynchon theme or set of bas-reliefs, ensuing strongly from the first, is paranoia. What more is there to say than that many characters in Pynchon’s inscrutable, overwhelming world are dramatically and understandably paranoid?

The third theme, in concert with the other two, is the prevalence of hallucination. Much of it occurs among Pynchon’s grasping, bewildered characters: he dramatizes “hippie metaphysics.”

Pynchon’s final grand theme is that of power. His is a dark take on Homo sapiens with overtones of Social Darwinism. Tyranny is variously predominant. Some powers he especially does not like: Republicans, the CIA, the Government in general, the police. But though he is sympathetic to the Love Generation, he is far too realistic to do other than stand outside that generation (and Romantics in general).

Nature as our Designer? With Inherent Vice there is the title itself, read in one of its several imports as an assessment not of the sins of the fathers being visited upon us but of the mysteriously diabolical ways of Nature in Her fashioning of us. We are a manifestly imperfect creature; if not a misfit, then barely fit.

Pynchon has fashioned an overwhelming, enveloping, confusing and masterful prose that brings dazzling bursts of big patches of reality, leaves us stunned and even dumbfounded, and above all makes us experience his themes and understand his idea of the overmatched individual in the baffling, sinister world. We can sense the besieged epistemology, the paranoia, the hallucinations, and the intimation of hostile power in this passage from Inherent Vice, a passage similar to countless others throughout his novels:

Doc stood for a while gazing at a velvet painting from one of the Mexican families who set up their weekend pitches along the boulevards through the green flatland where people still rode horses, between Gordita and the freeway. Out of the vans and into the calm early mornings would come sofa-width Crucifixions and Last Suppers, outlaw bikers on elaborately detailed Harleys, superhero badasses in Special Forces gear packing M16s and so forth. This picture of Doc’s showed a Southern California beach that never was–palms, bikini babes, surfboards, the works. He thought of it as a window to look out of when he couldn’t deal with looking out of the traditional glass-type one in the other room. Sometimes in the shadows the view would light up, usually when he was smoking weed, as if the Contrast knob of Creation had been messed with just enough to give everything an underglow, a luminous edge, and promise that the night was about to turn epic somehow.

But Pynchon is a wonderfully funny writer, too. Perhaps no one could beat him at a playful game in Elysium of Big-Time Trivial Pursuit, especially if, Mr. Gabriel, he’ll go for $1,000 on American culture in the twentieth century. You’ll find yourself laughing at his darkly comic allusions, wordplay, and names of people and places. In Inherent Vice, a police chief of a precinct at the beach calls his station in Southern California surferland “The Endless Bummer.” Another police station is called “The Glass House.” There is a secret DARPA diabolical place at TRW and we’re told Ramo didn’t tell Wooldridge about it. (It’s crazy, yes; but who’d ever clear and badge Pynchon again?) Here are names of some characters: Burt Stodger; Aunt Reet (a real estate [ergo, “Reet”] sales star); Dr. Buddy Tubeside; Jason Velveeta; Bigfoot Bjornsen (a policeman); Sauncho Similax; and Crocker Fenway.

And Pynchon is a writer who surprises you with beautiful new versions of experiences which spring from the glorious past of storytelling: The Crying of Lot 49 is a marvelous modern take on the quest story, the adventures of knights and Samurai warriors and private detectives; Mason and Dixon is a tour de force in its recovery of older English writing styles and their beauties; V. emerges from the eerie mists into which history has disappeared.

Yet Pynchon is finally a most serious writer who knows the basic story myths, the journey, the mission. He knows that the Story of stories is the drama of the discovery of the Self. But in Pynchon the Self is lost in a great Puzzle. In the relentless confusion, what can really be known of the Self? Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective Marlowe is a realist about greed and envy and hatred; I guess you could say that he is a veteran at taking on the criminality that inevitably arises from inherited vice; and Marlowe gains street-tough contentment from exposing the dark doings brought about by the playing out of the vices. But Doc Sportello, also sallying forth in a world of inherited vice, would hope for more. Indeed, for deliverance. And so, if forlornly, Doc Sportello concludes Inherent Vice by wanting the impossible in Pynchon: “For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.”

The ultimate human longing.