INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon

by John Boland

Here’s a first – a Thomas Pynchon novel that you can actually read and understand. In his 73rd year, the reclusive author who has furrowed the collective brow of generations of literary students with his dense, complex and often baffling fiction has finally come up with a genial and almost entirely comprehensible shaggy dog story in the form of a  crime novel.

Pynchon being Pynchon, of course, the book isn’t exactly Raymond Chandler or Ross McDonald. Yes, there’s a plot – and one that more or less hangs together to the end – but over the book’s 370 pages there are so many cultural and counter-cultural asides that you have to keep reminding yourself of the plot’s existence. And yes, the California setting is there, too, though here the year is 1970, the fag-end of the hippie dream, with Manson and Nixon casting their monstrous shadows over the psychic scene.

And yes, there’s also a private eye, though less of a knight errant than Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or McDonald’s Lew Archer as he makes his own and somewhat faltering journey down the mean streets of Los Angeles. Well, perhaps less faltering than stoned because Pynchon’s private eye, Doc Sportello, spends more of his time tripping than pondering the ethics and morality of his chosen profession. How he survives at all remains a bit of a mystery.

But survive he does and even has a woman in the DA’s office as his casual lover – “a nice flatland chick,” as he describes her, “out in search of secret hippie love thrills.” He also has an ex-girlfriend, Shasta, and it’s she who sets the story in motion, requesting Doc’s help in a little problem she has concerning her current boyfriend, real-estate bigshot Mickey Wolfmann, who then promptly vanishes.

Thus begins Doc’s tortuous quest for the truth of what has happened – a quest that brings him into contact with threatening cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (“named for his entry method of choice”), black ex-con Tariq Khalil, spacey lawyer Sauncho Smilax, some scary members of the Aryan Brotherhood and an assortment of other lowlifes and oddballs.

Along the way, there are numerous detours and digressions, as Pynchon celebrates long-lost rock bands, obscure B-movies, not to mention a fondness for bad jokes – stoned neighbour Denis wondering why he can’t get the drugs he favours in a drugstore, Doc responding to the warning “Watch your head” with “How’m I spoze to do that, man?”

But Doc’s very good company, even if his meanderings and befuddlements can be exasperating at times, and Pynchon is obviously fond of him, not just for his amiably anarchic spirit but also because he embodies the end of an era – an easy rider who dimly suspects that his way of life is under threat from “those dark crews” who 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.”

In fact, Doc can be seen as Philip Marlowe stripped of his illusions – indeed, the Marlowe that was played by Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s subversive screen version of The Long Goodbye, which transplanted the action of Chandler’s final book to the 1970s that Doc inhabits. Similarly bemused, Gould’s Marlowe could be Doc’s long-lost brother as they both flail for meaning in a society that has none.

Previous post:

Next post: