Penguin Press, 2013
477 pp., $28.95
In the last paragraph of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel Inherent Vice, Doc Sportello, the diminutive stoner private eye who serves as the book's protagonist, drives down the Santa Monica freeway in a dense fog. He creeps along in a line of cars and wishes for something better than his current life, when the fog lifts. If it lifts.
Maybe then it would stay this way for days, maybe he'd have to just keep driving, down past Long Beach, down through Orange County, and San Diego, and across a border where nobody could tell anymore in the fog who was Mexican, who was Anglo, who was anybody. Then again, he might run out of gas before that happened, and have to leave the caravan, and pull over on 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.
Lovely and melancholy sentences … but: "For something else to be there instead"—instead of what, exactly? And I think the only answer is: instead of California. Or of the California we know, in what we think of as our home universe, our good old space-time coordinates.
That might seem a strange thing to say about a book that seems to be a slightly distended pastiche of a certain sub-genre of detective fiction, but I think it's true. It's clear that Doc Sportello fits into his time and place a bit uncomfortably. One might assume that this is simply a function of the acid trips he has been on, but that's not all there is to it. For instance, Doc loves and listens to and speaks often about surf music, famous songs like "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris (1963) and "Tequila" by the Champs (1958), and obscurities like "Super Market" by Fapardokly (1967), and even made-up tunes like "Soul Gidget" by Meatball Flag ("one of the few known attempts at black surf music"), even though the book is clearly set in 1970. More recent songs are mentioned, but Doc seems generally oblivious to them, even though he is a young man.
I say the book is clearly set in 1970 because Pynchon anchors the narrative in a handful of public events. First, and in thematic terms probably the most important, the Manson Family murders, which happened in August 1969, are on the lips of many, especially as the case drew near to trial in the middle of the following year. More lightheartedly, a perpetually stoned rock-and-roll band is passionately following the vampire-based soap opera Dark Shadows, and Pynchon seems to have tracked the actual developments of that show pretty closely.
Still more temporally precise are the references to two nba playoff series from 1970, one involving Milwaukee and Philadelphia, another the legendary Finals encounter of that year between the Lakers and the Knicks. But this anchor, however precise, is not quite as firmly buried in the sand as it might seem. For instance, we're told at one point that Doc had liked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar since he had been Lou Alcindor—but in 1970 he was still Lou Alcindor: the name change came a year later. And would an early-round Eastern Conference playoff game have been shown on television in California in 1970? Certainly not.
There are other such oddities scattered through the book: for instance, one character refers comically to Cheech and Chong's song "Basketball Jones," which didn't appear until 1973. If almost any other novelist were at work here, I would simply assume sloppiness. But with Pynchon you never know. Maybe he was sloppy; or maybe the book is in very subtle ways offering us a world where space and time undergo slippage, and not just for those like Doc Sportello who are forever toking on fat joints. Pynchon can be challenging for his reader in this way; and still more challenging for book reviewers. But the assumption that he knows what he's doing is, for reader and reviewer alike, a highly fruitful one.
Inherent Vice begins when a woman shows up at the Southern California office of a former lover (Doc) who is a private eye; she is concerned about a missing person and wants Doc to investigate. He takes the case, as a favor more than as a job, and finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into various possible and real conspiracies, sees the living killed by agents unknown and the apparently dead find new life. Meanwhile the puzzle with which the book begins—a run-of-the-mill missing persons case—in some ways resolves itself and in others just evaporates in the face of stranger and more ominous mysteries.