An Aging Stoner’s Wisdom: Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’

Angus Clark 16 December 2018
Image Credit: Vintage

To have something by Thomas Pynchon recommended in a studenty context will likely elicit a groan from anyone who has encountered him. What is the point, we may ask, in reading an author who fills his works with arcane knowledge, history, philosophy, poetry, and so on, when we are already steeping ourselves in such information at almost every moment of our waking lives, and at least for all that we might get a few positive words from a supervisor at the end of it? Pynchon is known for his big stuff, monsters of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, often set in a meticulously crafted version of the past and but dealing with the concerns of the present in ways both direct and more subtle. More than anyone else’s this side of 1900, Pynchon’s novels are novels of ideas.

So then, it is something of a surprise to come across Inherent Vice, a book which at 369 pages seems positively anaemic from Pynchon. The setting, California in 1970, is no grand historical gesture but rather straight out of his own youth – Tom was born in 1937. Regular Pynchon tomes aren’t devoid of drugs and danger, but here the cloud of weed smoke and cop-show crime-fighting violence that accompanies private eye hero Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello fits right in as a sign of the times. The plot – and there is, more or less, a plot – is not too complicated either, at least compared with Gravity’s Rainbow. Doc is visited by an old girlfriend, Shasta Fey Hepworth, who tells him her current boyfriend, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, may be about to be kidnapped and brainwashed by his wife and her boyfriend on account of his, Mickey’s, decision that it was time to start giving back to the poor, instead of buying their houses for development. Only, Wolfmann gets kidnapped by someone else early on, dead men turn up alive, Shasta disappears, and Doc goes on a chase that may or may not be of the wild-goose variety, all while discovering clues about a shadowy group/business/drug cartel/boat called the Golden Fang. It is confusing, and I know I could have understood it more, but with Pynchon you know you’ve gone wrong when things start making sense, so it’s best just to enjoy the ride.

And what a ride it is. Pynchon mashes genres – this is not stuffy academic prose. Cop shows, Raymond Chandler’s crime novels, the movies and books of the sixties are all at times parodied or played straight, giving the book an easy accessibility and light tone. “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to” – the book’s opening sentence – drops it in a crime novel mood you can’t tell whether to take seriously or not right from the get-go. “She” instead of a name suggests a femme fatale, adds mystery; “alley” and “back steps” are all standard locales for crime scenes; and “always used to” adds history, flavour and colour to a relationship that means our detective will have more than job-related difficulties. While the book is occasionally serious, at other times it’s more than happy to satirise its own world: one of my favourite descriptions was of a street looking “like a crime scene waiting on its next crime.”

Parody of genres isn’t the only way this book is funny. Pynchon’s humour is refreshingly moronic. One conversation between a black gangster and Doc ends with the former saying: “Sledge was right, you are one crazy white motherfucker.” Doc: “How can you tell?” Him: “I counted”. The characters all have idiotic names, packed with puns and other meanings. Even the pretentious presumption on the part of novels to tell us what to think is mocked by such advice as “Can’t say it often enough – change your hair, change your life” from Doc’s friend Sortilège. After one person is encased in concrete underneath a bridge a character says that it brings new meaning to the phrase “pillar of the community.” Pynchon’s humour is one of the main ways in which the novel consciously tries to avoid being a stuffy highbrow tome, and instead be a part of a relaxed cultural environment where the pleasure of the text doesn’t have to be mingled with the pain of trying to understand.

There is some meaning and thematic heaviness here, though, if that’s your cup of tea. Dealing with California at the beginning of the 70s is to deal with a community that is breaking up, a paradise that is rapidly being lost. The trials of Charles Manson and his followers are constantly referred to with fear and trepidation. Here was someone who had turned the hippie lifestyle and dreams of world peace on its head, with catastrophic results. Inherent Vice follows the music makers and dopers whose community Manson was just on the edge of. Growing police corruption is hinted at, and though Pynchon is more than happy to complain about his usual bogeyman – capitalism and its effect on humankind – he doesn’t just blame money and Henry Kissinger for destroying the dream of weed and wacky hair-dos. At one point Doc walks past a new music shop and sees a bunch of children listening to music, all using different headphones. “Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence.” Technology and our relationship to it is as much to blame for the destruction of our community as is money. At another point, Doc watches a whole load of people sitting and watching TV, and all he feels for it is loneliness. That is the feeling that pervades the book, once the veneer of light humour and mad antics is brushed aside. The fear that the good days are ending, and things are only going to get worse if we’re not careful.

The beauty of the work lies in the way that its themes – and there are far more than just the ones I mentioned – creep up on us when we least expect it. But that’s not to say the work is perfect – far from it: in fact, it’s one of the weaker novels Pynchon has produced. The jokes do occasionally fall flat, the whole thing is still confusing as ever; but more than anything else the smaller scale of the work means that these little foibles are not coated in the grandeur that a hefty tome usually manages to inspire. The writing is beautiful, but it’s hard here to forgive Pynchon’s reluctance to clarify what is going on – not in the sense of explaining the conspiracy, but rather just in reminding us, every so often who is doing what, and why. What makes this book accessible, and a good introduction to his work – its short length; its fewer, relatively well-crafted characters; and comparative closure at the end – are also the things that hurt it. The short length brings with it a different set of expectations on the part of the reader, and it struggles to meet them.

With all that said, Pynchon is still important for us as students here, and not only because even in Inherent Vice we find a book that is complex and filled with interesting and thought-provoking questions and themes. No, the importance is not in the themes, but in Pynchon’s attitude towards them. Most of the things we are forced to read at Cambridge are thematically dense by design, and when we write essays we go off with magnifying glasses, searching for key ideas and perfect little quoticles. In a world where every moment has to be useful and every article has to have import upon our next piece of work, Pynchon’s stoner’s voice telling us just to chill out and enjoy the ride could never be more timely. Of course there are things to be found, hidden themes and connections, but the book teaches us that they don’t need to matter, that our own enjoyment, and our own choices, always come first. Enjoy the break, smoke some weed, and do no work.