Inherent Vice

viceThe Short Version: When Doc Sportello’s ex-flame shows up asking him to look into her missing new beau, he probably shouldn’t take the case. But he does and ends up mixed up with all kinds of ne’er-do-wells and maybe-do-wells, all seen through a cloud of drugs as the ’70s begin…

The Review: What to think of Thomas Pynchon writing a relatively straightforward novel?  It’s hard to conceive, in some ways, isn’t it?  Not that this is exactly straightforward – the cloud of primo bud that practically wafts out of the book when opened to any given page makes for a winding, hazy story at the clearest of times – but it’s more traditional anyway that Gravity’s Rainbow or something like the whirlygig of characters and decades that constitutes Against the Day. And it’s difficult to peg the novel when it tries to be so many things, misses a bunch of them, and is pretty pleased with itself nonetheless.

It’s hard for the reader not to be pleased (if they’re of the right mind, anyway) with the book too.  Fans of classic noir will see the obvious connections but this book owes just as much to Hunter S. Thompson and Pulp Fiction as it does Raymond Chandler.  Doc Sportello, our hard-boiled and high-flying detective, has all the classic hangups: women, booze, an inability to see what’s going on around them… except he has an excuse: the pot.  It’s a delightful running joke of sorts where somebody speaks in very loaded terms, trying to give Doc a hint or some advice and he just… kinda… wha?
So Pynchon is having fun with the conventions of the genre, which is something that good authors don’t do often enough.  He wants to play in the sandbox but also insists on his own changes, making for a very particular brand of story.  A perfect example of this would be Bigfoot Bjornsen’s chocolate-covered-banana addiction: it’s a weird thing, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story itself, but it adds a very particular flavor to the telling of the tale.  It’s the oddball thing that makes Pynchon so particular and unique.

There are also some themes that he’s been interested in from day one, of course.  The Crying of Lot 49 (ed. note: which I need to revisit, I think, in a more open and willing mood…) and the secret society that may or may not exist feel linked somehow to both the Golden Fang (one of this book’s MacGuffins, in its particular way) as well as the characters’ use of ARPAnet.  There’s a sense of Pynchon’s interest in communication, in the ways that it can be used against us, in the ways that it can be put underground.  Plus, his latest work (Bleeding Edge) deals more explicitly with the internet at the turn of the century. It’s fascinating to see and catch these themes as they flit across the author’s body of work.
But what does this novel add up to, at the end of the day? The voice is potent (as is the bud) and it articulates the sense of being stoned rather accurately, right down to the way that time sometimes seems to dilate and lose all meaning.  It would be (and probably is, for some) easy to find that annoying – especially if you don’t like being around high people.  Still, Pynchon makes Doc a fully formed character who grapples with morality and mortality in ways that anybody can associate with.  His observations of the fading hippie scene in 1970, in the wake of the Manson Family murders, feel rather akin to Hunter Thompson’s “wave” speech from Fear and Loathing… and there is a sense of instability underlying the whole tale: a sense that things are changing, that they won’t ever be the same, and that Doc’s dogged pursuit of this case is one of the few things that won’t ever change: the sense of a person’s moral compass.  Doc is the sort of hero we long for, who does the thing even though they know they’re probably going to get their head kicked in at some point for it.  He’s Jake Gittes, he’s Marlowe, but he sees the problem as not just these individual people in the case but a larger societal thing, man.  And that existential bummer fits pretty well into the noir canon.
There are failings, though.  The supporting cast largely feels cut from stock cloth, even though they’re all bent in interesting, sometimes-almost-unique ways.  Still, you know what role pretty much each person is going to fulfill when they come onto the page.  And reading this book with the promo materials for the film (ed. note: which my BookClub will be attending after we have all read this – an… enhanced? post about that may be forthcoming.) makes it hard not to imagine the already-indelible images of Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin and Reese Witherspoon and so on as you read.  They all feel a little manufactured at times instead of real – but maybe that’s just the dope talking.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.  I think, at the end of the day, this is a surprisingly ordinary noir novel. There’s a Pynchon spin on the whole thing, of course – but it doesn’t aspire to the magic and wildness of his other novels.  Which I suppose means you can’t knock it for not achieving it… but maybe it’s also just my problem with traditional noir: you never quite get the resolution you want.  That’s the thing, isn’t it?  I mean, detective stories began with the guy solving the thing and everybody goes home happy.  Noir digs into the existential side of things, the sense that you aren’t going to be happy even if you do solve the thing because the world is a dark place!  Etc etc.  It’s enough to make you want to roll up a joint and join Doc on the couch.  But you know you’ll be back out there eventually.  You can’t give up, just like Doc.  

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