Character names tell you a lot about the sort of pitch an author is trying to strike. Humbert Humbert. Tristram Shandy. Atticus Finch. Milo Minderbinder. Such names bring a character directly to life in the mind. As Martin Amis, whose contribution to this field includes Spunk Davis, Nicola Six, Clint Smoker, and Keith Talent, asks of authors who are less creative with theirs, “. . . can these people (Tom Metfield, Jack Royston, Jane Framsby) really exist, in our minds or anywhere else, with such leadenly humdrum, such dead names?” Readers of Thomas Pynchon have no such worries. Amongst his creations in his nine novels are extreme right winger Mike Fallopian, spy Cyprian Latewood, saxophone player McClintick Sphere, philatelist Genghis Cohen, and the Reverend Wilks Cherrycoke. One is naturally bound to feel in good hands with an author who names his characters such and in doing so reveals much about his perspective on the world. Nevertheless, the hyper-analyzed Pynchon body of work is not one which necessarily brings this — Amis again — “slangy, jivey and cartoonish” humor to mind. Several of his novels top a thousand pages and cover subjects of the most esoteric nature, like secret postal societies, thought experiments, entropy, and mathematics. Gravity’s Rainbow, broadly considered his masterpiece, is as likely to be dismissed as unreadable as it is to be hailed as a seminal work. What his work has not been, until now, is fit for the big screen. Trailers for Paul Thomas Anderson’s (There Will Be Blood, The Master) new adaptation, however, of Inherent Vice look encouragingly as though it may be an absolute riot. It is good that Pynchon ought to gain a reputation amongst an otherwise unfamiliar public as a comic writer as a result of the film, as he is rather good at it. Inherent Vice (2009) is a novel which contains enough acute observations and zesty, rat-a-tat dialogue to confirm him as a humorist of some distinction and, in some places, surprising subtlety.
Those familiar with Pynchon may well think the following sentence absurd. Inherent Vice features a main character, a traceable and somewhat clearly defined linear plot and, by Pynchon’s standards, a relatively neat conclusion. To outline its plot puts one rather in mind of some madcap union of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and The Big Lebowski. Set in the “post Mansonical nerves” of 1970 southern California, it concerns, in the broadest possible terms, Private Investigator and committed pothead Doc Sportello, whose former girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth, tasks him with tracing her current lover and real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, who is suspected of hatching a scam alongside his wife which is designed to land him in a mental institution. Soon after, Doc is asked by an ex-convict to investigate rumors that a dead musician called Coy Harlingden is not, in fact, dead at all but playing saxophone in a beat combo, which leads Doc to a schooner called the Golden Fang which may have disappeared off the coast of California and resurfaced off Cuba packed with a quantity of heroin and millions of counterfeit dollars bearing Richard Nixon’s image, all the while providing us with the hint of Master Conspiracy without which a Pynchon novel might feel inadequate. But what of the sunken continent Lemuria and loan shark Adrian Prussia, and the murder of an Aryan Brotherhood member with a swastika tattooed on his head and his Black Nationalist cell-mate? All this might make Doc question his sanity, but infused as he is with considerable quantities of narcotics and having just enjoyed the 60s to absolutely their fullest, he is well equipped to take it all more or less in his stride.
As may be inferred, the pleasure to be gleaned from Inherent Vice is not necessarily by closely following its labyrinthine plot. There is no reason why it ought to either. Raymond Chandler, perhaps apocryphally, is understood to have had about as much clue as anyone else as to why Geiger was murdered in The Big Sleep; that is to say, none. Much better levels of satisfaction can be drawn from the dialogue between Doc and Bigfoot Bjornsen, the cop who exists in a time perhaps twenty years earlier, amusing reminiscences of times passed which create the impression that Pynchon is partly writing about the culmination of an era and the transition from one familiar reality into another, less understood one. Where this manifests itself most obviously is in the relationship between Doc and his hard-boiled foil Bjornsen, whose hippie phobia is also root of some of the novel’s comic highlights.
Dealing with the Hippie is generally straightforward. His childlike nature will usually respond positively to drugs, sex, and/or rock and roll, although in which order these are to be deployed must depend on conditions specific to the moment.
Acutely comic observations of past times achieve the same effect:
Last time anybody could remember a black motorist in Gordita Beach, for example, anxious calls for backup went out on all the police bands, a small task force of cop vehicles assembled, and roadblocks were set up all along the Pacific Coast Highway. An old Gordita reflex . . .
These passages and others like them are what the reader most looks forward to, rather than the next development of the plot, which by midway through the novel Pynchon seems to be treating in an increasingly cavalier way, as if he is baulking against the restraints it places upon him. It does rather seem as if this novel was an easy task for him. Seventeen years split Gravity’s Rainbow and its successor Vineland; just three years separate Inherent Vice from its doorstop predecessor, Against The Day. Still, part of the effect is that Pynchon’s apparent effortlessness imbues the humor with a subtlety which works in an unhurried and languid style.
. . . unfortunately this was not one of those limos able to Glide from the Curb, much less Insert Itself Effortlessly into Traffic — no, this one lurched from the curb percussively into traffic . . .
This works excellently, as the subtlety of the capitalization and italics juxtaposes the unsubtlety of what is being described and further reinforces the air of haplessness which follows Doc in his permanent state of denial of the fact that the 1960s are over (“a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of”). Doc is also a compulsive note-taker, a practice recommended to the reader if they wish to keep track of the myriad characters who slip in and out of the fictitious community where the novel is set. There is a tragi-comic decency and honor to Doc, who sees absolute necessity in defying authority in order to pursue honour and decency through his work.
. . . he belonged to a single and ancient martial tradition in which resisting authority, subduing handguns and defending an old lady’s honor all amounted to the same thing.
This hints at the tropes of the detective genre for which Inherent Vice is so much a repository. Doc hates the police — is pathologically suspicious of them — but must work with them. He gets beaten up through little fault of his own. Information is withheld from him which he later finds out by other means. What glimpses of official information he is permitted to see is granted on the basis of a relationship of mutual benefit. The missing person whose story is introduced in the novel’s first pages is the basis for a much more complex web. The yards of stoner dialogue, however, and the several highly amusing set-pieces make Doc a soft-boiled detective in much the way that Inherent Vice is soft-boiled Pynchon.
That said, there is real joy in Inherent Vice, and it is an accomplishment on its own terms. Its finest merits are to be found in its humor, its dialogue, and the singularly Pynchonian creations of Trillium Fortnight, Jason Velveeta, Dr Buddy Tubeside, Scott Oof, Delwyn Quight, the Warriors Against The Man Black Armed Militia (WAMBAM), and the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division, or P-Diddies. What do these characters offer to the plot? Who knows? Who cares? To seek fulfilment from this novel by expecting resolution of its plot is to miss the point. By far the better strategy is to surrender to Pynchon’s sentimental vision of Inherent Vice’s setting and his affection for its main character and to embrace this antidote to the stereotype of an impenetrable, elitist, and daunting Pynchon oeuvre.