Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book Review: Inherent Vice (2009) by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent Vice (2009)
Thomas Pynchon

It's been about thirty years since I last read Thomas Pynchon. I really enjoyed and thought the world of his first three novels too. Gravity's Rainbow, of course, was particularly amazing, a real apocalyptic masterpiece like no other, and it ended with such brilliant finality that it was possible to believe for many years after 1973 that Pynchon was not going to have anything more to say ever. It now seems apparent to me that Pynchon never stopped writing, and a book such as Mason & Dixon was decades in the making. The fact of the matter is, while Pynchon got back into the habit of publishing, I did not get back into the habit of reading him. Until now, that is.

Inherent Vice, Pynchon's seventh novel, is his hallucinogenic take on the noir novel. With Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles, the liquor cabinet was never closed. In this 2009 novel, Doc Sportello seemingly is perpetually stoned. The result is a private investigator with the incredible ability to follow the many threads of a bewilderingly complex case, threads the sober reader may well get hopelessly lost in, but Doc also has a doper's seeming inability to recall a plain conversation even while he's having it. Pynchon returns to this dope-induced memory loss again and again. I must have laughed out loud every time.

Yes, the book is funny, often outrageously so, but this is still a serious work of literary fiction with many of Pynchon's quirks and hallmarks. It's actually nice to see Pynchon enjoying himself so much, but one only has to pay attention to all the discussion about Charles Manson, Vietnam, greedy real estate developers, President Nixon, and Governor Reagan in the California of 1970 to realize that powerful forces are going to put an end to the hippie paradise that Pynchon may or may not be romanticizing. I'm not sure the convoluted plot itself has the kind of meaningful payoff one hopes for, but perhaps Pynchon is wise not to have every conspiracy look like the Tristero system in The Crying of Lot 49. He's after something much vaster here, something that encompasses all the tentacles of capitalism. I think this is a mistake, but then I was never a hippie.

December 18, 2011 Update:  Thomas Pynchon narrates this promotion for his book.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon