Inherent Vice: Are You In Or Out?

Inherent ViceWith 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.

My Top 5 Spec Fiction Novels

“Speculative fiction” is used to describe a wide variety of stories including science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate realities, and a whole host of literature that goes beyond our normal world. It is one of my favorite vehicles for storytelling because of the ability to construct worlds based on “what if” questions.

My opinions tend to shift as I grow, so any list I make is bound to change. But five spec fiction novels currently stand out in my esteem. Some of the novels below I read years ago, and some only just recently. Please drop me a line with recommendations or opinions. Here we go, in no particular order.

Valis by Philip K. DickValis

One of Philip K. Dick’s last novels, Valis is the story of Horselover Fat, a paranoid author with more than his fair share of identity problems. Mired in conspiracies and alternate realities, and with a disintegrating grip on reality, Fat goes on a quest to find Sophia, a two-year-old girl who may or may not be an incarnation of Gnostic wisdom. He is searching for the true meaning of religion, and at the same time trying to explain his life to himself.

This is a theoretical head trip that features the author himself as one of the characters. The best part of this novel is the way Dick treads the schizophrenic line between the real and unreal, conspiracy and truth, and multiple versions of the Self. You can read these themes again in PKD’s earlier (1977) and more popular novel A Scanner Darkly.

This is one of Dick’s most obliquely autobiographical novels, a literary sketchpad of ideas about what happened to him on February 3, 1974, when deep mysteries were revealed to him through a pink laser (or maybe an acid flashback). Appended to the novel are sections from his notorious Exegesis, featuring such gems as:

4) Matter is plastic in the face of Mind; and

14) The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.

 

Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Without a doubt, Margaret Atwood is a master of the genre. Of the pitiful few of her novels I’ve read so far, Oryx and Crake is her most accessible and brilliant.

Snowman lives in a wild ravaged by severe weather. He is savage, a relic from before the disaster, before the constant storms, unbearable sun, and new genetic humanoids who eat plants and take everything literally. He is from a life we, as readers, recognize. His world used to be like our world, may actually have been our world, in its emotions, interactions, and even technology. But now that Snowman is one of the last living pure human beings, he finds himself remembering life as it was before the disaster. As he remembers, we are carried along in a beautiful, character-driven memorial of his life up until everything changed forever.

Speculative fiction is often alluring because of the ideas it offers, of fantastic worlds and situations, future technologies and the dreams of what could be. Oryx and Crake has all this and more. This story is a powerhouse of character development. In fact, the character development never stops; Atwood takes us right inside Snowman and shows us a resoundingly human being in the center of a weird, new world. And with all her tender, human understanding, her big-thinking doesn’t suffer for it. Her world-building is remarkable, her future history is intriguing and thoughtful, and her prose is beautiful. Despite my utmost respect for Aldous Huxley, Oryx and Crake seems smarter, more grandiose, and yet subtler than Brave New World.

 

Against The Day by Thomas PynchonAgainst The Day

Against The Day is a sprawling megalith, set at the end of the 19th century, spanning thirty years and the known geographical world (as well as places only speculated about). An intricate pastiche of genres featuring dozens of characters, there is enough “speculative” stuff in here to allow it in the genre. At over 1000 pages this is Pynchon’s longest work, and it brims with such a wealth of themes, intrigues and comedy that I enjoyed simply being lost in its enormous and complex telling.

Against The Day is aptly considered metahistorical fiction because of its historical accuracy and frequent self-reflexive detours into the fantastical. In a miasma of comings and goings we meet Nikola Tesla, Franz Ferdinand, a dog named Pugnax who can communicate with the crew of an airship, a psychic detective, an anarchist dynamite terrorist addicted to his explosives, a traveling magician, and a few normal people who can be very confused at times.

Pynchon fans will recognize his trademark wit, his complex wordplay, his penchant for anarchism, pharmacological exploration, dirty sex, ridiculous names, and his ability to lead us into subtly strange cul-de-sacs of theory, only to emerge and find the world has not waited up for us. For people who have not read his work, this may not be the best to start with, but Against The Day is a novel I rate highly in just about any category.

 

Childhood's EndChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Arguably history’s best science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke floored me with this one. With no main character to speak of, one might think the story hard to follow, but the development of ideas is so masterful here, so wise and poignant, that I was rapt the entire time.

Aliens have peacefully invaded Earth, and in doing so have brought about unprecedented peace and progress. Their motivations are vague, and the mystery is only amplified by their insistence on governing remotely, not allowing humankind to see them. When an alien is discovered at a cocktail party researching human psychical behavior, and an impromptu Ouija Board session reveals the destination of the alien’s home star, Jan Rodricks decides to stow away on their ship to discover something, anything, about them.

Meanwhile the culture on Earth undergoes a complete overhaul. When technological development creates a peaceful but artless near-utopia on Earth, citizens found New Athens, a cultural center dedicated to creative arts. But something is happening to Earth’s children, and humanity’s dreams of controlling its own destiny collapse. They are being prepared for something strange and new. By the time Jan returns home, he no longer recognizes Earth.

This beautiful, early gem of science fiction (1953) combines mystical, religious and technological transcendence to mind blowing effect.

 

The Forever War by Joe HaldemanThe Forever War

William Mandella is drafted into the United Nations Exploratory Force to combat a distant alien race. Navigation into “collapsars” makes the interstellar distances reachable in very little subjective time. But when William returns after his first successful mission, he finds decades have gone by. The culture shift is too extreme for him. Homosexuality is the new norm, promoted by world governments to curb overpopulation. William has become an outsider. He is unable to wrap his head around the technologies and ideologies that have developed in his absence. Alienated from his home planet, he re-enlists for a new wave of combat. But the more he fights, the further he finds himself from the world he once knew.

With each interstellar jump, society changes too drastically for him to cope, and his only recourse is to the life he knows—military life—with all the murder, calculated brutality, and inhumanity that comes with war. One of the only things keeping him grounded is his lover and fellow soldier Marygay. But the machinery of war is cruel and the soldiers are rarely allowed to stay in once place for any length of time. William has lost his context, lost himself, and he can only move forward.

This amazing meditation on the alienation of war is a beautifully told allegory from a man who knows what he’s talking about. This is military science fiction at its finest, and fans of hard science will be blow away by Haldeman’s innovations, even if they are fictitious. Despite the harsh reality presented in the book, there is an enduring humanity throughout. Through fabulous leaps in spacetime, William Mandella runs a gamut of anger and nihilism and ultimately reaches a kind of acceptance in the ongoing flux of war. This is a beautiful novel that nearly overwhelmed me.

Honorable Mentions:

A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, and Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Pynchon News Is Good News

Shortly after it was released, Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day was gifted to me and quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time. This novel is a monster. And because it’s so huge, and his previous novel Mason & Dixon came a decade prior, and it was also huge, and Pynchon is getting on in years, I had this impression it might be his last book.

Fortunately I was wrong and he quickly tossed off Inherent Vice, a hilarious detective novel set at the end of the hippy era. Supposedly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie adaptation of Inherent Vice is filming now with rumors of a ensemble cast full of stars. But what’s even more exciting is that Pynchon has a new novel coming out later this year. The novel is called Bleeding Edge and it is set in New York between the collapse of the dot-com bubble and September 11, 2001.

Read the first page of Bleeding Edge here.

I’ve read just about everything Pynchon has written, and his longer novels are my favorite. I particularly love Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day because there is so much going on in them, so many different angles to the narratives, and so many different ways to read them, that every person who reads the novel comes out of it with a different experience.

A while ago I picked one angle and wrote a review of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Article first published as Book Review: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon on Blogcritics.

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon

Dubbed “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” (The New Republic), Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, freewheeling, paranoid journey through Europe at the tail end of the Second World War. Novelist and esoterica buff Thomas Pynchon is in top form for this, his third novel. A dense, challenging epic, Gravity’s Rainbow is highly rewarding for those with the attention span and patience to take it on.

From the first line we know the concept of The Preterite, or passed-over, is going to be a prominent theme. “A screaming comes across the sky…” A screaming what? The allusion is to a rocket, faster than sound so its target has no way to hear it coming. And the hunt for this preterite rocket, codename “00000”, and its mysterious black device, the S-Gerat, is a loose analogy of our main character, Tyrone Slothrop. In Pynchon’s own post-modern, self-reflexive words, “Some called [Tyrone] a ‘pretext.’ Others felt that he was a genuine, point-for-point microcosm.” (p. 753) This atypical approach to writing defies expectations, assuring Gravity’s Rainbow a prominent place in the history of the novel, even if it is often overlooked.

Pynchon loves to play with the form. The book introduces a madman’s variety of characters in a stunning array of literary styles. Often hilarious, sometimes shocking, Gravity’s Rainbow is no simple story. Perhaps not since Ulysses by James Joyce has an author swung through the canopy of styles so freely, offering up slapstick, scientific realism, hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness and more. The novel slides from one heterodox story to the next, immersing the reader in the chaos spread across Europe by World War II. Some characters hide, some fall in love or dive into obsession to distract from the reality of wartime, while others charge in headfirst, hungry for glory. And all the while, the real question is being asked – why? Why was there a war? Who made the decisions leading up to it, and how was it determined that war is the best option?

Tyrone isn’t introduced until page 61, but even before that we get a sense of his complicated personality. Tyrone has been the subject of bizarre, pseudo-Pavlovian conditioning that somehow leads him to be sexually aroused just before a rocket strike. Stranger yet is that he seems to have subconscious knowledge of exactly where the rocket will hit, though he thinks he’s just following his libido. We begin to understand that Tyrone’s motivations are not wholly his own. Like everyone in the war, Tyrone is deeply affected by a terrifying situation beyond his control. And like the 00000, we sense that he will only become aware of his true role in all this when it’s too late.

Gravity’s Rainbow has been called meta-historical fiction. The historical context of the story is completely true, but Pynchon draws the reader into the mania of the characters, little tangents and cul-de-sacs of fantasy that elevate the story to the realm of mythology. This sounds intellectual and heady, and it is, but the story never feels dry; sex, drugs, love and mystery drive the plot forward with a knowing humor that is both laugh-out-loud and profound.

Following a variety of WWII fringe groups brings the story into even stranger realms. Shadowy organizations like The White Visitation, PISCES, and Operation Black Wing look at the war through lenses of parapsychology and the occult. Delving into Nazi legend, corporate conspiracy, Kabbalah, the elusive Schwarzkommando, ballistic hermeneutics and a unique brand of rocket mysticism, Gravity’s Rainbow offers up a paranoid dream for hippies and soldiers alike. The novel seems to say that some special form of mass insanity must be responsible for something on the magnitude of a World War. What the cause of this insanity is, exactly, is a little more elusive.

Tyrone is an American-born rocket specialist, a guidance man who frequently peeks his head up into the realm of superhero. His irresistible urge toward sex and predilection for drugs find him stumbling into situations oblivious to the big picture, though he often ends up in the right place. When a hashish pickup goes awry Tyrone raids an opera costume trunk and becomes “Rocket Man”, a stylish WWII hero if ever there was one. Tyrone is not a typical hero, just as Gravity’s Rainbow is not a typical novel. Tyrone is both Preterite and Elect. He is a Chosen One, the special subject of strange experiments in behavioral conditioning. But he always manages to stay out of the limelight, passed over at crucial times while danger misses him by a hair. In one of the more brutal scenes in the book, pair of doctors search a spa for Tyrone, who by now is dressed as a giant pig. Through a case of mistaken identity, Tyrone avoids a horrible future that would more than dampen his sex life. Both his preterition and election save him from the worst of the war.

The same goes for the novel. It is a Bible of countercultural intellectualism, an underground epic for dope smokers and mystics that by its undeniable brilliance was awarded a National Book Award. On the other hand Gravity’s Rainbow was passed over for a Pulitzer Prize despite a unilateral vote. The Pulitzer committee decided instead to hand out no prize that year, presumably because of the morally questionable material throughout the book. Despite the real horrors of WWII and the Nazi party, apparently this fiction was too much for the Pulitzer board to handle. A book like this will likely never be given the prestige it deserves because it deals with too many fringe elements in a sympathetic way. Gravity’s Rainbow blurs morality, details too much real-world corruption and power politics, discloses too much about the business of war, GE and IG Farben, looks at behavioral conditioning and fetishism, and all with strong undertones of anarchy. Books like this are almost always passed over by the Establishment.

Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in the tumultuous fallout of war, and much like the victims of a rocket strike, swirls and writhes to recover what has been destroyed. “My mother is the war,” says mathematician Roger Mexico. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and in a war like this one everyone is affected. Everyone reacts in his or her own way to the visible and invisible causes of war. Despite the chaotic and multifaceted paths taken by our heroes, the many become unified in their loves and fears, all raising a glass in song at the absurd, sublime condition of our world. Nothing is the same after the war. And those who make it through the dense prose of Gravity’s Rainbow will remember it as a benchmark novel like no other.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel to be read and re-read, a companion to be studied over a lifetime. Thanks to the grandness of the story, the prodigal complexion of the prose, and Pynchon’s ability to weave minute detail and lofty abstraction into the telling, Gravity’s Rainbow reveals more and more of its secrets with subsequent reads. It grows with the reader, like an old man dispensing wisdom through the years, unafraid to offend or enlighten.

Unconscious Dominoes

In 2010 Thomas Pynchon released Inherent Vice, one of his shortest, funniest novels. This was on the heels on his 1100-page sprawling masterwork Against The Day. Inherent Vice made me laugh out loud regularly, which is a feat novels rarely accomplish. It’s The Big Lebowski as written by Raymond Chandler. Lebowski, I know. It’s one of the funniest movies ever. But I realized that I had somehow never read Raymond Chandler.

I read The Big Sleep right away and was thoroughly impressed. Here was a guy who obviously discovered what he was meant to do.

Around that time I heard an interesting story about Freemasons. They had given some jewelry to one of their members, and when that member died, they asked for the jewelry back. I thought that was interesting. Who doesn’t love a good Freemason conspiracy-theory?

Shortly thereafter, I read a short story by Raymond Chandler called Pearls Are a Nuissance. It’s a classic Chandler first-person mystery. In the story a man tries to find a stolen string of pearls to impress his girlfriend. She asks him not to drink whiskey, but of course the case demands that he does. He gets more and more drunk as the story goes on and things get more and more hilarious. Chandler had me busting the proverbial gut, with gems like this:

 “A wise guy,” the fat man sneered again. “Down the hall, bud. Two-eighteen.” He waved a thumb the color and almost the size of a burnt baked potato.

A plan was forming in my mind even though I didn’t know it. When a few friends and I got together to experiment with a writing group, things aligned and I decided to write a short story based on these elements.

I decided I’d write a mystery in the first person about a piece of missing Masonic jewelry. This was intended as an experiment to get me writing in different styles, so I didn’t feel bad about loosely following the existing plot in Chandler’s story. But instead of whiskey, I went Lebowski’s route and had him smoking more and more cannabis.

Because I borrowed from Chandler’s original, I don’t intend to sell the story as my own. Instead I’m posting it here. Click below to download the PDF. Comments and criticisms welcome.

Freemasons Are a Drag

Enjoy.