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

September 2009

From the front page

Scott free

The rorting revelations continue, but who will be held properly accountable?

Image [detail] of Agency, by William Gibson

Days of future passed: William Gibson’s ‘Agency’

The cyberpunk pioneer’s latest novel continues his examination of the present from the perspective of a post-apocalyptic future

Image from ‘Extinction Studies’

Wildlife’s whispered traces: ‘Extinction Studies’

Lucienne Rickard’s durational art performance at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery reckons with extinct species

Image of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull

Turnbull’s legacy costs

The former PM’s promise to legislate a religious freedom bill has ensured the culture wars rage on


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Miles Franklin & Joseph Furphy

The Indian Ocean solution

Christmas Island

‘The Bee Hut’ by Dorothy Porter

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Ningaloo sharks


More in Arts & Letters

Untitled (Pollo Frito), 1982, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Stopped in the street: ‘Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines’

Early death meant the work of these renowned artists never fully emerged from ’80s New York subcultures

Image [detail] of Agency, by William Gibson

Days of future passed: William Gibson’s ‘Agency’

The cyberpunk pioneer’s latest novel continues his examination of the present from the perspective of a post-apocalyptic future

Image of Gordon Koang

The king in exile: Gordon Koang

The music of the South Sudanese star and former refugee offers solace and a plea for unity

Image from True History of the Kelly Gang

Kills, frills and Kelly aches: Justin Kurzel’s ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’

The Australian director brings a welcome sense of style to the unusually malleable story


More in Noted

Image of L’Arlésienne [detail], by Pablo Picasso

‘Matisse & Picasso’: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Hanging works by the two masters together highlights their artistic rivalry and mutual influence

Image of A Couple of Things Before the End, by Sean O'Beirne

‘A Couple of Things Before the End’ by Sean O’Beirne

The Australian author’s debut story collection confidently converts the linguistic detritus of our era into something of lasting value

Utagawa Yoshimori, The Tongue-cut Sparrow [detail]

‘Japan supernatural’

The Art Gallery of NSW’s examination of Japan’s centuries-long artistic traditions depicting the spirit world and the macabre

Cover of ‘The Topeka School’

‘The Topeka School’ by Ben Lerner

The American author’s latest novel canvasses the seething hate speech of the burgeoning alt-right and white-boy rap battles in the Midwest


Read on

Image from ‘Extinction Studies’

Wildlife’s whispered traces: ‘Extinction Studies’

Lucienne Rickard’s durational art performance at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery reckons with extinct species

Image of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull

Turnbull’s legacy costs

The former PM’s promise to legislate a religious freedom bill has ensured the culture wars rage on

Image from ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’

Party of three: ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’

Australian comedian Josh Thomas brings his unique brand of comedy to the classic American sitcom format

Image of Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott composing ‘Tao of Glass’

A dream within a dream: ‘Tao of Glass’

Theatremaker Phelim McDermott on his highly personal collaboration with Philip Glass


×
×