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.

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