Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Book Review - Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (Vintage 2010)

After sailing with Chums of Chance over the Olympian Heights of Pynchon's imagination in the remarkable - but formidible - Against the Day, we return in Inherent Vice to stoner California familiar from Vineland and The Crying of Lot 49.

Doc Sportello is an L.A. private investigator at the tail end of the sixties, for whom hard-bitten bourbon has been supplanted by dope in all its myriad varieties. The hippy dream is dying - Manson has struck and bombs are falling on Vietnam. Needless to say, when his ex-girlfriend turns up seeking his assistance, it means trouble. The LAPD in the shape of hippy-hating Bigfoot Bjornsen has its eyes on Doc, as have the Feds and some neo-nazi bikers whilst in the background the mysterious and terrifying Golden Fang unites the sinister forces of organised crime and dentistry, optimising heroin's vertical supply chain by supplying both the drugs and the drying-out clinics.

To try to summarise the twists and turns of the plot that follows would be beyond me, and would be missing the point anyway. The plots of the hard-bitten genre which this satirises were never great on the plausibility front - noir was all atmosphere and attititude, and Pynchon is not about plot either, as anyone who has tried and failed to make head nor tail of V will tell you. Pynchon is all about the journey - a paranoid, dope-fuelled, character-filled flight with the instruments of State repression and international conspiracy networks in hot pursuit.

This is undoubtedly Pynchon's most accessible work since Vineland. No need to understand the Riemann Hypothesis here, most of the action takes place in a planer dimension, albeit one that has been warped by a vast quantity of dope. In fact, one could almost say that the novel, whilst undoubtedly entertaining - and with these flashes of incandescent prose that are such a Pynchonesque trademark - lacks a certain substance. But Pynchon's works in general are like the songs of Bob Dylan post-1965 - anyone digging too deeply for meaning will find much material to excavate but much frustration and disappointment. Yes, the works all cross-reference each other (The Corvairs play in both Vineland and Inherent Vice), and the countercultural references keep an army of dedicated wikiists busy for months after each new tome (see the splendid Inherent Vice wiki alongside those of all the other Pynchon novels) - but is this a triumph of dizzying, mind-blowing style over any real substance?

No matter. Doc Sportello for his myriad faults is a splendid creation, and this rollicks along, frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The name of each new walk-on character is a pleasure - see Trillium Fortnight, Burke Stodger for example. The Warriors Against the Man Black Armed Militia (WAMBAM) are Pynchon's creation, but the LAPD's Public Disorder Intelligence Department (PDID) really did exist, although not in the Pynchon form of P-DIDdies. The story careers along with too many characters and subplots and conspiracies to make much sense, but is always exhilirating nonetheless. There is a hint of melancholy that times will change, the forces of conservatism and repression are winning, but whilst the journey is underway - just sit down, skin up and enjoy the ride.

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