Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thomas Pynchon, _Inherent Vice_

IT TOOK A while, as I was reading this, to decide whether I was enjoying it. In the early going, it seemed to be an (early-ish) Jonathan Lethem novel set in California. Eventually it occurred to me that Jonathan Lethem novels could be seen as Thomas Pynchon novels set in New York City, at which point I decided, well, okay, let's just have a good time.

To venture a broad generalization, I am going to say that through Inherent Vice (I have not read Bleeding Edge), Pynchon novels have tended to be either encyclopedic, immersive projects that span continents and embrace historico-philosophical themes (V., Gravity's Rainbow, Mason and Dixon, Against  the Day) or relatively focused exercises in California Noir that tried to understand the 1960s:  The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, and now this one.

The novel is set in 1970, and private investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello...actually, there seems little point to summarizing the plot. It has the usual noir elements: mysterious clients, sleazy clubs, cars, cigarettes, low-pH wise-cracking dialogue, sexual opportunities, fisticuffs, deepening revelations, twists, betrayals, even the scene where a bad guy tells the bound hero, slated for execution, some important plot points and then leaves him alone for a few minutes in which he can engineer an escape. Behind it all, corrupted authority--"the Mob behind the Mob"--which indicates the true Pynchonian theme uniting his longer and his shorter projects: the Paranoid American Sublime.

Accordingly, we can read Inherent Vice as a pendant (admittedly, at 369 pages, a heavy pendant) to Against the Day, asking the larger novel's question about why some historical possibilities thrived and others withered, about what became of the possible liberation that was the blighted twin of the atrocity-ridden 20th century, but asking it about the 1960s. What happened to the 1960s? Heroin and COINTELPRO, which are linked in the plot in the character of Coy Harlingen.

Doc Sportello cannot un-do the wreckage of the 1960s, but Marlowe-like he does what he can, gets Coy back together with his wife and child and off the crypto-fascists' payroll. And in the novel's beuatiful coda, he follows an impromptu community of taillights through the fog blanketing the freeway, in an image that infallibly called to mind for me the close of Auden's "September 1, 1939." We must love one another or die. Amen.

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