Saturday, January 10, 2015

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

As Doc approached downtown L.A., the smog grew thicker til he couldn't see to the end of the block.  Everybody had their headlights on, and he recalled that somewhere behind him, back at the beach, it was still another classic day of California sunshine.  Being on the way to visit Adrian Prussia, he'd decided not to smoke too much, so he was at a lost to account for the sudden appearance, rising ahead, of a dark metallic gray promontory about the size of the Rock of Gibraltar.  Traffic crept along, nobody else seemed to see it.  He thought about Sortilege's sunken continent, returning, surfacing this way in the lost heart of L.A., and wondered who'd notice if it did.  People in this own saw only what they'd all agreed to see, they believed what was on the tube or in the morning papers half of them read while they were driving to work on the freeway, and it was all their dream about being wised up, about the truth setting them free.  What good would Lemuria do them?  Especially when it turned out to be a place they'd been exiled from too long ago to remember.

I'm a big fan of P. T. Anderson, and I loved the only other Pynchon novel I've read, The Crying of Lot 49, so I wanted to read Pynchon's latest, Inherent Vice, before Anderson's film came out.  I've read the book and I've seen the film, which axes about a third of the novel's intricate plot.  Normally, such a drastic cutting might hinder the intelligibility of an adaptation, but the movie makes as much sense as the book does.  That is, it makes no sense at all.

Of course, Pynchon's not really in the business of making sense.  In fact, here and in Lot 49 he seems to be after a kind of anti-sense, or the impeccably cultivated impression of sense, created by an overwhelming accumulation of details.  Most thrillers and mystery stories are no different these days, but Pynchon's skill is in the careful parody and deconstruction of those books and movies.  Like Lot 49, Inherent Vice is a conspiracy story, but it never quite becomes clear who's behind the conspiracy, or why, or even what it is they want.

The story centers around Doc Sportello, a private investigator looking into the disappearance of a Los Angeles real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann.  Wolfmann happens to be the lover of Sportello's ex, Shasta, who warns Doc of a plot by Wolfmann's wife to extort Mickey and have him committed, and then promptly disappears herself.  Behind this lies a mysterious organization called The Golden Fang, which is the name of both a 19th century schooner currently docked just off the Port of Los Angeles and a consortium of dentists set up by tax purposes, and who are probably mixed up with both the FBI, the Aryan Brotherhood, and the LAPD.  The powers that be, as best as I can tell, want Wolfmann to disappear because he feels bad about his life of capitalist exploit and wants to build a community called Arrepentimiento in the Nevada desert where people can live rent free.  This is a threat to the white-collar, straight-arrow interests that Pynchon thrusts together by sinister suggestion.

Sportello, by contrast, is a hippie who is perpetually high on grass, acid, or cocaine, who doesn't seem to ever ask to be paid for his services, and whom Pynchon sets up as a moral foil to the forces of evil.  Inherent Vice is set at the tail end of the 1960's, when the Manson murders seem to have discredited the hippie philosophy, and Sportello is presented to us as one of the last of an increasingly endangered species.  This is the worst thing about Inherent Vice.  The bitter end of the 1960's "era of good feelings" became a tired trope as early as Gimme Shelter, and it's currently being done in a more interesting way on Mad Men than Pynchon's callow depiction of it, which seems rely mostly on bad jokes about drug use and the overuse of the word "groovy."  The conspiracy paranoia of The Crying of Lot 49 is effective because it's so closely tied to our paranoia about the future, and a capitalist and technocratic society that becomes increasingly inhuman and difficult to understand.  Inherent Vice sacrifices that dread for shallow nostalgia, like being forced to listen to the oldies station in the car with your Dad.

The lost continent Lemuria (like a Pacific Atlantis) in the passage I quoted above stands in for the inexorable feeling that there is a world just past our understanding, something ancient and lost to us that defies our attempts to investigate it.  The problem with Inherent Vice is not that it merely is nonsensical, but it wants to have it both ways: Pynchon wants both to insist that the values of 1960's hippie culture embody that lost world, and to slyly suggest that when you investigate closely enough, there's nothing there.  If the conspiracy at the heart of Inherent Vice is nothing but a postmodern heap of silly jokes and red herrings, what is Sportello supposed to be opposing?

Both the novel and the film struck me as the work of innovative artists who are capable of a whole lot more.  That's Pynchon's fault, I think, and not necessarily Anderson's.  Inherent Vice is too loose, too diffident, too tired, and somehow at the same time too sincere to work.


Randy said...

I'm generally not a fan of Pynchon...but have been thinking about giving him another chance (I was mostly unmoved by The Crying of Lot 49). Sounds like this is not the novel I should pick up?

Also, is the movie worth seeing? It looks pretty good in the trailer.

Christopher said...

If you didn't like Lot 49, I can't imagine you'd be into this.

The movie's worth seeing because it's Anderson and he's amazing, but I thought it was clearly the weakest of his films that I've seen.