September 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Inherent Vice’ by Thomas Pynchon

By Justin Clemens

Thomas Pynchon is one of the most extraordinary novelists writing today. This isn’t due to his genius alone, though there’s no doubting his encyclopaedic knowledge, literary range and sheer inventiveness. It’s also due to sheer luck, to Pynchon ending up in 1960s California just as the state was going ballistic in every sense. Yet because of his constitutional hypersensitivity, Pynchon can’t help but suspect that there’s more going on than chance. Any place where ex-Nazi scientists can get bungalows with swimming pools courtesy of the US government is clearly worth questioning. The context and substance of Pynchon’s books tends to be provided by the conditions of that time: unparalleled technological development due to the military–industrial complex, unparalleled economic development due to a fanatical enthusiasm for free enterprise, unparalleled social development due to libertarian personal experimentation, and unparalleled paranoia due to shadowy secret agencies.

Whether Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity’s Rainbow or Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon’s protagonists  – whose names are as ludicrous as any found in Shakespeare or Dickens – typically bumble through extreme situations, at once comedic schlemiels and unknowing emissaries of malevolent cosmic forces. In Inherent Vice, this role is played by Doc Sportello, a drug-addled private detective. Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay, has been seeing the rapacious property-developer Mickey Wolfmann, who has his fingers in so many pies that Doc would find it impossible to keep tabs on him, even if Doc wasn’t so hazy from the dope. But Shasta and Mickey have disappeared under bizarre circumstances and Doc is on their trail – only the trail is bogglingly confused, and there are some very sinister interests at work. One of Pynchon’s hilarious theses about marijuana – that it makes you paranoid enough to turn you on to how sinister things really are, but then takes the edge off your ability to do anything about it – becomes a conceptual device he uses to probe the peculiarities of the epoch.

Inherent Vice extends the sequence of memorable works, from Raymond Chandler through Roman Polanski and Philip K Dick, that makes the paradoxical extremity of Californian life a kind of emblem for everybody’s future. Just as Petunia Leeway’s outfit is “not so much an actual nurse uniform as a lascivious commentary on one”, Inherent Vice is less an actual detective story than a pastiche of the genre. Occasionally repulsive, sometimes tiresome, the experience of reading Pynchon isn’t compromised by its affects. On the contrary, his ability to drive compelling themes through the overwhelming chaos of the present is precisely what makes each of his novels an event.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

Cover: September 2009
View Edition

From the front page

Image of ‘Scary Monsters’

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser

Two satirical stories about fitting in, from the two-time Miles Franklin–winner

Image of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in Question Time today. Image via ABC News

Rush hour

The Nationals have had far more than four hours to figure out their position on net zero

Image of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body


In This Issue

The death of the good father

This year's model

Fashion’s coming of age

The Church of Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, California, 2007. © Wikicommons

Only itself to blame

The Church of Scientology

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Miles Franklin & Joseph Furphy


More in Arts & Letters

Photo: “Breakfast at Heide” (from left: Sidney Nolan, Max Harris, Sunday Reed and John Reed), circa 1945

Artful lodgers: The Heide Museum of Modern Art

The story of John and Sunday Reed’s influence on Sidney Nolan and other live-in protégés

Still from ‘The French Dispatch’

The life solipsistic: ‘The French Dispatch’

Wes Anderson’s film about a New Yorker–style magazine is simultaneously trivial and exhausting

Still from ‘Nitram’

An eye on the outlier: ‘Nitram’

Justin Kurzel’s biopic of the Port Arthur killer is a warning on suburban neglect and gun control

Still from Steven Soderbergh’s ‘No Sudden Move’

True to form: ‘No Sudden Move’

Steven Soderbergh’s Detroit crime movie is another formal experiment with commercial trappings


More in Noted

Image of ‘Scary Monsters’

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser

Two satirical stories about fitting in, from the two-time Miles Franklin–winner

Image of ‘Bewilderment’

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

The Pulitzer winner’s open-hearted reworking of Flowers for Algernon, updated for modern times

Image of Colson Whitehead's ‘Harlem Shuffle’

‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead

The author of ‘The Underground Railroad’ offers a disappointingly straightforward neo-noir caper set in the early ’60s

Image of Charif Majdalani’s ‘Beirut 2020’

‘Beirut 2020’ by Charif Majdalani

The Lebanese writer’s elegiac journal captures the city’s devastating port explosion


Read on

Image of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions