If you had told me one year ago that the most delightful beach read of 2009 would be written by Thomas Pynchon, I'd have stared back at you in disbelief, raised eyebrows in tow.
Don't get me wrong, Pynchon is one of my favorite writers of all-time, but when I think of reading him, beach chairs and daiquiris do not immediately spring to mind. What usually pops into my head are the stacks of other books I have to keep next to his latest novel in order to keep up with his many, far-ranging allusions to entropy, number theory, parallel time, and ... you get the idea.
But with his latest, Inherent Vice, good ol' Thomas Ruggles Pynchon has served up his most accessible, hilarious, page-turning novel yet. Inherent Vice is the noir-esque story of private eye Doc Sportello, a huarache-wearing, dope-smoking, hallucination-and-blackout-prone beach bum who gets in over his head faster than he can get an erection (and, when talking about Sportello, that's pretty darn quick).
It all starts in late 1969/early 1970 when Doc's ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, land developer-turned crazy philanthropist Mickey Wolfmann, disappear; and, like all of Pynchon's work, the story just gets stranger from there, encompassing everything from land use and gentrification practices, the internet, Manson, the reconfiguring of Las Vegas, secret societies, surf rock, Ethel Merman-singing hitmen, and the death of the Free Love era; all filtered through a haze of pot smoke and Pynchon-grade paranoia that resembles Robert Altman's adaptation of The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski as much as it does The Crying of Lot 49. It almost seems like, at 72 years old, Pynchon is ready to take a break from pushing himself (and the reader) and just have a blast.
But don't let that lead you to think that Inherent Vice is lightweight airport novel full of "Mindless Pleasures" (TP's working title for Gravity's Rainbow). No, Pynchon's not trading in literature for genre fiction. Inherent Vice is still as intricate and dense as any Pynchon work, only here the references are less obscure and the narrative is more familiar. In fact, the story seems to be told in fast-forward, as though Sportello and the reader are being propelled from one clue to the next, with little-to-no time to sort out any of the details. The huge cast of characters (over two dozen in 369 pages) and their shifting allegiances become so hard to keep up with that you eventually give up trying, let go, and just enjoy the ride. The only solutions to this problem are to keep a notebook handy (screw that; I'm poolside) or to read the whole thing in one sitting, which is more doable than you'd think (plus, there are worse ways to spend a Saturday).
What Pynchon also delivers in this novel are some jaw-droppingly poignant and awe-inspiring descriptions of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Just get a whiff of this description of the L.A. freeways on page 19:
"... the Eastbound lanes teemed with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porsches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing, under the power transmission lines, everybody's radios lasing on the same couple of AM stations, under a sky like watered milk, and the white bombardment of a sun smogged into only a smear of probability, out in whose light you began to wonder if anything you'd call psychedelic could ever happen, or if -- bummer! -- all this time it had really been going on up north."
Such a panorama of the schizophrenic Angeleno melting pot actually manages to make being in traffic seem fresh again, even wonderful. If that's not successful writing, I don't know what is.
Although reading Inherent Vice feels like a gleefully crazy drive down the highway, what lingers over the novel is a deep sense of loss -- the loss of optimism, the loss of charity, the loss of intimacy, the loss of a generation's promise at the hands of drugs, greed, technology, and corporate land grabs. For Pynchon, it seems like all the good vibes from the 1960s got co-opted and paved over, turned into theme parks and strip malls, or, even worse, a Disneyfied combination of the two. Like the stoners choosing dope over reality, the land developers and the internet trick the public into exchanging the real for a hallucinatory simulation of it, costing us our cultural authenticity and interpersonal relationships. The final melancholy-but-hopeful paragraphs of the novel, in which a caravan of cars follow each other closely through a dense fog on the Pacific Coast Highway, encapsulates this feeling of dissolution, of a unity disintegrating as each member of the collective goes his/her own way. The passage, and the whole novel by extension, reminds the reader of that glorious moment in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Duke looks out the window of his Vegas hotel and sees the evaporated dream of the 1960s and remarks
"We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ... and with the right kind of glasses you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back" (68).
It's a sentiment that could just as easily come from Inherent Vice, and it serves to remind the reader that for all of Pynchon's arcane references and postmodern gamesmanship, what he is at the end of the day is a writer of heartfelt sincerity who writes about the difficulty of being human in the modern world. If I may be so recklessly bold, I'd call him a romantic idealist, and say that his work aims to inspire readers to seek a more sincere and expansive level of interaction with their fellow humans so that the world no longer feels as lonely and incoherent. And the fact that he can do all that and still make us laugh with low-brow pot and boner jokes and goofy song lyrics just proves how vital a writer he is.
For those who have yet to be introduced to Pynchon, Inherent Vice would serve as a wonderful gateway drug to his more difficult work, though starting with Inherent Vice may be a bit misleading because his other novels are much more difficult (though more rewarding). On the other hand, those all-too-familiar with the rigor of reading Gravity's Rainbow or Mason & Dixon will delight in kicking back with a margarita and taking another trip with their buddy T.P. Either way you slice it, with Against the Day and Inherent Vice, it's clear that Thomas Pynchon still has it, and he's not going to let up.