Book review

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice

By Thomas Pynchon

EVERY literature lover knows the shame associated with the books they haven’t read: the rows of Joyce, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, spines unbroken, peering guiltily from the shelves. Modern masters are not immune either. Even Updike, Vonnegut and Bellow are probably more bought than they are read, which is all the more reason to cheer the release of Inherent Vice, universally described as the most accessible book to date from the formidable canon of Thomas Pynchon.

Here is an opportunity to place a tick beside the name of one of modern fiction’s most impenetrable enigmas, a writer whose most decorated novel, 1973’s Gravity’s Rainbow, was originally dismissed by the Pulitzer committee as “unreadable, turgid, overwritten and obscene”. Pynchon, who famously shuns all publicity, has maintained a personal profile as oblique and indecipherable as his work, yet he is also among the most influential novelists of his generation. He is a post-modernist’s post-modernist, chronicling and mourning our era of paradox, where supposed advancements and technological progression only serve to hasten its entropy.

Now, from his bunker in the city of lord knows where, Pynchon has confounded expectations again, emerging with a detective novel that adheres to all the strict precepts of genre fiction. Inherent Vice is a swift and dizzying tale of greed, corruption and intrigue, set, as are so many, in the environs of Los Angeles. But Pynchon has replaced the dingy backstreets of downtown with the beach shacks and self-help communes of the California dreamer as the 1960s blur into the 70s. His hero, Larry “Doc” Sportello, might have been surf-dude, drug dealer or burger flipper had he not discovered a career in private investigations.

Doc regards his environment through a fug of pot smoke and from beneath an extravagant afro. But his gumshoe credentials check out: he “had outrun souped-up Rollses full of indignant smack dealers on the Pasadena Freeway,” etc., and he has a line of broads at his office door ready to pout coyly before dispatching him into a jungle of deceit. On its surface, this is a pitch-perfect pastiche-cum-tribute to the world of L.A. noir, and Pynchon’s character portraits are presented as if by Raymond Chandler, cracking relentlessly wise.

The plot begins with Doc commissioned to seek the whereabouts of a missing property mogul and the killer of his bodyguard, linked in one way or another to the Aryan Brotherhood. But Doc is bludgeoned senseless on his first expedition and, mirroring the search for the infamous chauffeur in The Big Sleep (the murderer of whom even Chandler confessed to having forgotten), the pursuit of cold fact and missing persons soon becomes secondary to the conjuring of a unique and resonant atmosphere.

Charles Manson has robbed the hippies of their innocence as free love has freaked out and disintegrated into paranoia. Richard Nixon is in the White House and the twin evils of capitalism and materialism have diminished the flower’s power. As Doc’s nemesis, Bigfoot Bjornson of the LAPD, puts it: “Odd, yes, here in the capital of eternal youth, endless summer and all, that fear should be running the town again as in days of old.” But Pynchon seems also to project into days of future. It is not too far a leap to associate this era of organised neurosis and apprehension of an unknown foe as foreshadowing contemporary concerns.

With a pothead’s uneasy credulity, tempered by a PI’s cynicism –“It was like the beach, where you lived in a climate of unquestioning hippie belief, pretending to trust everybody while always expecting to be sold out” – Doc is an ideal foil for Pynchon, whose prose is consistently dazzling, but also arch and steeped in knowing reference. We know we must be missing much, but no matter: this is a trip even on the most basic of a great many levels.

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