It’s Pynchon month in Squishytown! We started the festivities off by bussing down August 4 to Tattered Cover for his latest, INHERENT VICE. Things really ramped up with a 94-word run-on tribute sentence wedged into the previous Squishtoid post – still far short of the 400+ monster that opens MASON AND DIXON, but I guess that’s why TP has a MacArthur Genius Grant and the Squish doesn’t (yet).
And now, because 77,000 reviews ( one for each wacky TP character moniker) in 2 weeks just don’t seem enough, comes my review. And unlike all the others, this one doesn’t mention the word “paranoia”. Oh. Damn.
Thomas Pynchon, a writer whom many associate with dense, hard to read doorstop -type books, has created what will surely become the entry point for his work with INHERENT VICE. The previous entry point, CRYING OF LOT 49, deals with the same place, Southern California, and many of the same cultural and metaphorical issues, but doesn’t have two things that VICE does: the easy flow of genre (here, detective) fiction, and an agreeable, heck, lovable- central character who smokes way too much pot, in much the same way Phillip Marlowe drank way too much whiskey.
That combination, lifted whole from the classics of the Noir era, smooths the way for Pynchon’s usual mix of irony, pathos and satiric humor, and provides a peek into the heartbreakingly funny and ineffectual lives he celebrates, along with the crushing, relentless systems of power and control that provide the juice for his electric and very post modern prose. It’s always sex magic versus death-mongering with Pynchon, but here he adds in a lot of nostalgia for late 60’s Los Angeles, and a spirit of place that, like Raymond Chandler’s, feels like the real deal.
Like LOT 49, and another earlier NoCal novel, VINELAND, that are quickly being formed by the commentariati into an ad-hoc trilogy, the goofy proles and bra-less babes who redeem their floundering, drug enhanced lives, speak to the betrayal of simple pleasures by those nameless, humorless forces of greed and frigid fear that would bulldoze a community to erect soul-less developments rather than nurture a neighborhood. Only this time, unlike past TP epics, even some of the villains have names and come off as flawed, almost lovable losers themselves.
Discussing plot is always somewhat beside the point in Pynchon. His characters are questers, lighting off manically in search of answers to questions they know not, stopping for a quick buzz or fuck along the way. There is enough here to keep the lovable losers scrambling and the pages turning, but Doc Sportello, The laid-back, hard-“baked” PI who tries to sort it all out, understands that in the end, it’s finding kinship through the smog that makes a city, however Noir, vivid and real. Pynchon appears to have made that leap as well, with the later novels, from VINELAND on featuring progressively more sympathetic characters; special mention made here of the exquisite MASON AND DIXON.
But will VICE please the lovers of intricate, labyrinthine masterpieces such as LOT 49, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, and V? As one who’s read all of his books, many twice, and counts RAINBOW among the century’s best, I say it doesn’t have to. Pynchon’s done his fair share of heavy lifting. He’s metaphorically compared Information Theory to Thermodynamics, hefted Riemann surfaces and Hollow-Earth theories and squished in hashish and weird menages a trois. Now he wants to be Chandler or Elmore Leonard, or even Jeff Lebowski. Or all three. Wait, that’s a weird menage a trois, too.
Pynchon, if the famous Simpsons “appearances” and the trailer he did for VICE are any indication, may want to be popular for once. That’s not such a bad thing, and INHERENT VICE is not such a bad way to get there. If you never got past the famous 100-page barrier of GR, this eccentric yet agreeable book may get you to the bottom of the mystery of why it’s worth another try.