The 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 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.