Pynchon, Thomas (2009), Inherent Vice, Jonathan Cape
Ah, Inherent Vice. So. Right, why don’t I start at the beginning. Here’s what I won’t talk about so much. Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s eighth novel, is, as all his books, saturated with references. Unless I am completely mad, there are references to all his books, smaller and larger ones, but I don’t have the memory or the time to chase them all up or at least a presentable portion of them so there’ll be none of that. I do have to mention it, though, mostly because Inherent Vice, even more so than his other books, spends a great deal of time giving shout-outs to other books, writers and pop-cultural references in general. These references, and I am referring only to those of an explicit kind, get so that it becomes a kind of rhythm, a melody of its own within the book, but it’s never obtrusive or annoying. What’s most important: it’s never ‘clever’. To be honest, it felt to me as if he were mopping the floor with peers and epigones like Don Delillo and Bret Easton Ellis, who have perfected the enumeration, the cataloging, even, of American consumerism, into an art form, a sub-genre of its own, even. Unless my memory plays tricks on me, this is the first time that Pynchon goes all out on us in that way as far as explicit references are concerned, and he does it in a way that is so light-handed yet precise, that he puts whole shelves of other writers to shame.
Actually, this is true about many aspects of Inherent Vice. The language in general is light and accessible, so that I have heard many people who could not finish Gravity’s Rainbow, declare their joy and relief at finding the master’s new novel ‘readable’. However, appearances may deceive. I took quite some time reading the book the first time around, for two reasons, both language related. The first is that Pynchon, especially in the first third, employs a subtly rhythmical language, the sounds of words slap into each other, merge, a phrase at the end of one page may echo another at the beginning of the same page, alliterations abound. A few times, after reading half a page I noticed that I hadn’t actually read it, in the sense of understanding it. I just followed the sounds in leaps and bounds. That took a while adjusting to. Overall, the point of this use of language is, I think, that Pynchon deliberately used that light register and I mean, he used it, as a tool if that makes sense.
Typically, light language is used to ferry the reader from plot point to plot point, without taxing him overmuch. Many of these writers could have made a movie for all they care about the actual language employed. What I think I noticed in Inherent Vice is the fact that Pynchon is aware of the register of the language he uses and that he doesn’t use light language to get somewhere in terms of plot, but he uses light language in order to use light language. I’m not sure that all the playfulness is intentional, I think it’s a side effect of the attention that Pynchon lavishes upon his language. There are few other living writers who are so invested in language without stiffening up the text. Because this is the most beautiful thing about this: it IS a light read, not just a “light read”. People resistant to his pyrotechnics do enjoy the book. It takes a master like Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. to do both of these things at the same time.
The other element is also important for Pynchon in general and quite dominant in his latest novel, as well. It’s his, well, let’s call a spade a spade and Pynchon an obsessional writer. He’s obsessed with names, and I’m not just about people’s names or place names either. It would be easy and superfluous to recount all the inanely funny puns that Pynchon has turned into names for his characters, most famously, probably, Crying of Lot 49‘s Oedipa Maas. As I said, this book is full of them, as well. But it doesn’t stop there. It didn’t in his past books and it sure as hell doesn’t here. Pynchon textualizes his landscapes, by turning every word that could carry references to the real world into a name with a symbol system attached to it. Places etc. are far more important in the way that they can be dismembered and made sense of within the textual logic of the book at hand or, indeed, the broader oeuvre. Yes, like much of this review, this is banal, because if you’ve ever read Pynchon, this will be bloody obvious to you, but I found that quite a few people started to do stupid maps blending the California novels and certain known places of residence of Pynchon himself, which, uh, but let’s not go there.
Let’s just return to the business of names and naming. Instead of compiling a list which could go on for at least a paragraph or two, I’ll close this paragraph of mine by mentioning one of the most insistent instances of Pynchon’s use of names. It’s “The Golden Fang”, which, to not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the novel, is basically some shadowy organization. You’ll see. The point is that this name crops up every so often, with all sorts of things changed. The signifier changes, by having that name in translation or in paraphrase, and the signified as well, as the organization keeps appearing differently depending on context and plot position; we will also encounter actual fangs or fang-like objects, and, in one of the book’s best moments, Pynchon actually anatomizes not the ‘fang’ part of the term but the golden by discussing different alloys and the copper contingent in it (which, to turn this process of morphing the term partly around, is a pun again, of course, since cops and mobsters are not necessarily antagonists in the society depicted in the book.
Since I’ve now hinted at the plot, I might as well talk some more about it, to the extent that that’s possible without spoiling it for those who haven’t read the book yet. It’s basically a noir novel with a hippie sleuth as protagonist. As is customary in that genre, as far as I know, he uses a third person personal narrator. The private eye in question is Doc Sportello, and one day an ex-girlfriend of his, Shasta, comes to visit him, telling him about a criminal plan in which she is enmeshed. She wants out but instead she disappears and a very rich, famous and important man, her lover, disappears with her. Sportello has a few run-ins with the police, suffers from loss of consciousness and loss of memory, meets beautiful ladies and grim fellas as he stumbles on along the wondrous yellow brick road of a very typical noir plot. There are important and salient ways in which Pynchon departs from the genre but the book is remarkable in that it does follow genre conventions rather closely, more so than in any other Pynchon novel that I can remember. The plot and hapless Sportello within it, gives off a distinct Chandlerian smell, it’s enough to send one back to the source.
But to that smell, the sweet smell of dope attaches itself very early on. Sportello is a hippie. The book may be a noir but for the most part, it’s suffused by the light and the sun in southern California, and by no stretch of the imagination can the novel be called “hard-boiled”. There’s not much that’s hard about Sportello, although he isn’t stupid or easy prey. He does carry a weapon and in crucial situations is even known to hide one in his shoe, unobtrusively. I called him hapless, but that’s just because the typical noir plot tosses its detective around like a storm a small boat. Actually, and surprisingly, Sportello, as the book repeatedly reveals, is smart and a very capable detective. The softness of him is more a kind of hippie mentality. He is trustful and a gentle soul overall. When he finds out something about the company that the major police officer assigned to the case is keeping, Bigfoot Bjornsen (“named for his entry method of choice”) he isn’t jaded, or cynical. He is personally offended and angry. When people do things that he considers morally wrong, he becomes angry. His deliberations, resulting from that kind of thinking, can sometimes seem a tad childish (and Sportello constantly has to refrain from making quips and jokes. He’s a trickster by nature. Just the honest kind.) but they aren’t.
Doc Sportello is a wonderful creation, he is the book or rather: he’s its warm, beating heart. This book could have been a cold, annoyingly clever mess, brainy but emotionally empty, but Sportello is the reason why that isn’t the case. Sportello is committed. Things are important to him, it’s why he’s such a good sleuth. Everything. Start with drugs: in Sportello’s world, drugs can enhance your mind, and disable you at the same time, which may sound banal, but consider: Sportello does not take drugs as a novelty act, his attitude towards drugs reflects the importance of drugs to many people in his time, the great potential of taking something that would open your mind to new possibilities, grander vistas. Again, banal, maybe, but it’s important to this book and to Pynchon and to Doc Sportello. I am not saying that Pynchon isn’t having a huge amount of fun at Sportello’s expense, he certainly is, but it’s not malicious and it’s fun that Sportello would have appreciated. And this fun saves many parts of the book from a dour earnestness that looms over sections where Sportello ponders how similar he’s become to a policeman. It looms but it never breaks out. Pynchon’s mastery and his use of the light register keep everything smooth and humorous. He’s not necessarily ‘zany’, it’s a much more controlled and versed brand of humor.
Another element of the genre that Inherent Vice belongs to is its treatment of women. As has been pointed out ad nauseam, the hard-boiled novel is focused on masculinities, affording women usually second-rate treatment, structurally even undercutting strong depictions of women. It’s a broad field of study, and any quick perusal of the MLA will point you to a few texts that may satisfy your appetite for information. Anyway. What Pynchon does is very interesting. I think he is intent upon reproducing the feminity as it would appear in any book of that genre. Its women are one of the very central aspects of the hard-boiled novel and Pynchon’s dedication to genre this time around means he can’t do anything about it at this point. However, in his usual fashion, he proceeds and attaches a multitude of mirrors to the walls of the novel, so that the problematic women of noir novels, while not usually explicitly vindicated, are vindicated through all sorts of little devices. One of the most blatant ones is, of course, a series of ties. These ties have been painted for a very rich man and each tie bears the likeness of one of the man’s many ex-lovers. Not their faces, mind you, but their whole bodies, in all their naked glory. What’s more, they are usually depicted in sexual poses, submissive more often than not. This whole tie business is a powerful trope for different kinds of power issues in the book and one could tie a whole, coherent reading of the whole novel around those ties and their connections within the novel.
Yet another central concern of Inherent Vice are oppositions, north and south, for example. In an aside, we learn of a migration of hippies north to where Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland is set, with people like Larry Sportello basically left behind in South California. This particular opposition is, for example, mirrored in one of the most powerful sections, as far as landscape and imagery is concerned: pursuing a lead, Sportello gets on the road to Vegas, where we learn that there’s a prosperous south, the part of Las Vegas where the “Strip” is found, and a more dilapidated north, which has not achieved a comparable popular success. The decay in a casino in north Vegas seems like straight from a movie, with lonely singers performing to no audience; that scene also has a dreamlike, a wistful quality, of a failed vision, squandered energies, a disappearing era. Building projects of the failed variety abound as well in Inherent Vice, repeatedly reinforcing another opposition, that of success and failure. As has been pointed out, the detective in the hard boiled novel shares qualities with that other grand cultural archetype, the cowboy. Frontiers, successes, masculinities, there are countless issues all bound up in this and this is not the place to anatomize them.
I have mentioned a few issues in this review and I assure you that these are but a fraction of what’s going on in Pynchon’s grand new novel, which alludes to heavy linguistic topics like Korzybski (the ‘inherent vices’ of language, so to say), and others like Schrödinger’s Cat. But most of all, it’s a quick, fun read that bears the traces of a lifetime’s experience and development as a writer. Any allegation of repetition severely misses the point. Pynchon has honed his skills to a fine point, he frequently falls back on past books, but every word in this book reveals the mastery that Pynchon has, by now attained. Elements are used in different contexts, are serenaded by a different music. There will be those who apply an autobiographical reading to the book, which I would resist. The book has its hooks firmly in the web that has been created by his past books. And, of course, in other books and texts, movies, songs. Pynchon is greedy, an omnivore, that has always been true for his work and it’s true for this one. And we the readers profit from this. We ride shotgun on his tours through America, and if there’s a similarity in his books, that’s to be expected. As I mentioned, he’s an obsessional writer, who has tried out different tools to get at the sweet nut in the shell that American pelts him with. And yes, he uses similar tools as well. But he works on his tools and develops them further just as he works on the cultural representation of America. He is a great writer, committed to his vision and to his writing. Inherent Vice is an amazing book.