Thomas Pynchon is quickly becoming my favorite writer. If the soaring highs of Gravity’s Rainbow were not mesmerizing and enduring enough to cement myself as a Pynchon fan boy, then Inherent Vice was the slight nudge in a crowded stadium I needed to embark on reading Pynchon’s entire anthology (maybe with the exception of Bleeding Edge?). This is not to say that Vice is another masterpiece. Make no mistake; it’s not. But it’s a great book, that challenges any critic (armchair or professional) that would boldly declare that Pynchon cannot tell a story.
Thus, the revelation of this novel tips it’s hand: it has a steady plot that delivers answers, for the most part (It wouldn’t be Pynchon if it didn’t have some “plotlines” and passages that make you scratch your head in complete confoundment. It reminds me of what my brother said to me upon finishing Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses after first reading The Road, Blood Meridian, and No Country for Old Men: “In all [McCarthy’s] other books something goes terribly wrong, or it’s just over-the-top with it’s violence, but this one.. it’s just a story.. It’s just a story and everything’s fine.”
Inherent Vice has that element to it. Compared to GR and Mason & Dixon, Inherent Vice is “just a story and everything’s fine.” Hanging out with Larry “Doc” Sportello is “groovy.” He’s a doped up Private Investigator who is more intelligent than his nemesis at the LAPD, Bigfoot Bjornsen, gives him credit. The novel is simply the story of Doc getting involved in something that is much bigger than he realizes.
The novel is at it’s best when Doc is desperately trying to get some help from his friends, who rarely have the ability or wherewithal to be of any service. At any point in which Denis “from down the hill, whose name everybody pronounced to rhyme with ‘penis'” appears is worthy of real laugh out loud moments. Doc’s interactions with Bigfoot, two people who could not be further apart as humans, are something anyone can enjoy. The plot is enjoyable, but one simply gets the feeling that Pynchon could have gone on for 1000 pages or cut the book by 100 and the story would be no better or no worse. This isn’t a good thing for the type of book that is Inherent Vice.
The biggest problem Inherent Vice has is that it has very little to say about anything. The most this book could be doing is pointing out the failures of Pynchon’s own generation; as he makes clear that he feels that the culture created was difficult to take seriously. There is a lot said that I do agree with, but when placed in the mouths of some of the characters, the novel takes on a more critical feel than warm endorsement. Beyond that, the novel is laden with the expected conspiracy theories Pynchon loves to either create or tie in, but he spends time telling his reader that they should be feeling paranoid, rather than letting the natural paranoia of reading a Pynchon novel set in.
That being said, these are flaws that Pynchon creates simply be being Thomas Pynchon. Every great writer has a period of writing that is eventually declared his or her “down period.” I don’t want to be seen as someone who endorses that kind of thought, because I don’t feel that way. Many espouse that there is a “true” form of a writer; that The Sun Also Rises is “true” Hemmingway, that Of MIce and Men is “true” Steinbeck, etc. I don’t agree. But that is the subject for another post. Let me surmise to say this: there are some flaws that are entirely the result of expectations put upon writers, and I’m not sure how fair it is to criticize them for it.
Recommended to: Those who would argue that “Groovy” is an entirely better word than “Cool,” those who think that detective stories have gotten far too dramatic, and those who think toilet humor still has a place in today’s society.
Avoid as if it was a think piece by Ann Coulter: Those who cheer for Hannity in his “interviews,” those who find toilet humor in all forms absolutely classless, and those who don’t want to think when they’re reading.