Friday, August 7, 2009

Review: Far out, man


A haze falls over Southern California. A dope haze. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello is visited by his ex-lady friend Shasta. She’s worried about her new love interest, a real-estate investor named Mickey Wolfmann, is part of a plot that ends with him getting kidnapped. All of a sudden Mickey is missing, and Shasta. In search for them, Doc (who decides one day to fro up his hair) ends up being at the wrong place at the wrong time, getting involved in a murder mystery that brings in one of LAPD’s finest doorbusters, Bigfoot Bjornsen, to his home. Believing Doc to be central to Mickey’s disappearance, as well as the death of one of Mickey’s thugs, Bjornsen is doing everything in his power to get Doc to squeal – yet he won’t accept a single word he says due to Doc’s Doper’s Memory. A cast of characters and corporations (though none as memorable or as amusing as Yoyodine) from LA to Las Vegas create subtle labyrinthine mazes for Doc as he tries to find out who kidnapped Mickey (and possibly Shasta), and why this mysterious vessel, the Golden Fang, might be a cover for corrupt dentists who enjoy picking off people in freak trampoline accidents. 

Inherent Vice is Thomas Pynchon’s eighth book, and a slow and aged one – as if you can tell it was written by an older man when compared to the antics of The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, two earlier novels that share characters, ideas, and locations. There isn’t just the same kind of energy of paranoia running behind this novel. But that’s not a detraction. In fact it allows for more instant rumination on characters and situations, on circumstances and on the hysteria that pump through this work. As long as you’re able to part the clouds of the drugs everyone seems to be on. Perhaps including the narrator. Because his voice and detail makes the reader question, what’s the cause of this amusing and comprehensible lethargy when compared to the rest of the Pynchon oeuvre? Is it old age? Is it that we’re just following Doc and he’s all muddled up? Is it the narrator’s own love of drugs?

Rightly so, this novel has already been compared to the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski - a nihilistic kidnapping mystery that becomes not about a kidnapping mystery at all that rides itself on loose interconnections and a whole lot of marijuana. Doc and the Dude have a lot in common – both men of LA, caught in a world of conspiracy and drama, none of which they usually have in their respective lives. Republican leaders are messing up their lives. They have no interest in money, always seem to have a joint ready and an answer for everything. Doc may have more of a ‘day-job’, but truly as for the reason why he does this PI thing remains a mystery.

To discuss this book would require much more space, but it’s quite interesting that Pynchon decided to write a psychedelic detective tale. Only because The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland are like detective stories just without detectives – a lot of strange and seemingly connected things happen to these protagonists and they go on some inane quest in order to figure out why it’s all happening to them. To place a detective in the mix is now to give the narrative some sort of idea of closure. Detective stories, normally, end with the the perpetrator behind bars or shot; the detective, although somewhat scathed, saves the day, sort of. And all the confusion and mystery that shrouded everyone’s actions throughout the narrative is understood and comes together as the detective figures everything out. That kind of happens here. In doing that though, Pynchon is actually rationalising the world instead of defamiliarising and confusing us by it. Inherent Vice is a much cleaner narrative than any of his other books. It’s as if there wants to be peace through the paranoia – as if Pynchon’s narrator has come to terms with the insanity of the world and can close the book on it.

Perhaps though it’s just a paean to marijuana and the thought that even though you may get high that doesn’t mean you’re ineffective. Because Doc may be the most productive stoner you’ve ever come across.


saveophelia said…

i really really want to read this book. i haven't read any pynchon, so i've got a ways to go before i read it but it sounds so amazingly good.

Salvatore said…

This actually is the easiest Pynchon novel to read (in my opinion), so you may want to start with it – even though the other books chronologically come first. Definitely worth a read.