Sunday, 1 March 2015

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (analysis/review)

In 1970 Los Angeles, private detective and hippe Larry "Doc" Sportello gets a visit from an ex-girlfriend of his, Shasta. She is currently seeing a billionaire land developer, Mickey Wolfmann. Problem is, he is married to another woman, who is also having an affair. The wife and her boyfriend have cooked up a nasty scheme to kidnap Wolfmann and get a hold of all his money. Shasta asks Doc for help, but before long both she and Wolfmann have disappeared. To quote the author himself "by then it gets kinda peculiar" The novel dives into Pynchonian absurdity, though one is also reminded of Chandler's byzantine plots. I will stop here, but for any prospective readers I must warn that this review in it's analysis somewhat reveals the ending of the book.

Inherent Vice is a homage both to the 60s counter-culture and the literary tradition of the private detective. This might seem to be quite disparate subjects, but as Pynchon writes, the private detective is a subversive figure, "always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solving the crime while the cops are followin' wrong leads and gettin' in the way".  This isn't a radical re-interpretation of the private detective genre as one might think. . The creator of the genre as we know it, Dashiell Hammett was a communist and while Raymond Chandler didn't share Hammett's beliefs, he didn't believe in capitalism either.

By returning to the 60s, Pynchon naturally revisits themes from Vineland. The counterculture, that Pynchon was a part of, is given a loving, but very humorous portrayal that is one of the book's main strengths. Doc himself is a hippie and substitutes the traditional whisky flask of the PI with a joint.

The motto of the book is from the May 1968 events in France: "Beneath the paving-stone - the beach!", beneath the artificial world of capitalism lies the freedom of nature, to narrow down such a beautiful metaphor. Doc lives on Gordita beach, an obvious substitute of the real Manhattan Beach on which Pynchon lived in the 60s, writing Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon makes the obvious connection between the hippies and California's surfer culture, with the hilarious idea of psychedelic surf rock or "surfadelic" returning from Vineland. In that light, it is interesting that, due to it's accessibility, this book has been called Pynchon's "Beach-read".

But despite all the hippie nostalgia, throughout the novel are forebodings of what is to come, how the Counter-culture will wane in influence and America will become the dystopia depicted in Vineland. The Nixon government is in the wake of the Manson murders coming down hard on the hippies. Nixon himself appears on television in a kind of vision to set the agenda: "There are always the whiners and complainers who'll say, this is fascism.  Well, fellow Americans, if it's Fascism for Freedom? I . . . can . . . dig it!" The Internet appears, in embryonal form as ARPANET, and Pynchon ever the paranoiac foreshadows it's future use as a tool of mass surveillance.

But Doc also sees how the counter-culture becomes increasingly subverted by commercializing forces. Just as in Vineland, the hippie movement wasn't so much crushed with physical force as insidiously corrupted by commercial culture.  In a powerful passage, Doc drives by a record store and sees people listening to rock music on headphones in listening booths: "Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side."

By becoming a commodity, something you can sell or buy, rock music and other aspects of the counter-culture ceased to be revolutionary. Just as in Vineland, tv is criticised as a form of brainwashing and control, and Pynchon contrasts the subversive private detective in the form of Doc, with television police shows, that try to  "get the viewer population so cop-happy  they're beggin' to be run in".

The celebration of the 60s slowly becomes an elegy as Doc realizes "how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all" and be taken over "The faithless money-driven world" or "The ancient forces of greed and fear".

Against these forces stand Doc, embodying Chandler's ideal of the private detective as a man who walks the mean streets, "who is not himself mean". Doing his detective not so much to earn money, but to help others, he is an altruistic force in a selfish world. His hero is actor John Garfield, who often portrayed a PI in the film noirs of the 40s, but who lost his career nobly refusing to sell out his friends in the Mccarthyist witch-trials of the 50s.

The major theme of the novel is redemption, and the question is if it's possible or not. For Pynchon, the world is fallen and corrupt, with the hippie movement a noble, but failed attempt at redemption.    It is eventually revealed that the land developer, Wolfmann was kidnapped after coming to the realisation, very much influenced by the spirit of the age, that his life of capitalist greed is wrong and attempting redemption.  The title of the novel comes from a phrase within insurance referring to basic faults in the nature of things, that it's impossible to insure against. For example, it is the nature of eggs to be broken, it's their Inherent Vice. And the major question within the novel is whether there exists an inherent vice within human beings that drives them towards corruption or makes redemption impossible.

Pynchon doesn't come to an answer. Wolfmann is released and is back to his old ways, apparently  brainwashed, with Doc unable to help him. One of Doc's hippie friends dream of a spiritual revolution and tell him of the sunken continent of Lemuria, which may rise to the surface again. But Doc world-wearily wonders if that happened right outside LA anybody there would actually notice it, believing as they do only "what was on the tube or in the morning papers”, truth being  “a place they’d been exiled from too long ago to remember”.

There is however still hope for redemption. Doc comes across a broken family, in which the father, Coy Harlingen, is separated from his wife and daughter by his involvement due to a heroin addiction with the mysterious organization The Golden Fang (another example of Pyncon juxtaposing absurdity with realistic human problems.), but Doc manages in the end to rescue the father and return him home. And in the final scene, drivers on the freeway form a kind of temporary commune and guide each other through thick LA smog (a symbol if anything for what Pynchon believes in) and one can but hope for "For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead."

Inherent Vice is yet another excellent novel from Pynchon. The jokes are funny, and the book is often very moving in a subtle way, as you slowly realise how much Doc really cares for other people. The story of Coy Harlingen is especially moving, and well worth any price of admission. As you may realize from my plentiful quotes, Pynchon is still an absolutely wonderful stylist.

While it is not as deep as other Pynchon novels, it is deep enough to be meaningful, and what it lacks in gravitas, it gains in accessibility, which may make this a good novel to start out with if you're planning to get into Pynchon. As you might have guessed, I have read this, in order to be prepared for the film adaptation. Look out in the future for my comments on it

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