Lot 49's pothead brother

Inherent Vice
Release Date: 2009-09-23
Rated: NONE

It weighs in at a paltry (by Pynchon standards) 369 pages and features references to obscure surf-rock bands instead of obscure baroque-era French composers or whatever, so go ahead and call Inherent Vice a “minor work.” Everybody else has. But when it comes to Pynchon’s output, that label also implies greater accessibility, and in fact Vice is probably his easiest-to-follow book since the criminally underappreciated Crying of Lot 49, or at least Vineland. Compared to his last esoteric, digressive doorstop, Against the Day, Pynchon’s newest novel is practically ready for Oprah’s book club.

Plot-wise, Vice could be Lot 49’s pothead brother: Hippie PI Doc Sportello gets a visit from former flame Shasta Hepworth in Manson-era So-Cal. Her new super-rich boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann, has gone missing and she wants Doc to find him. Shasta soon disappears herself, leaving Doc to trace her extremely faint footsteps, when he’s not distracted by a near constant parade of other clients (all of whom seem tied, however loosely, to the Wolfmann case), crooked cops, gothic soap operas, gay thugs, and enough marijuana to give Willie Nelson the giggles (I estimate roughly .5 joints per page). Standing in for Lot 49’s underground postal service, Tristero, is a shadowy entity of shifting magnitude known as Golden Fang — alternately a boat, a heroin-smuggling ring, and some kind of dentist’s office.

But reading Pynchon for plot makes as much sense as studying Jackson Pollock for anatomy. As Northrop Frye once famously said of William Blake, you read Pynchon to watch him “teabag the English language with his massive literary love apples.” Dig this description of the weather, which — as Pynchon vets could easily guess — figures not at all into the grander-scope storyline:

The state liquor stamps over the tops of tequila bottles were coming unstuck, is how dry the air was. Liquor-store owners could be filling those bottles with anything anymore. Jets were taking off from the airport, the engine sounds were not passing across the sky where they should have, so everybody’s dreams got disarranged, when people got to sleep at all. In the little apartment complexes the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in the louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of course there’d only be the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight.

Then, of course, we’re immediately introduced to a magical Christian surfer who possesses a fragment of Christ’s “True Board” and has absolutely nothing to do with all this mystery-novel shit. Oh, Pynchon, you wacky so-and-so!

Nonetheless, the overarching plot stays surprisingly faithful to detective-novel conventions — we get a proper whodunit and everything — but Pynchon obsessives (and, honestly, is anyone else making their way through these intentionally confounding text bricks?) will probably be more interested in the novel’s extremely loose autobiographical connections: Vice’s setting, Gordita Beach, is a fictionalized stand-in for Manhattan Beach, the now-gentrified, formerly blue-collar burg where Pynchon lived when he wrote his insurmountable magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow.

Aside from some geographical descriptions that are reportedly pretty dead-on, this bit of trivia has little bearing on the book itself, but Vice’s publication brings us two other firsts — an iPod playlist for recommended soundtracking, supposedly courtesy of the man himself, and a video promo, narrated by Pynchon impersonating Doc (best line: “Twenty-seven ninety-five, really? That used to be like three week’s worth of groceries, man. What year is this again?”) that amounts to one of the largest recorded chunks of Pynchon’s voice released to the general public.

Those trivial tidbits aside, yeah, the “minor work” label applies in that Vice probably won’t much change your worldview — unless you’re a Pynchon virgin — and if you’re new to the author it’s definitely near the bottom of your required reading list, but the dude’s short-ish bibliography remains immaculate, and damned if there’s anything worth criticizing that isn’t outweighed by absolute brilliance. I love you, Tommy Ruggles. Why won’t you return my calls? •

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