Sunday, September 27, 2009

Inherent Vice (2009)

In all the commotion typically attending the appearance of a new title by Thomas Pynchon -- considered by many to be the poster boy for Postmodern Literature -- it is often forgotten that he began his career as a bestselling popular novelist. Mass market paperbacks of his first two books, V. and The Crying of Lot 49, had sold a combined three million copies prior to the 1973 publication of Gravity's Rainbow -- a novel for which, shortly after launch, Viking boasted orders of over seven hundred copies per hour. But during the seventeen-year silence leading into Vineland, Pynchon got racked into the category of "literary" (not to mention "difficult") rather than "popular" and while his next three novels made a great deal of additional noise over the publishing landscape, such prior sales numbers proved elusive.

The savvy Pynchon is apparently unwilling to fade into "literary cult author" status -- how else to explain this curious cross-breeding of a Maltese Falcon with a Pink Panther at a time when crime fiction is at a hip zenith? Inherent Vice is exactly what the dust jacket makes it looks like -- streamlined noir, gilded at the edges with a mellow, psychedelic glow. It is 1970 in the LA surf community of Gordita Beach. The Lakers are in the playoffs. The Manson Family is going to trial. And gumshoe (or, as he refers to himself, "gumsandal") Larry "Doc" Sportello is one evening visited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fey, transmitting bad vibes about her current dalliance, billionaire real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann -- who soon disappears, possibly murdered, leaving Sportello as the chief suspect, at least in the eyes of Sportello's perpetual shadow, LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen.

Sportello (think Phillip Marlowe by way of the Firesign Theatre's Nick Danger) spends the rest of the novel trying to clear his name, or to at least keep from being ensnared by Bigfoot. Or something to that effect. Other ingredients include but are not necessarily limited to: a federally-thwarted plan to build domed houses for the poor and homeless; smugglers from Vietnam trafficking in counterfeit bills printed with Nixon's face; a multitude of wigged-out hippies and surfers, some capable of astral travel; an early version of the Internet which interests Doc only so much as it might help him score weed; a set of peculiar neckties, hand-painted with likenesses of nude women (one of whom is Shasta Fey); a cabal of sex-crazed dentists; and a mysterious schooner called the Golden Fang, whose shadowy operators just might be tied to everyone and everything involved.

Like fellow literary lion Cormac McCarthy, who some years back and with great commercial success began shedding a dense, idiomatic, description-centered prose style for leaner, plot-oriented narration, Pynchon here nixes his notoriously recursive and tangential approach(es) to storytelling. The omniscient intrusions and historical flashbacks which extend, deepen, and often contort his previous works are no longer in evidence -- vanished, apparently, into the ever-present smog surrounding Gordita, Pynchon's stand-in location for the Manhattan Beach of his own younger days (where he reportedly wrote a great deal of Gravity's Rainbow). One can almost imagine the author blissfully banging away at his typewriter, serving only the basic needs of his tale, freewheeling as it is -- Vice is nothing short of a classic potboiler (emphasis being on the pot.) It is also a bittersweet portrait of the American culture teetering between the joys of Sgt. Pepper and the grisly angst of Dark Side of the Moon -- and as some have pointed out, the particolored details are likely the closest the World of Letters will get to autobiographical reveals from the famously reclusive Mr. Pynchon.

For all its narrative brevity, speed, and hilarity -- and this might well be Pynchon's funniest book, which is no small statement -- there is a devious undertow at work. Pynchon sends up his own obsessions, elements from previous novels, and the expectations of a devoted readership, but retains his signature moral outrage against imbalances of power. Gravity's Rainbow underlines the weird moralities and opportunities "civilized" countries abuse during wartime -- whatever atrocities can be gotten away with under cover of larger violence; Inherent Vice takes the scarier tack of what can happen in the Homeland when citizens remain willfully unaware of what is happening under the auspices of keeping their streets safe: neighborhood watches suddenly comprised of neo-Nazi wannabe badasses, sub-contracted private firms looking to get into the paramilitary business, all sanctioned by local law enforcement by way of federal monies. It's not hard to imagine how Pynchon feels about Halliburton or the agents of Blackwater.

Against the backdrop of Fear as powered by the atrocities of the Manson Family, fear against the hippies and their Freak Power movement destroying society, Bigfoot constantly attempts to recruit Doc as an informer to aid in various shake-down schemes -- a path Doc dreads Coy Harlingen, the subject of one of his missing persons cases, has already stumbled down. Harlingen was a semi-famous session musician and saxophonist for a surf-rock band called the Boards (now apparently taken over by zombies). Coy's wife, the aptly named Hope, does not believe her husband overdosed on heroin, the official story, but that his death was faked and he is now a federal operative. Whatever the circumstances which led to Coy being taken from her, she doesn't care; she just wants her family back together. As things will turn, repairing this damage will become Doc's primary concern. When, that is, he's sober and straight enough to focus on the mosaic of clues.

Inherent Vice (a term from maritime law, applied to annul potential shipping damages -- i.e. eggs break in transit, reason being: they're eggs) is saturated with images of "the axes of space, now taken away into commotion and ruin." While this initially seems like yet another route into entropy (one of Pynchon's favorite concerns, going back to his eponymously-titled 1958 short story), in Vice that idea is taken a quantum step further. Natives of the coast wander their old neighborhoods, confused by the sudden construction craters where their houses used to be. But the old order isn't being supplanted by the expected chaos: coming to replace the old standalone businesses owned by locals are clean corporate franchises, lined up in strip malls. Pynchon pinpoints a moment in our culture when the detritus inevitably left behind by commercial efforts of change and progress started being packaged and sold: the experience of nostalgia as commodity. Doc, driving past a supermarket-sized record store, takes note of the customers visible just inside the sweeping glass front, each secluded in a soundproof booth; music -- the community glue of that era and an important motif in this novel -- is suddenly an individual rather than a collective experience. The Powers That Be have already begun to divide and conquer, using the easy wedges of simple market forces, supply and demand -- no greater conspiracy seeking control and subservience of a citizenship, such as those that have previously dominated Pynchon's novels, is necessary. If billionaire Mickey Wolfmann has no say in his own development projects, what chance do the rest of us (capable of being bought off with a chili dog, as one character points out in the novel's closing moments) have? Doc himself, no bumbling hippie innocent as might initially appear, eventually drifts into his own, essentially inevitable fog, only mirroring, if not actually following, the leads of those who have hired him or crossed his path.

In Gordita Beach, there's no screaming coming across the sky -- just the sound of the surf, the quiet, relentless surf, eating away at the edge of the continent. Pynchon's apocalypses have become less sweeping, more focused, smarter, meaner, personal. There's an old saying, essentially this: As goes the State of California, so goes the Nation. Inherent Vice is Pynchon's candy-coated warning: the Golden State and all the dreams it stands for, long-understood to be just one good earthquake away from slipping into the Pacific, is soon to be as lost to the rest of us as the mythical continent of Lemuria -- a set of final coordinates for that Golden Fang, perhaps.

Originally published in the Mobile Register as "Tie-Dyed Noir" September 28 2009