Review

Inherent Vice

by Thomas Pynchon

I recently attended an author function where someone wanted to
know if anyone had read Thomas Pynchon’s new book yet. Only
one person at that point had; when asked how it was, the gentleman
wiggled his eyebrows, touched his forefinger to his thumb, and
brought it to his lips and inhaled. Everyone there laughed; they
knew exactly what he meant, from prior experience with Pynchon.

Indeed, reading INHERENT VICE is a psychedelic experience, from
both a topical and intellectual standpoint. It is Pynchon’s
most coherent and linear work since THE CRYING OF LOT 49, and
utilizes many of the same elements to propel its narration, not the
least of which are sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It is
also a pastiche, parody and tribute to the detective novel. Pynchon
takes the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of the genre ---
unusual characters, occasionally contrived coincidences, complex
plots --- and exaggerate them to the extent that reading the book
is at times akin to reading a pool of milk, but an extremely
interesting pool of milk.

A private detective is at the heart of any mystery novel worthy
of the name, and indeed, INHERENT VICE has one in the form of Doc
Sportello, who serves as the reader’s guide through the
drug-laden streets of Los Angeles, circa 1970. Doc spends a good
portion of the novel under the influence of controlled substances,
resulting in his involvement in situations that coherent thinking
would dictate he avoid. The ball starts rolling when Shasta,
Doc’s ex-girlfriend, asks him to investigate a possible plot
against Mickey Wolfmann, a real estate magnate and Shasta’s
current love interest, which is being hatched by Mickey’s
wife and her boyfriend. At about the same time, Doc is retained by
a black militant to locate a prison friend of his who is in the
Aryan Brotherhood, and is also hired to find a local musician who
supposedly died of a drug overdose. Of course all of these
investigations quickly intersect, the nexus being the Golden Fang,
which may or may not be a mysterious smuggling boat, an
assassin’s guild, a dentist’s investment group, or
something else.

As one might expect, Pynchon’s trademarks are all present,
and in spades. Hordes of characters, important or otherwise, wander
on and off the page. Names of people, groups, fictional places and
objects are oddly and occasionally hysterically named (a fictional
British rock band bearing the name “Spotted Dick”
continued to be funny for some reason right through to the end of
the book). Perhaps most significantly, however, Pynchon continues
to toss off intermittently brilliant passages that ironically seem
to manifest themselves just when the reader’s attention
starts to wander, and in unlikely places to boot. This is
especially true of the first and last third of the book. And then
there are the objects that seem to populate every page, walking on,
performing a bow, and then disappearing forever. A Las Vegas
antique dealer, for example, has for sale a number of remarkable
artifacts, including a decorative ashtray from the Sands
“once thrown up into by Joey Bishop.”

Pynchon is one of those authors who is perhaps more widely known
than widely read. His work comes wrapped in a density that is
challenging to break through, while the length of a number of his
novels has been somewhat daunting as well. INHERENT VICE is
(relatively) short and set in a place and time that is somewhat
readily identifiable, wrapped in a genre that is familiar and, in
this case, somewhat accessible. While one does not have to be under
the influence to follow the proceedings that take place, those who
are past or present imbibers will nod knowingly in spots. Does it
work as a detective novel? Not exactly. But if you have been
tempted to read a Pynchon book in the past but put it off for any
number of reasons, INHERENT VICE would be the place to start.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

Inherent Vice
by Thomas Pynchon

  • Publication Date: July 27, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143117564
  • ISBN-13: 9780143117568