Inherent Vice: A Novel by Thomas Pynchon (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009. 384 pp)

Thomas Pynchon is a reclusive American novelist. His novels have earned much acclaim, including his most noteworthy, Gravity’s Rainbow, winning the 1974 National Book Award for Fiction. Inherent Vice is currently being developed into a film by Paul Thomas Anderson.

When Innovation Isn’t Innovative

Isn’t it odd to look back at all the movements we thought would take over the world? While some sneak their way into the foundations of society, others drift away like a dandelion seed caught in a zephyr. Remember MySpace? That was funny wasn’t it? Even longer term, I wonder what our grandchildren will think of our desktop and laptop computers? Will they laugh at us for using a smartphone? Innovative ideas remain innovative for only so long before they no longer hold their influence. The same applies with movements. In Thomas Pynchon’s hard-boiled novel, Inherent Vice, the reader encounters characters struggle with moving forward at the end of a decade-long movement.

The Mystery

Inherent Vice follows protagonist, Larry “Doc” Sportello, through the hazy, post-Hippy existence of Southern California in the late 60s. A private investigator prone to all things pot, Doc is tasked by a former lover, Shasta, to disarm a plot against her lover, real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann.

Additionally, another acquaintance requests Doc’s assistance in helping locate one of Mickey’s bodyguards, Glen Charlock.

While investigating a job site, Doc loses consciousness, only to emerge to the interrogation of detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who notifies Doc that Mickey and Shasta are missing and Glen has been murdered.

Obviously, Doc’s loss of consciousness proves questionable to the authorities, but without much evidence, their only choice is to follow this pot-headed sleuth.

With his interest piqued, Doc dives into his case, seeking to find Mickey and Shasta, whatever the cost.

Losing Hope

Thematically, Inherent Vice explores the loss of hope at the end of the 60s. People everywhere wondered if the hippy ideal would last but the end of the decade left people in a discouraging place. For starters, the Charles Manson case—mentioned liberally in the book—caused a visceral reaction in society. It made everyone ask, “Is this what we’re capable of doing?”

Pynchon notes the loss of utopia when he writes,

“’It’s all turned to sick fascination,’ opined Bigfoot, ‘and meantime the whole field of homicide’s being stood on its ear—bye-bye Black Dahlia, rest in peace Tom Ince, yes we’ve seen the last of those good old-time L.A. murder mysteries I’m afraid. We’ve found the gateway to hell, and it’s asking far too much of your L.A. civilian not to want to go crowding on through it, horny and giggling as always, looking for that latest thrill. Lots of overtime for me and the boys I guess, but it brings us all that much closer to the end of the world’” (209).

Enhancing Setting

Pynchon builds on this idea about the end of an era through his setting. California is still a place where the care-free roam with no repercussions. Music becomes a central component in the world Pynchon creates. Part of being a care-free druggie is always listening to a tune, no matter the time of day or place:

“Carmine was a longhaired lounge tenor with a Les Paul model Gibson that he may have had a few lessons on but tended to use more as a prop, often including tommy-gun gestures, while the other Cal-Zones assumed standard rock-quartet parts. A pair of cupcakes in red vinyl minidresses, black fishnet hose, and lacquered hair sang backup while doing white-chick time steps” (229).

This quotation is one of many offering gritty detail about the music in the background of the narrative.

And Pot  

Most interestingly, to me at least, is Pynchon’s insistence on balancing a hard-boiled detective mystery with the hazy pot-filled setting of California. Everyone is always stoned. It actually makes Doc’s job a lot harder than it should be.

At the same time, the pot-induced haze makes for some hilarious prose. Consider this passage:

“The clock up on the wall, which reminded Doc of elementary school back in the San Joaquin, read some hour that it could not possibly be. Doc waited for the hands to move, but they didn’t, from which he deduced that the clock was broken and maybe had been for years. Which was groovy however because long ago Sortilège had taught him the esoteric skill of telling time from a broken clock. The first thing you had to do was light a joint, which in the Hall of Justice might seem odd, but surely not way back here—who knew, maybe even outside the jurisdiction of the local drug enforcement—though just to be on the safe side he also lit a De Nobili cigar and filled the room with a precautionary cloud of smoke from the classic Mafia favorite. After inhaling potsmoke for a while, he glanced up at the clock, and sure enough, it showed a different time now, though this could also be from Doc having forgotten where the hands were to begin with” (283).

Ultimately, Inherent Vice illustrates the end of an era. The dolce far niente or pleasant idleness of the hippy ideal is replaced with the on-edge belief that any slatternly man with long hair might be another Charles Manson. Movements always start with a bang and end with a fizzle. Pynchon does a great job of detailing this idea underneath an enjoyable, narcotic-filled narrative. Recommended.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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