Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice comes to us feeling similarly pregnant with possibilities not explored and deep insights not shared. Vice follows private investigator Doc Sportello as he untangles a group of mysteriously interrelated mysteries against the backdrop of L.A. in the 60’s, the same milieu that Pynchon explored to great effect in The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland. Call Inherent Vice Pynchon’s The Departed: it bears the inimitable stamp of its author’s surreal comic sensibility, boundless intellectual curiosity, and progressive political idealism, but is still basically a potboiler.
It’s OK, though: Pynchon needed a potboiler right now, and Inherent Vice works almost shockingly well on those terms. His last novel, 2006’s Against the Day, may have been Pynchon’s least accessible—even the dreaded Gravity’s Rainbow had something of a McGuffin in Rocket 00000 and the search for it in “The Zone,” the wild East of occupied Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Gravity’s Rainbow and Pynchon’s other massive epics, V. and Mason & Dixon, both start out relatively simply before they become more and more complex—Against the Day, meanwhile, launches immediately into its intricate web of characters, plotlines, and heady leitmotifs involving 19th century anarcho-terrorism, the more esoteric innovations of Nikola Tesla, the mathematics of Sofia Kovalevskaya, the Tunguska Event, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, alternate universes, hollow earth hypotheses, and an automated mayonnaise factory. Against the Day shows little mercy for readers with more limited resources of intellect and attention than the author himself.
Don’t get me wrong: Against the Day is great. But not everyone felt that way. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times was particularly harsh in her review, which dismissed Against the Day as a “Pynchonesque turn by Pynchon,” in other words, a soulless exercise in narcissistic self-imitation and narrative convolution for its own sake. Even some readers—myself included—who really, really wanted to love Against the Day found its sometimes-dry commitment to fin de siecle intellectual history and sheer length (over 1000 pages) tough to digest.
Pynchon needed to answer his critics, and that’s what he does with the aggressively streamlined Inherent Vice. Inherent Vice follows the template of hard-boiled detective fiction by the likes of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, beginning with the mysterious ex-girlfriend who approaches the private eye hero in the opening scene. There will probably be a lot of critics complaining that Inherent Vice barely fleshes out the character of Doc Sportello, the detective hero of Inherent Vice and a major recreational drug use enthusiast (more on this in a moment); but Pynchon never tells us especially much about his detective because Chandler, Hammett, and hard-boiled fiction in general hardly ever do either. Here, as in other novels of the genre, the detective is characterized in the simplest manner possible.
As a hard-boiled detective novel, Inherent Vice provides enough twists, turns, chase scenes, and fight scenes to satisfy fans of Chandler, Hammett, or even Elmore Leonard. At the outset, Sportello is contacted by three clients. Three narrative threads ensue, one for each client, and Sportello spends the rest of Inherent Vice untangling them from one another: Shasta Fay Hepworth, girlfriend of real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann and former girlfriend of Sportello himself, wants Doc to look in on a scheme that Wolfmann’s wife is concocting along with her boyfriend; Tariq Khalil, an ex-con and black nationalist, is worried about his old prison buddy, Aryan Brotherhood member Glen Charlock—who immediately turns up dead; and Hope Harlingen thinks that her husband, Coy, former saxophonist for surf-rock band The Boards, is not as dead from a heroin overdose as he seems.
It is not long before Sportello realizes that all of these cases are related, somehow, to the Golden Fang. Like the Trystero System of Crying of Lot 49 fame, the Golden Fang is a government of governments, a syndicate of syndicates, perhaps the primal conspiracy behind all of the world’s various regimes of control. The Golden Fang is so similar to the master-conspiracies of Pynchon’s other novels, in fact, that the differences between it and them reveal a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the new, streamlined, more commercially-minded Pynchon whose acquaintance we make in Inherent Vice.
The major difference between the treatment of the Golden Fang in Inherent Vice and the Trystero System, the search for the lady V. in V., or the search for the Rocket 00000 in Gravity’s Rainbow is that the Golden Fang never makes Doc question his own sanity. While the other novels leave open the possibility that characters’ paranoid speculations about the invisibility of true power may be exactly that (paranoid speculations), there is never the sense that Doc is discovering himself in the process of discovering the Golden Fang. And as far as Golden Fang is concerned, for all of its kidnappings, murders, drug-dealing, real estate speculation, and brainwashing, it lacks the “gravity” (as it were) of Pynchonian conspiracies past. Inherent Vice never even tries to generate the apocalyptic sense, so powerfully present in Pynchon’s other novels, that the potential for either destruction or rebirth encompassing the whole world and beyond hangs in the balance of the characters’ tribulations.
Yet inasmuch as the Golden Fang seems a little half-assed, as world-dominating conspiracies go, Inherent Vice finds its true emotional center in the utopian longings of the lazy and inveterately drug-addled, but fundamentally decent inhabitants of peace-and-love 60’s L.A. Doc befriends the staff of an Asian massage parlor called Chick Planet, regularly visits a beachside Mexican restaurant called Wavos, hangs out at a mansion with a surf band that has been zombified and later cured by exorcism, and, in a climactic scene of sorts, visits the abandoned construction site of a never-completed project to provide free housing for anyone who wants it; through it all, Doc is constantly either offering marijuana and being offered it by others.
At times, the constant drug abuse takes its toll: Doc’s neighbor Denis (pronounced “dee-nis”) describes a revelation, in which he notices a sign for a drug store—“walked past it a thousand times, never really saw it”—and thinks: “Drug, Store! man, far out, so I went in and Smilin Steve was at the counter and I said, like, ‘Yes, hi, I’d like some drugs please?’ ” Elsewhere, Doc himself is arrested and told to “watch your head” as he is inserted into a squad car; confused, Doc replies, “Watch my . . . how’m I spoze to do that, man?” There are so many jokes and setpieces involving marijuana on literally every page of Inherent Vice that one can’t help but smile when there is an entirely innocuous reference made to a “joint task force” involving the FBI and the LAPD.
The omnipresence of weed gives Inherent Vice a loose sort of affability that is frequently very charming, but it also has a larger significance. In Pynchon’s version of the 60’s, weed—and acid too—serve the “doper” community like penicillin for the conscience. “Maritime lawyer” (perhaps a reference to TV’s “Arrested Development”?) Sauncho Smilax literally sets himself on a collision course with the counterculture when, as a “novice doper who’d just learned about removing seeds and stems,” he accidentally crashes his cart into Doc’s when both are making a stoned, late-night run to the supermarket; Smilax becomes Doc’s lawyer shortly thereafter. Most importantly, though, is millionaire real estate developer, possible Golden Fang affiliate, and heavy acid user Mickey Wolfmann, who has an epiphany: “I can’t believe I spent my whole life making people pay for shelter, when it ought to’ve been free. It’s just so obvious.” Wolfmann’s LSD-induced rejection of the profit motive is key because it shows how, in the paranoid yet gentle and humane world of Inherent Vice, free love, free drugs, and a dollop of hippie attitude can be enough to change the minds of even the most hardened capitalists (pre-acid, Wolfmann has a quote from Robert Moses, “Once you get that first stake driven, nobody can stop you,” displayed prominently in his home).
The trouble is, though, if acid and an open mind can make utopia seem possible, it’s not enough to make it happen. When Wolfmann turns doper, Golden Fang intervenes to turn him back with the assistance of the FBI, the Justice Department, and a combination spa-resort/brainwashing center for the rich called “Chryskylodon” (“Golden Fang” in Greek). Pynchon’s beloved, weed-loving hippies struggle with police, federal agents, biker gangs for hire, and various means of coercion violent and otherwise to control the city, the beach, the desert, and America itself; greed and the desire for basic social justice contend to determine the future. The ocean is a major presence in Inherent Vice, and, with thanks to Hunter S. Thompson, the novel depicts the 60’s period of hippie ascendancy as a historical “high-water mark” of sorts, when the forces of peace, love, and such (Pynchon’s dogged commitment to 60’s counterculture values is totally earnest) achieved unprecedented power and influence from which they were shortly turned back.
Equally clear, however, is that the fight never ended. At its core, Inherent Vice is about the eternal struggle between those who own and those who rent. Real estate mogul/Golden Fang ally Crocker Fenway confronts Doc with a statement of class principle when he declares, “It’s about being in place. We’re in place. We’ve been in place forever. Look around. Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor—all of that’s ours, it’s always been ours. And you, at the end of the day what are you? one more unit in this swarm of transients who come and go without pause in the sunny Southland, eager to be bought off with a car of a certain make, model, and year, a blonde in a bikini, thirty seconds on some excuse for a wave—a chili dog, for Christ’s sake.”
By comparison with Pynchon’s sprawling monster meganovels, one could say that Inherent Vice is something like the chili dog in Crocker Fenway’s speech. What is lasting about it? Is it just a fleeting amusement, a popular, ultimately commercial undertaking more than anything else? That could easily be. Yet the novel also draws lines between the urban renewal programs of the 50’s and 60’s (like his hero Robert Moses, Wolfmann is behind the demolition of numerous, predominately African-American neighborhoods) and the subprime mortgage crisis of our own period that make for biting commentary on recent history, in the middle of all those jokes about weed and short-term memory loss. No doubt, it leaves you wanting more: urban renewal, the subprime crisis, and California real estate are sufficiently weighty topics to warrant a Mason & Dixon of their own, if not a Gravity’s Rainbow, and consequently Pynchon’s exploration of the subjects here feels slightly thin.
Nevertheless, I hope Inherent Vice will attract readers who had previously been daunted by Pynchon’s earlier, more monumental doorstoppers. Pynchon’s hilarious comic stylings and populist political sensibility have always belied his elitist reputation. Given what Pynchon has done in the past, Inherent Vice may pull a few punches—as would, say, a knock-knock joke told by the time-traveling ghost of Abraham Lincoln—but the author’s voice feels just as fresh, vital, and innovative here as it ever has.