Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Inherent Vice

On the one hand, I pretty much loved Inherent Vice from start to finish. It's funny--probably funnier than any other Pynchon. Doc Sportello is a great character. The period detail is extraordinarily vivid, in spite of occasional bits of anachronism (you can't have a Cheech and Chong reference in a novel that takes place in early 1970 (which we know it does by a reference to the NBA finals)--d'oh). This is one instance in which you really CAN judge a book by its cover--the garish neon lettering and utopian surfer aesthetic pretty much say it all.

On the other hand, I can't help--huh. It appears that the other hand is passing me a joint. Far be it from me to fuck up the rotation, so I'll just have a toke, pass it on, and leave it at that. Ah.

What I was possibly going to say but now think doesn't need to be said is that the book seems a little light by Pynchon standards. All the usual motifs are here--paranoia, red-herringy digressions, whimsical character names, song lyrics arbitrarily inserted into the text--but it is certainly the case that Inherent Vice is more plot-driven than any of the man's previous novels. Which is to say that the pleasure of reading it derives more from the story itself and less from studying it for Meaning.

But there are two points to be made in response to that.

Point one: so what? After the incredible weightiness of Against the Day, why SHOULDN'T he relax a little? Do something just for fun? Sheesh, how demanding AM I?

Point two: While admitting the novel's comparative lightness, let's not overstate things. There's still lots to think about here, and no doubt more that will become apparent on second reading. It should be pretty immediately obvious that Pynchon is in part riffing on the same themes as Vineland does (there are a few unobtrusive references to the earlier novel, as well as a few minor common characters--whee!): the apparently limitless utopian possibilities of the sixties, squandered, lost, and replaced by the stultifying, conformist materialism of the eighties. Doc has periodic intimations throughout the novel that something's got to give. While this might not be a book to launch a thousand dissertations, it's plenty smart in its own right, and it is to Pynchon's credit that he was able to so effectively write a novel in a previously unfamiliar idiom and make it totally Pynchonian (though I guess after Mason & Dixon, this shouldn't surprise us, right?).

One might suggest that this novel might draw in a fair number of Pynchon newbies (who might then be badly poleaxed by Gravity's Rainbow), but I'm not sure whether or not that's a true statement. It's definitely his most accessible novel, but the fact remains that a lot of the pleasure in reading it, for a confirmed cultist like me, comes from reveling in the ineffable Pynchoness of it all. I'm not quite solipsistic enough to imagine that a person lacking the background to recognize this aura would necessarily find it similarly compelling. What I'm trying to say is, who knows if this review will be of any use to you whatsoever? However, the trend of me loving every Pynchon novel continues. If I say that I hope the next one (yes! I'm being optimistic! Hey, it worked last time, didn't it?) is a little heavier, that should in no way be taken as a slight against Inherent Vice, which I heartily recommend to you, in spite of the tragic lack of Pig Bodine. :-(


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