Inherent Vice review by D.J. Pangburn

SXB :: Friday, August 7th, 2009 12:20 pm

Pynchon’s latest Inherent Vice is sunshine noir injected full of psychotropic drugs (banana dust included), spun through an endless summer of hash fumes, and exhaled it into the glowing daylight smog and Technicolor night-lights of the Los Angeles aether. What majesty! What peculiar rhythms! Nobody writes Los Angeles quite like Thomas Ruggles. He understands the post-human landscape of this collective dream that is El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula. Pynchon is the Bard of the Southland, the titan of this cosmically-touched megalopolis that is a magnetic pole for all that is strange and terrible in America. A land of cults, acid casualties, nuclear sunsets, Hunter S. Thompson, shifting tectonics, absorbed municipalities, marijuana dispensaries (1 per 6,000 citizens), corrupt cops, vanished orange groves, swirling vortices of gossip and water shortages. A place where the Jet Propulsion Laboratory founders co-mingled bodily fluids with other eccentrics at Aleister Crowley’s dark magic incantations in elaborate orgies; the birthplace of ARPANET, the precursor of the internet; home of Brian Wilson and the wild buffalo on Catalina Island, helicopters buzzing overhead all day long, and (to borrow Pynchon’s phrase from the book), “so forth.” California is the edge of the world in many ways — the last stop in the westward march of immigrants and emigrants. When those first generations of deranged searchers saw the edge, saw for themselves the Earth was round, they probably thought, Well, this is just as nice a place as any to settle. They settled on a fault! — maybe this accounts for the strange psychogeographical qualities of the city. We have an observatory here named after a man who attempted to shoot his wife, but she survived thanks to cat-like reflexes, albeit disfigured. And, of course, we have Scientology for our endless amusement. If you can’t appreciate the strange Pynchonian world of Inherent Vice, then you simply cannot appreciate L.A.. The man nails the city and its inhabitants. Pynchon’s nearest antecedent is Terry Southern (screenwriter of Dr. Strangelove) whose book Flash & Filigree also mirrored the sun-crazed ecstasy of Los Angeles. And if you, dear reader, can’t appreciate Pynchon, then you must flush Terry Southern down the drain with him. And the literary world is a very boring place without these madmen.

Inherent Vice follows the elegantly wasted investigations of a short Italian man named Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello. Doc ’s a PI with a vast network of sources, dealers and squealers alike. He does J’s like vitamins; that is, in the morning and often. Call it resin fortification — something to grease brain function yet numb the nerves. We encounter Doc as he’s paid a visit by an old girlfriend Shasta, an aspiring actress, of course. It seems that her current boyfriend, one Mickey Wolfmann, a Jewish real estate developer who surrounds himself with Aryan Brotherhood motorcycle gangsters, has gone missing. Doc takes up the mission, mostly because his erect penis is very convincing (which echoes Tyrone Slothrop’s psychic penis in Gravity’s Rainbow). It doesn’t take long for strange connections to interweave and paranoia to set in. Doc, however, navigates through this Oz-like landscape with such drug-frazzled finesse that readers won’t be able to help but laugh. We follow Doc as he’s harassed by a detective who stockpiles chocolate-covered frozen bananas; encounters elements of a mysterious organization (and boat) known as the Golden Fang; hangs with surfers who think Jesus walking on water was just another form of surfing; and confounds FBI agents and nearly everyone else with “deliberately clueless” cross-inquiries. Pynchon messes with time, such that you’re never quite sure when things are happening (the doper’s time continuum, so to speak). And, of course, Pynchon infuses the story with some science fiction in the form of a Las Vegas land development project that might be a teleportation hub. To call Inherent Vice Pynchon’s most accessible work is rubbish. It reeks of marketing cunnilingus. Foreplay for the hesitant buyer. No. This is Pynchon through and through. He’s never been inaccessible, just unusual in his storytelling and prose stylings, and consistently epic with the delivered goods — all the qualities that drive casual readers away. So, if readers never made it through Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, it would seem rather odd if they embrace this one. That said, if Inherent Vice is the entry point for new readers, and they enjoy the psychedelic smorgasbord that Pynchon serves up, then maybe doors will be opened to his previous titles.

I recently attended a midnight release of Inherent Vice. I had obtained a copy of it days before and was trying to finish it before the party, but was continually stifled in my attempts. I gave up and partook of the banana pancakes and chocolate-covered bananas provided at the party (the latter which I cooked up myself, with some help from a friend). After the party, some attendants and I thought it wise to get high in celebration of the new Pynchon book.

(The following is an unedited transcript of my experience written directly upon return home from the Pynchon event.)
Muy interesante occurrences and unfolding of coincidences as I drove home… The trip was eventful. First of all, from the moment I walked to my car and, uh (this parenthesis just indicates about 10 seconds of lost thought), and arrived home, I was thinking that I probably shouldn’t have partook. But I did! As soon as I turned left out of the alley, I’m thinking, Don’t hit the brakes cause the break lights… well, the cops see those, and not only will they ticket you for that, but they’ll see your dilated pupils and book you on something else. I figured I best pull right into the gas station on La Cienega and sit there awhile and contemplate. Contemplation led me to the conclusion that maybe I should go inside and buy a soda or something, some liquid to pass the time while I sort things out. A slight slip into doper’s time-travel and suddenly a guy’s like, Is that all, my friend? I look down and there’s an Orange Gatorade, cradled in my arm. I give a cursory glance around the store (something to distract the cashier, to avert his gaze), but sure enough he’s still staring when I turn around. Hand. Debit Card. Hand. Machine. Transaction. Doesn’t work. Cashier starts offering words of encouragement, but it’s all somehow very condescending, like he’s well-aware of my condition and he’s just playing with me. Transaction is complete, and I’m out the door to my car. I sip the Gatorade and pull away. I remember that my tail light’s broken, and that the tour inside merely distracted me from sorting things out.
Heading east on Fountain I had a thought. It came out of nowhere. Well, I was thinking of David Bowie ’cause “A Space Oddity” was playing its lonely chords on the radio. And I noted silently how Bowie was once a long-haired, effeminate British folk artist before Major Tom was sitting in a tin can far above the world. Naturally, I thought then of how Bowie had such perfect timing with musical undercurrents, which manifested itself in his retiring of one image for another. How he was so very calculating. Then… this thought came to me like a thunderbolt: When people say, Wow! He’s just like a chameleon! I think, That’s just another word for salesmen. Bowie’s just a good salesman. Commence laughing.
I start lookin’ in my rearview. Oh no! I make it free and clear through a series of green lights until I cross La Brea, which is where a car comes out of nowhere in my rearview and I’m convinced it’s some cop just waiting for me to break. He’s just got a feelin’, y’know? Meanwhile the chocolate-covered (not-so-frozen) bananas are undergoing the final stages of thaw. A sharp right! Choco-bananas are launched from their seat upon the cookie sheet down onto the floor, rear passenger side. The metal of the sheet goes boink! and I wonder if it’s wise to stop when the cop’s just waiting to pull me over. Left down Lexington. The banana situation must be remedied, so I pull over. My attempts to locate the thawed ‘nanners are initially unfruitful, but the cold, chocolate mush finds my hand as if by divine providence, and I scoop them up. Now I’m sticky, although by further providence I’m suddenly idling at a green light right across from Taco Bell on Vine. Maybe they have water; if they don’t, I’ll get some tacos. Drive-thru. I realize as I order that I had wanted to go in to the store to wash my hands, but now I’m ordering a chicken quesadilla. So, I take the Orange Gatorade and rinse my hands clean of the chocolate and the mashed ‘nannas. They’re now down on the floor, passenger side. Mutilated. Wouldn’t want to eat ‘em. Hands are sticky again, so I ask the cashier for Wet Wipes. He doesn’t know what they are. I don’t know how to explain the concept to him, nor do I have the time. I remember time is relative and breathe a sigh of relief. He wanders off and comes back with a heavy-duty hand wipe and says, “Here… try this,” then some other assorted gobbledygook. I ask, “Shall I keep this?” The boy just shrugs. I get my quesadilla and tacos and drive off. I suddenly remember that I’m blazed, dealing with unruly chocolate bananas flyin’ ’round willy nilly, and munchin’ on some Taco Bell. I laugh. On comes “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” by the Temptations. I smile and crank it up. Soon the lyrics are getting processed in my brain. It was just my imagination Running away with me… Good ole Eddie Kendricks and Norman Whitfield. More laughing, slapping of the knee, and so forth. What a great tune! Of course I’m just imagining the cop cars and the shadowier components of the night. Wait. Is Pynchon in on this? Is he pulling the strings? Influencing events from afar, astrally-speaking, of course? (Which is funny because, as it happened, earlier in the day I was telling someone about the function of dreams — dreams being a biological process by which the brain trains the body to live in the vacuum of space, zero atmosphere. To, in effect, live in the astral body.) Was Pynchon dreaming and accompanying me in some astral form? Unlikely, but interesting nonetheless. Pynchon was dealing with the same shit in Inherent Vice. Doc hit the Bell, too! Bigfoot Bjornsen and his chocolate-covered bananas! Doc in an astral drift. Did Pynchon plan this? Is this synchronicity, or some other name for drug-induced coincidence magnification? Who can say? I certainly can’t. But… what quantum strangeness! That buck-toothed bastard is smirking at me — saying, Just enjoy the trip home, buddy.
As I pull into my driveway, I think of how I wasn’t able to finish the book before the midnight release. As I’m grabbing my Taco Bell and trashing my broken bananas, I consider this: Maybe I wasn’t supposed to finish Inherent Vice before midnight. Maybe I was supposed to be delayed until I was in a reverie.
Now I’m high with a plate of Taco Bell, and I will be reading the ending the way in which Pynchon probably intended.