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Inherent Vice
Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon
Penguin Press HC, The, 2009
384 pp., 29.37

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John Wilson


Inherent Vice

Thomas Pynchon's private eye.

I'm writing in the first week of August. Three nights ago, I started Thomas Pynchon's just-published novel Inherent Vice, completing it the following night. You won't have this issue of Books & Culture in your hands until several weeks later, by which time—if you are a Pynchonian—you will already have read the novel twice, maybe three times, even if it isn't among your personal favorites. (My own list would start with The Crying of Lot 49, followed by Against the Day.) You may have visited the Inherent Vice wiki, maybe even contributed an annotation or two. In that case, you won't mind spoilers, though you may be bored. If you haven't read the novel yet but think you might, turn the page for now. And if you haven't read the novel, have no intention of doing so (Pynchon isn't your cup of tea, or you don't read much fiction at all), but are still interested in a report, proceed to the next paragraph.

Inherent Vice is set in 1970 in a fictitious Southern California town, Gordita Beach (mentioned in Pynchon's 1990 novel, Vineland, and bearing a resemblance to Manhattan Beach), where the protagonist, Larry "Doc" Sportello, is a private eye: "The sign on his door read LSD Investigations, LSD, as he explained when people asked, which was not often, standing for 'Location, Surveillance, Detection.'" Imagine Philip Marlowe as a laid-back dope-smoking "gumsandal," much less physically impressive than the Chandler prototype, on the short side in fact, but winsome in his own way, and you begin to get the picture. Sure enough, the book begins with Doc, like Marlowe and Lew Archer before him, visited by a client of sorts:

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn't seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking like she swore she'd never look.

In addition to framing the book as an homage to and parody of the hard-boiled detective novel, film noir, and the offshoots thereof, this opening paragraph suggests that we will be getting a morality play pitting flatlanders, denizens of "straightworld," against the free spirits of Gordita Beach, who will inevitably be crushed. Some early readers of the novel have described its mood as nostalgic—mourning the loss of "the Sixties," yes, but with an emphasis on savoring that moment in time with Pynchon's enjoyably fanatical attention to detail, memorializing even the most obscure surf bands. And of course there are the Pynchonian names: Ensenada Slim and Coy Harlingen, Dr. Blatnoyd and Dr. Threeply, Detective Lieutenant Bigfoot Bjornsen, LAPD, and Trillium Fortnight, one of the most affecting characters in the tale, who teaches music theory at UCLA and moonlights as "a woodwind specialist in early-music ensemble gigs. 'Anything from a double-quint pommer down to a sopranino shawm, I'm your person.'" Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker ("Soft-Boiled," his review is wonderfully titled), concludes that "Inherent Vice is generally a light-hearted affair" even as he acknowledges "familiar apocalyptic touches."

With Pynchon, a first reading is a reconnaissance, but my first impression of the book, for what it's worth, is quite different. That may have something to do with my confirmed loathing for druggie narratives (fiction, nonfiction, anything in between) and stoner humor. Obviously Pynchon relishes all this. Still, what I felt most strongly while reading the novel was a visceral sense of sadness and fallenness, human fallenness (my own included), like a bad smell—rotten potatoes, say—that's hard to get out of your nostrils for a long time after you have taken it in. Maybe that isn't what Pynchon intended at all, but it seems to follow from the story itself, and moreover it seems to implicate the cool folk, the refugees from straightworld, every bit as much as their uptight counterparts. (The fate of Trillium Fortnight is a case in point.)

The byzantine plot in which Doc finds himself entangled naturally involves deep machinations of principalities and powers (in the Los Angeles Police Department, maybe the CIA, not to mention conniving developers and other familiar villains) in addition to plain thuggery. Clearly Pynchon's sympathies lie with those who have been cheated, lied to, stolen from, and otherwise abused by self-styled guardians of public order. But human bentness seems pervasive in Pynchon's novel, as in the great big world outside.

Near the very end of the book, there is a reference to the title—a term in marine insurance, according to Doc's lawyer friend, Sauncho Smilax. Elsewhere a legal dictionary defines "inherent vice" as a "loss caused by the inherent nature of the thing insured and not the result of a casualty or external cause." (Doc asks, "Is that like original sin?")

After I finished Pynchon's novel, I emailed a friend about the smell, the taste of fallenness, not only in Inherent Vice but in the next book in my stack, William Vollmann's Imperial, which I have just started. I was thinking about our attempt to recover a sense of the persisting goodness of creation, which has sometimes been lost among evangelicals, so strong is our tradition's recognition of the reality of sin. "Yes, fallenness," my friend wrote back. His wife and their nine-year-old daughter had taken a walk a couple of days earlier, and they came across a small turtle in the road that had apparently been hit by a car. It was either dead or dying when they found it. My friend's wife picked it up and put it in the grass by the side of the road. That night after their daughter was tucked in, he heard her sobbing and went to find out what was troubling her.

"I just can't get the look in its eyes out of my memory," she said. "It was so sad. I hope it didn't suffer before it died, but if it was going to suffer I'm sure God would have killed it so it wouldn't suffer."
How can I explain to my wonderful, sensitive, beauty-loving nine-year-old that sometimes, many times, most of the time, innocent creatures do suffer, and suffer terribly, long before they find the mercy of death?
The creation is good and beautiful, and also wrong and terrible, and somewhere in there I hope, and my daughter hopes, there is a loving purpose. Sighs too deep for words.

It's Pynchon's unsentimental eye for human wreckage that makes the conclusion of Inherent Vice all the more remarkable. Doc is driving home on the Santa Monica Freeway as the fog rolls in and thickens:

He crept along till he finally found another car to settle in behind. After a while in his rearview mirror he saw somebody else fall in behind him. He was in a convoy of an unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in taillight range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered awhile for safety in getting across a patch of blindness. It was one of the few things he'd ever seen anyone in this town, except hippies, do for free.

Doc muses about what might happen if the fog stayed too thick for him to find his way to an exit. Maybe he would keep driving all the way across the border, "where nobody could tell anymore in the fog who was Mexican, who was Anglo, who was anybody." But

he might run out of gas before that happened, and have to leave the caravan, and pull over to the shoulder, and wait. For whatever would happen. For a forgotten joint to materialize in his pocket. For the CHP to come by and choose not to hassle him. for a restless blonde in a Stingray to stop and offer him a ride. For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.

Amen.

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