Hazed and Confused: A Review of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice by Ward
After the vast behemoth that was 2006’s Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon rather quickly returns with Inherent Vice, the latest installment in his eccentric and exuberant universe. At a mere 369 pages–as opposed to Against the Day’s 1085–it is a fairly short affair for Pynchonian standards, and suggests an accessibility not seen since the underrated Vineland, which was published almost twenty years ago.
In 1973 the master of postmodernism wreaked havoc with Gravity’s Rainbow, which was to the post-WWII literary landscape what Joyce’s Ulysses was to that of the first part of the twentieth century; a crowning literary achievement and a genre-defining statement, a treasure chest for scholars that was as dauntingly impressive as it was unreadable. Whereas with Against the Day Pynchon seemed to hark back to this particular installment in his career, with Inherent Vice he turns back one more chapter to Gravity’s Rainbow precursor, the fantastic The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), which for me still stands as the highlight of his career. Vast in scope but not in pages, The Crying provided us with an imminently readable and highly entertaining take on our futile quest for meaning in an indifferent universe.
Like The Crying, Inherent Vice is also set in sixties California, is populated by a cast of quirky characters, and even features a mysterious entity, this time known as the Golden Fang. Furthermore it features the typical Pynchonian elements of made-up song lyrics, a plethora of cultural references and sexual innuendos, and the unavoidable bad jokes and worse acronyms, which are all thrown in a blender and molded in the form of a detective novel. But whereas The Crying was a perversion of the detective novel and a denial of the belief in the existence of an absolute Truth that lies inherent therein, Inherent Vice is actually an ode to this genre. So while in The Crying Oedipa Maas trudged through a morass of dubious clues while failing to find any answers or complete her quest, Inherent Vice’s protagonist PI Doc Sportello actually manages to solve his case, despite–or perhaps even because of–his perpetual state of drug-induced haze.
In theory, this should provide Doc and the reader with a sense of closure and fulfillment at the end of the novel and the end of the case, but rather it does the exact opposite, and ends up leaving both feeling empty and bereaved, with Doc wishing “[f]or the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.” Because while on the one hand Inherent Vice can be seen as a playful homage to sixties (counter)culture and the revolutionary promises that these tumultuous years entailed, on the other hand it reads as an overlong eulogy for the end of this decade, and the ultimate and absolute failing thereof. Thus, while The Crying as an actual sixties artifact carried all of the promise and the weight of its time, and over forty years later still rings true, Inherent Vice merely backtracks and offers a much less satisfactory retrospective view.
Although Inherent Vice fails to come close to either the short and snappy qualities of The Crying or the encyclopedic elitism of the bigger–though not necessarily greater–works that have come to be savored by Pynchon fans worldwide, it still serves as an at times entertaining ride through sixties culture as seen and experienced by the oddball characters that Pynchon has cooked up for this particular novel. With characters like LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, who, rather than the archetypical donut, enjoys frozen bananas covered in chocolate, which he stores in an old freezer from the morgue, or real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, who is “technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi” and employs members of the Aryan Brotherhood for his protection, there are still plenty of laughs to be had, thus making the novel a fairly lighthearted and even accessible introduction for those who have never read Pynchon. And even though Inherent Vice will most likely not end up being regarded as the highlight of his career, it does show that, if he wants, Pynchon can still write a straightforward novel. One that, while not completely satisfying old fans, will hopefully garner some new ones and turn them on to the more profound works of his career.