Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice — September 4, 2010

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice cover: old beater of a car, with surfboards on its roof, sitting in front of a surf shop on the beach. Lots of loud pink colors, almost neon. The title of the book is in fact written in neon-type letters.

This is the book that would result if [film: The Big Lebowski], Chevy Chase’s [film: Fletch] series, and 1940s-era noir films were combined, if the classic noir blonde bombshell were updated into a 60s-free-love hippie chick, if the private-detective aspect of [film: Fletch] were kicked up a notch and made somewhat more serious, and if the whole thing were then novelized and relocated to 1969.

Our hero, a stoner private eye, ambles around late-60s L.A. after the Sixties have run their course and everyone in authority — cops especially — hates the hippies. Nixon is in the White House and Reagan is in the California governor’s mansion. His ex-girlfriend visits him on the very first page, announcing that her new boyfriend has disappeared and she needs help finding him. I’m not giving away terribly much if I tell you that they eventually have sex but it’s all, like, whatever, man? In any case, he can’t resist his dame (as an earlier generation of private-eye novels might have put it), so he stumbles around looking for clues. Despite smoking a really overwhelming quantity of pot (scarcely a page goes by when he doesn’t light up), he somehow manages to know a lot of people and ask the right questions. The cops hate him, but also seem to respect him. One of the pervasive mysteries in this book is how our hero manages to be both quite the slacker and also a reasonably competent PI.

People are always ending sentences with question marks? Even when it’s, you know, a declarative utterance? The endless mocking of California, and California stoner culture more specifically, is quite funny, but does bleed over into slapstick at points. This initially bothered me, but I suspect it’s Pynchon letting us know that we shouldn’t take any of it too seriously. So I didn’t. It’s a private-eye comedy, and it’s tons of fun.

This is the first Pynchon that I’ve managed to make it all the way through. I gave [book: Gravity’s Rainbow] a shot many years ago. I was a teenager at the time, which probably means I wasn’t ready for it in any case. But I think that would also be a tough read no matter when I read it. I distinctly remember giving up when the narrator dives into a toilet, goes for a long swim, and gets a turd stuck in his nose.

Not sure what made me grab this Pynchon when the author’s very name had been, for me, a mark of self-indulgent wankery. It could be the positive [mag: New Yorker] review. More likely it was that I stumbled into the Harvard Book Store while happily buzzed off strong Craigie on Main cocktails one night, and I couldn’t help myself. The purchase, given that background, was entirely appropriate.