By Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, a psychedelic noir set in 1970 Los Angeles, is a nostalgic trip. The protagonist is a flashback not to Chandler’s Marlowe but Altman’s, a stoner gumsandal named “Doc” Sportello who tokes his way through an adventure filled with bell-bottoms and Nehru jackets, love beads and cowrie shells. The groovy chicks, and there are plenty, wear micro minidresses and the heavy straights have a hate on for jive-ass hippie freaks. You dig?
Inherent Vice is also nostalgic in that it takes us back to earlier Pynchon: a tangled intersection of politics, technology, and paranoia, a landscape of secret societies (here it’s the Golden Fang or Chryskylodon) and submerged continents. And, of course, lots of sinister slapstick involving perversely unmusical song lyrics and a bewildering cast of characters with silly names like Sauncho Smilax, Bigfoot Bjornsen, Japonica Fenway, Special FBI Agents Flatweed and Borderline, and sexy stewardii Motella and Lourdes.
The suggestion is occasionally made that Doc’s history of substance abuse gives him greater, extrasensory powers of perception, an ability to detect “vibes” and the hidden connections between things. This serves him in good stead as the plot – which involves drugs, money-laundering, and numerous missing persons, just for starters – is complex to the point of being incomprehensible. One has the sense that Pynchon, who has a habit of this, simply comes up with new twists whenever the narrative seems in danger of slowing down. Some attempt is made at sorting it all out in the end, though there are any number of loose threads. None of which are important anyway.
What is important is the elegaic tone. It is no accident that the main motif Pynchon uses to hitch his fantasy to the real world of history is the Manson case. Over twenty references to Manson, his “family,” and their upcoming trial, are scattered throughout the text. This is important because Manson marked a cultural watershed. In the words of shock-schlock director John Waters, it was Manson who “finally ended the hippie movement.” Or, as Vincent Bugliosi, Manson’s prosecutor, later put it, the Manson murders “sounded the death knell for hippies and all they symbolically represented.”
It is a historical moment Doc, most profoundly in the dim afterglow of a joint and cable TV, can prophetically sense. The corporate suits are taking over, Las Vegas is on the verge of being de-Mobbed and Disneyfied, the Summer of Love has turned into an Endless Bummer, “and here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness . . . how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.”
At another point, among “gatherings of carefree youth and happy dopers” Doc notices “older men, there and not there, rigid, unsmiling.” These, we can be sure, are the real forces of evil, not the blonde yakuza gangster, the lecherous dentist Dr. Blatnoyd, or the sadistic hit man Adrian Prussia. These rigid, unsmiling men are the bill collectors, the businessmen, the office managers of the new dispensation, and “If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.” Flower power is the god that failed and the straights stand ready to inherit the earth.
There is something of Austin Powers vs. Doctor Evil in all of this, and given the campy, cartoonish nature of much of the novel, which most nearly resembles 1967’s Crying of Lot 49 among Pynchon’s other work, the comparison is not unjust. Indeed, it’s a bit of a relief. All of Pynchon’s novels since Lot 49 (and yes, I’m including Gravity’s Rainbow) have suffered terribly from bloat, a more-is-more grandiosity and runaway page inflation. Inherent Vice is shorter (thank heavens) but still comes in overweight. The wise-guy patter, so essential to successful noir, is lame and there are stretches where the writing clunks around like Doc’s Dodge Dart. Surely among major contemporary authors Pynchon is one of the least graceful stylists, and he does nothing to redeem that reputation here.
Still, he is a major contemporary author for a reason. Over forty years ago he sounded notes of dire foreboding about where the culture was heading. Going back in time he essentially tells the same story, but now from the perspective of someone who wants to reconsider how it all went wrong.
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 2, 2009.