With the movie adaptation set for release Christmas day in Toronto, I used my California vacation as an opportunity to re-read Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s cannabis-infused detective story and elegy to 1960’s California. I originally read it upon its release in 2009, shortly after his epic tome Against The Day, and by contrast Inherent Vice seemed light and breezy, fully enjoyable but almost a throw-away effort.
But like all of Pynchon’s work, a second reading exposes layers of detail and meaning not obvious the first time through. Inherent Vice is essentially a novel of ideas that kept me so entertained it only felt like it was dashed off. Pynchon’s funniest novel to date follows Larry “Doc” Sportello, a comically stoned, pseudo-hippy private investigator who is one of Pynchon’s most loveable protagonists.
The 60’s have just ended and Doc stands between two worlds. He is, by nature, a typical 60’s pothead, smoking joints like they’re cigarettes and theorizing abstractly about Gilligan’s Island, mixing freely with surfers and musicians, flirting harmlessly with the bikini-clad beach bunnies of Gordita Beach, and a lineup of his friends and associates would make The Big Lebowski bust a gut.
Conversely, Doc is a real PI—a surprisingly straight occupation for a man of his habits—who cuts deals and shares info with cops, including his counterpart and nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen. Doc is a next-generation Philip Marlow, when shifting cultural paradigms replaced whiskey with weed. Like Marlow, Doc follows his own code, and goes about his business with a sense of humour, generally—not always—staying just sober enough to get his job done.
When his ex shows up concerned for her new boyfriend, the affluent, married land developer Mickey Wolfmann, Doc can’t help himself; without any real prospect of payment, he takes the job. In no time, Wolfmann goes missing and Doc is knocked unconscious and framed for the murder of Wolfmann’s bodyguard, only to be set free under close supervision by Bjornsen and the Feds.
Doc’s investigations lead him into an intricate and deranged plot involving The Golden Fang, which might be a boat, a heroin cartel, a dental office, or a PCP-induced Anubis-like apparition, threatening to escort Doc to the land of the dead. Pynchon plots are sometimes vague and don’t necessarily promise resolution, and while Inherent Vice escalates and complicates Doc’s predicament in every scene—often introducing a cavalcade of bizarre characters with preposterous names—Pynchon somehow weaves the multitude of threads together to make this a surprisingly fast and coherent read.
The only lull in the plot comes about three-quarters through, while Doc is wading deep in chaos and getting thoughtful. The Wolfmann plot that started it all seems to resolve itself, only after tangles of subplots and sub-subplots have developed and gained momentum. And when Wolfmann reappears, Doc is there to see him, only in passing, without directly contributing to his return.
Doc begins to realize the world is much more complicated than it used to be, and in this way he embodies the main theme of Inherent Vice. It’s 1970; the Manson trial is on everyone’s television, and the end of an era is making itself felt. The hippies sought exemption from straight society, sought to “Turn on, tune in, and Drop Out,” while straight society kept on moving, watching with a chip on its shoulder. But illusions dissolved, and the boundaries of those safe and distinct pockets of society had already begun to break.
With respect to the coming era, as for the Wolfmann story, Doc is simultaneously present and exempt. He is down in the trenches, living first-hand the hippy ideology, yet somehow the cultural movement has passed him by. He can’t help but feel a bit impotent, like merely an observer. He is both there and not there, physically present, yet stoned and abstract, a real person and a ghost (“bilocation” is a theme Pynchon also explored in Against The Day). The TV show Dark Shadows offers us a hint at what Pynchon is getting at.
“This was around the point in the Collins family saga when the story line had begun to get heavily into something called ‘parallel time,’ which was confounding the viewing audience nationwide, even those who remained with their wits about them, although many dopers found no problem at all in following it. It seemed basically to mean that the same actors were playing two different roles, but if you’d gotten absorbed enough, you tended to forget that these people were actors.”
This theme is played out in many of the tangents and subplots that develop along the way, including acid-born theories on Lemuria, a continent long-lost beneath the Pacific, gone but ever present, and seeking to return. The climax of Inherent Vice comes as Doc is captured and into smoking enough PCP to down an elephant.
“After a while Doc finds himself walking along beside himself in the street, or maybe a long corridor. ‘Hi!’ sez Doc….It seemed there were these two Docs, Visible Doc, which was approximately his body, and Invisible Doc, which was his mind, and from what he could make out, the two were in some kind of ill-tempered struggle which had been going on for a while…Fortunately for both Docs, over the years they had been sent out on enough of these unsought journeys to have picked up a useful kit of paranoid skills. Even these days, though occasionally surprised by some prankster with a straight-looking nose inhaler full of amyl nitrate or a rose-cheeked subadolescent offering a bite of a peyote-bud ice cream cone, Doc knew he could count on the humiliation if nothing else to pilot him, and his adversary Doc, safely through any trip, however disagreeable.”
Though I failed to realize it on my initial reading, these themes are laid out on the back cover: “…Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there…or…if you were there, then you…or, wait, is it…”
Inherent Vice is an exploration of an era and its ethos, but it remains engaging, funny and strange, full of psychedelic colours and a hilarious cast of dozens. Pynchon’s style and the difficulty of his writing can be off-putting for some, but this might be the perfect introduction to his oeuvre, especially for those excited for the film.