Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I am not this novel’s target demographic, to put it in the language of commerce that routed the hippie dream from within. It’s only the second Pynchon novel I’ve ever read. You can surely guess the first; I’ve read that one three times, if it counts for anything, and come to think of it, I have also read the first 100 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow three times. Furthermore, I can’t even follow the plots of straight thrillers, let alone thrillers deliberately detourned from coherence. I am neither stoner nor beach bum; the month and a half I once spent in L.A. did not exactly delight me. I am East Coast and no hippie nostalgic. (I didn’t have a high school subculture per se—I think I invented normcore, mostly so that I could stay on the good side of all, jocks, cheerleaders, punks, hippies, nerds, brains, ravers [and the nastiest of these groups by far was the hippies, I found]—though I was mostly identified with the goths, trying to turn the non-comics-reading girls onto Sandman back when Gaiman was, like, a fringe thing, man, and not the embarrassing sellout thing he became.)
Pynchon’s complexly plotted beach novel is narrated beautifully as a stoner-Chandler pastiche; my hardly original verdict on Raymond Chandler, after the novella and half-a-novel of his I managed to read, was, “Prose: delightful. Plots: inscrutable.” Due to Pynchon’s delightful prose, I was in love with Inherent Vice for about 50 pages, to the extent of wishing I had combed the California beaches a bit more when I’d had the chance. The narrative voice, third-person limited with free indirect discourse from the P.O.V. of the novel’s hero, Gordita Beach hippie P.I. (“gumsandal”) Doc Sportello, is alluringly mobile, afloat on a wave of poetic eloquence and period argot that can go anywhere, and is at its best washing over landscapes and through interiors:
In the little apartment complexes the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of course there’d only be the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight.
Whereas with people Pynchon mostly gives us caricatures and silliness, which eventually tries the patience—my patience anyway; you might think this is really hilarious:
“Excuse me,” wondered Xandra, who’d been staring at Denis, “is that a slice of pizza on your hat?”
“Oh wow, thanks, man, I’ve been lookin all over for that…”
All in all, though, a pretty traditionally narrated novel; not exactly what Henry James had in mind, but playing by The Master’s rules nevertheless. Its picaresque structure, the detective novel’s inheritance from courtly romance’s grail quest, complete with distant lover, mysterious landscape, grotesque interlocutors, corrupt world, and lost paradise, is as traditional as traditional gets, if the occult grail counter-tradition and its gnostic cosmos of redemptive desire can count as a tradition. I think of old Tom Eliot, who called up this whole grail narrative largely to contain it within the larger frame of his intelligence, which he in short order devoted to what Chesterton called “the romance of orthodoxy.” I was talking about Cynthia Ozick last week; she once somewhere captioned the problem of desire against order, borrowing from a philosopher or rabbi whose name escapes me, as the conflict between romanticism and religion, terms I silently stole for a scene where a Catholic priest chides my heroine in the obviously Lot 49-influenced Ecstasy of Michaela.
Pynchon, as I said, plays by enough of The Master’s rules to make his novel intelligible, but there can be no question that he is on the side of romanticism. This novel’s resident fortune-teller, named Sortilège with amusing literalism, is no Madame Sosostris; her fantasia of the sunken Lemuria, the lost Pacific Atlantis of which counter-cultural California is but the threatened remnant, is an authentically utopian vision that guides Doc Sportello on his way through the maze of authority and deceptive authority-serving “counter-subversives” that are corrupting the ’60s into the ’70s, of which process Charles Manson serves, here as elsewhere, as the master signifier:
Was it possible, that at every gathering—concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back east, wherever—those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?
The novel also trades in dramatic irony of a historical sort, offering a glimpse of the early Internet and allowing a character to say what it will balefully become:
“…and someday everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape. Skips won’t be able to skip no more, maybe by then there’ll be no place to skip to.”
More obliquely, in a motel that gets all the available TV channels and has consequently become a tourist destination for connoisseurs of film and television, we see the media surround in nuce which has grown up like a prison-wilderness around us:
Out there, all around them to the last fringes of occupancy, were Toobfreex at play in the video universe, the tropic isle, the Long Branch Saloon, the Starship Enterprise, Hawaiian crime fantasies, cute kids in make-believe living rooms with invisible audiences to laugh at whatever they did, baseball highlights, Vietnam footage, helicopter gunships and firefights, and midnight jokes, and talking celebrities, and a slave girl in a bottle, and Arnold the pig, and here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness…how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.
I am capable of feeling some of the pull of this ’60s longing, though not all of it. The ease of taking the doper’s joint bespeaks the flaw at the heart of psychedelia as a way of life, and I am basically convinced that our evilly inescapable media surround is the material correlate of the doper’s phantasmagoria anyway. The novel’s title, with its allusion to a category in insurance referring to unavoidable misfortune, is something to take seriously. But if vice is inherent (the phrase lying behind “inherent vice” is “original sin,” as Doc himself points out), then a revolutionary is a silly thing to be. But a knight-errant? Well, I would rather be a knight-errant than a cop; but then I am not really anything, just a scribbler. A scribbler, I guess, serves as a grail quester today, at least since Baudelaire or even, what, Chatterton.
As I said, the novel’s prose and its imagery aesthetically delighted me for about 50 pages, and then it became like too much ice cream (a deliberate effect? a comment on the surfeit of pleasures that killed the ’60s?), and I had to struggle to the end. In said end, I found the plot both incomprehensible and unmemorable, the theme a bit too easy, and the language utterly enviable (from a writerly perspective). “Pynchon Lite,” Kakutani said—I hope so, if I am ever to get past page 100 of Gravity’s Rainbow. But let me end on a good moment, when Doc looks from the sea to the beach and sees the vision—maybe too simple, but as unforgettable as are all simple and true visions, even if other visions are equally true—of weighty authority in pursuit of light anarchy:
Through Sauncho’s old binoculars he observed a CHP motorcycle cop chasing a longhaired kid along the beach, in and out of folks trying to catch some midday rays. The cop was in full motorcycle gear—boots, helmet, uniform—and carrying assorted weaponry, and the kid was barefoot and lightly dressed, and in his element. He fled like a gazelle, while the cop lumbered behind, struggling through the sand.
Now I will say a few words about the film, which I also recently viewed. Unless I am sadly mistaken, Paul Thomas Anderson has rendered a far severer judgment on Pynchon than I just did. In his adaptation, he strips the novel of its visionary dimension—he shows us no lost islands and even rations our view of the ocean—training the camera eye remorselessly on grubby and stoned interactions. Even the zany comedy—e.g., the aforementioned pizza on Denis’s hat—is muted. Anderson turns Sportello’s sex with Shasta after her return especially ugly, rape-like, when it had read as playful in the novel. The whole thing struck me as clinical, and perchance therapeutic for those in the audience who might be sympathetic to Pynchon’s vision: Look in the mirror, dirty hippie!
I’ve always thought Anderson was an instinctive conservative. Take Magnolia, a film that portrays the chaos left behind by absent or irresponsible fathers. (It was released in the same year as American Beauty and Fight Club, also elegies to patriarchy, artifacts of the backlash against ’90s PC culture; we should be thinking about these films, because we are due for another backlash.) Magnolia does not condemn patriarchy, but only calls the patriarchs to strength and responsibility, so that their sons and daughters are not prey to drugs or madness, so that they are not made vulnerable to the interrogation of menacing Others (Gwenovier, the black woman reporter who interviews Mackey; Thurston Howell, the cynical old queen in the bar who torments Quiz Kid Donnie Smith). The film’s hero is not a counterculture P.I. but a good cop, not a knight-errant but J.C. himself (well, okay, J.K., but close enough), the merciful son who will broker us a new deal with the father (i.e., with masculine authority, which triumphs at the film’s conclusion). A fitting film to end the century of The Waste Land. And then there are Lancaster Dodd’s resonant lines from The Master:
If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.
Anderson’s Inherent Vice is, in my view, punitively joyless, but the director is to be commended for the ingenious idea of making Sortilège the narrator and casting Joanna Newsom as Sortilège. This gives us a higher perspective on the narrative than Sortello’s own, which the novel does not provide, and suggests the limitation of his viewpoint. Less Madame Sosostris than Tiresias, Anderson’s Sortilège, in beholding the tawdry appetites and tawdrier relations of our modern world, has
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.
Newsom, too, has always seemed to me to temper her evident romanticism pretty severely; I think of her great song, “Go Long,” which gathers into one lyric the whole earthly catalogue of male misdeeds, from Bluebeard to Vietnam to rape to literature to football to rock and roll, seeing all as a consequence of the struggle between men for primacy:
But you don’t even own
your own violence
Run away from home—
your beard is still blue
with the loneliness of you mighty men,
with your jaws, and fists, and guitars
and pens, and your sugarlip,
but I’ve never been to the firepits with you mighty men
To this, there is no ultimate antidote, only gendered coping strategies. Women can transgress the boundaries men create:
When you leave me alone
in this old palace of yours,
it starts to get to me. I take to walking,
What a woman does is open doors.
And it is not a question of locking
And men might develop strategies of indirection to discipline themselves out of the taste for violence:
There’s a man
who only will speak in code,
backing slowly, slowly down the road.
May he master everything
that such men may know
about loving, and then letting go.
Something of Pynchon’s aesthetic is captured here, but little of Sportello’s life. It is probably ill-advised to be really fucking high when trying to walk backward—or indeed forward.
[…] my Inherent Vice review, I alluded to T. S. Eliot’s treatment of the occult in The Waste Land: he seemed to see it as […]
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