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?

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon.

"In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren't there … or … if you were there, then you … or, wait, is it …" Once again, for his seventh novel, Inherent Vice, it sounds as if the author has furnished his own jacket copy, exploiting the doper humor that's often been part of his signature.

This isn't the only evidence of retreads. For the third time, Pynchon has set a story in the California counterculture, on each occasion finding some relaxation there from the more ambitious historical frameworks of his other books; out West, the pages are fewer and the sentences, too, are often shorter. After V. (1963) came The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)—a snappy contemporary quest for signs of WASTE, a centuries-old alternative to the American postal system that might be the heroine's fantasy projection. Then, long after Gravity's Rainbow(1973), his major effort, came Vineland(1990), set in 1984 but also looking backward to the hippie idealism of the late '60s, and pondering, with grief and a genuine sense of urgency, what might have happened to it.

Now, after Mason & Dixon (1997) and Against the Day (2006), one finds more laid-back disillusionment in Inherent Vice—a gumshoe pastiche set in surfside L.A. in 1970. It's a kind of southerly remake of Vineland (which was set mainly in Northern California) featuring similar showdowns between freaks and cops and further evidence of defections and betrayals but played, this time, more for cheap thrills than for any fresh historical insights. And replacing Crying's WASTE is a more generic Great Whatsit called The Golden Fang, a boat that might be a tax dodge set up by dentists.

It's worth returning to that jacket blurb in order to interrogate it. Is the new book lively? Up to a point, but not compared with its predecessors. On the other hand, if you're undemanding, this plainly passes muster as beach reading. And is Pynchon working in an unaccustomed genre? Not if one considers the various gumshoe elements found among the many genre pastiches in his other novels (which always served as seasoning, never as the main course). But Inherent Vice is certainly a classic illustration of something or other, such as (maybe) giving up the project of being a serious novelist, albeit without offending anyone except for a few longtime and die-hard fans like me. And at least it's a yarn, which Pynchon has never quite managed before.

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For once, this flouter of reader expectations is playing by most of the genre rules. The hero, Larry "Doc" Sportello, is a short, 29-year-old private investigator whose taste for weed seems to exceed Philip Marlowe's liking for booze. He has a home near Gordita Beach (a location already cited in Vineland—apparently suggested by Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon wrote much of Gravity's Rainbow) and an office near LAX. Doc's powers of detection are variable, often depending on how much he's been smoking, and his sense of mission is generally so lax that this periodically becomes an excuse for more digressions.

The year is 1970, after Charles Manson gets arrested but before he comes to trial: In other words, the utopian dreams of the counterculture are already in their death throes. Everyone, cops and stoned freaks alike, seems to be working both sides of the street—or at least wanting or trying to. Doc is asked to spy for the cops in exchange for grass, and his own girlfriend, a deputy DA, casually sells him at one point to the feds. "Life in psychedelic-sixties L.A. offered more cautionary arguments than you could wave a joint at against too much trust, and the seventies were looking no more promising." This is Doc's conclusion, though as the book advances, more and more of these jaundiced reflections about everyone's inner corruption seem to come from the author.

The hero may be living, emotionally, inside a sort of amiable deep freeze, but Pynchon still takes pains to furnish most of the usual mystery staples. There's everything from a glamorous ingénue in trouble (Doc's ex) in the opening scene to an eventual plot resolution, of sorts, with carefully contrived (if implausible) narrow escapes and belated sexual rewards for hapless Doc—long after we've given up hope of him ever getting laid.

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