Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice.

Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice.

Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 3 2009 7:02 AM

Pynchon on the Beach

Why has he settled for a stoned-out detective story?

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There are also plenty of funny hard-boiled rejoinders ("You are one crazy white motherfucker." "How can you tell?" "I counted."), plus frequent authorial annotations about weather conditions, what cars people are driving, what freeways and freeway exits they're taking, and especially what kind of reefer they're smoking ("prerolled Panamanian," "seedless Hawaiian," "inexpensive Mexican produce," "Asian indica, heavily aromatic") that more or less match Raymond Chandler's accounts of all the lousy meals Marlowe ate.

It seems as though Pynchon is trying to make it up to all the beach-blanket readers who cried foul when he didn't produce conventional denouements in his other novels. The resulting lack of depth (emotional as well as intellectual) is palpable—and, to judge by pre-publication reviews, possibly salable, too. But I'm not convinced that he's found his element. Even if he's understandably reacting against some of the knee-jerk paranoia of The Crying of Lot 49 and the nostalgia of Vineland, most of the hard-won wisdom offered here as a corrective feels shopworn. Vineland already expressed much of the same skepticism about the political utility of hippie passivity—and did it better.

Even by the standards of his elected genre, Pynchon's success is debatable. I was waiting and hoping for real-estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann—the current boyfriend of Doc's ex, seemingly a capitalist villain whose disappearance sparks most of the action—to make a dramatic entrance, like Harry Lime in The Third Man, but when he finally does turn up briefly, he's barely present at all. Some other characters, such as Doc's relatives (his savvy real-estate guru Aunt Reet and his loving parents, Elmina and Leo), provide excellent cameos but don't grow into anything more substantial. Doc himself is dumber than other Pynchon heroes. This is a guy who's convinced that Sherlock Holmes was a real person and whose musical taste runs to surfer-rock. Despite some unexpected flickers of warmth the author shows toward the lead cop, Bigfoot Bjornsen—perhaps the best-educated person in the book as well as the most sarcastic—and more than flickers toward a couple of wistful ex-junkies, most of the secondary characters figure as little more than the butts of various stoned-doper jokes.

All of Pynchon's previous books dared to propose new ways of thinking about both the past and the present, often by combining the two into surreal palimpsests and sometimes by shaping everything into formal patterns involving either narrative trajectories (the shape of a V in V., the thrust of a rocket in Gravity's Rainbow) or human entanglements (the interwoven lives and families in both Vineland and Against the Day). As Edward Mendelson, Pynchon's most perceptive critic, has noted, there are often prophecies of the future set in the past (meaning the novel's present), and one can spot some of these here: early intimations of computer culture, real estate, and credit scams. But none of this is exactly news in 2009.


Most of the Pynchon-ian hallmarks are present—acronyms ("LSD Investigations" on the door of Doc's office stands for "Location, Surveillance, Detection"), anagram nicknames ("El Drano" for Leonard, a heroin dealer), song lyrics (less funny this time)—but they sometimes feel as obligatory as the catalogs of car models. And the opening of Chapter 4 is the epitome of tired, dumbed-down prose: "On certain days, driving into Santa Monica was like having hallucinations without going to all the trouble of acquiring and then taking a particular drug, although some days, for sure, any drug was preferable to driving into Santa Monica."

By the same token, one could still theoretically argue that any Pynchon novel is preferable to none, and Inherent Vice, which seems almost preternaturally aware of its own limitations (as suggested by its title), still offers us the pleasure of his company. Yet, to paraphrase that jacket copy: If you can remember the '60s and the early '70s, and what emerged from Pynchon's head in those days, you can't forget those books—and then you … or, wait … It's impossible not to be disappointed that the Renaissance intellectual, who blended populist aspirations with the wildest of fancies and cast unnervingly instructive light on our times, has settled for such a modest diversion.