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.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

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

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

More in Noted

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality