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.

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.

Blog Critics

The holidays, despite being holidays, have been very busy. When I realized Christmas and New Years both landed on Tuesdays, the thought occurred to give myself a week off. Well, this is that week. Clearly I’m only posting something now because I value consistency. As I’ve done in the past, I’m copping out this week and instead posting a couple of my recent reviews.

MUSIC REVIEW: SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE – ASCENT

Article first published as Music Review: Six Organs of Admittance – Ascent on Blogcritics.

"Ascent" by Six OrgansDrag City released a new installment from psychedelic folk pioneer Ben Chasney on August 21, 2012, entitled Ascent. He has been recording under the moniker Six Organs of Admittance for over a decade now, and this time out, offers up typical mysticism wrapped in a package of space travel and cosmic resonance.

More band-oriented than any of his previous works, the influence of working with groups like Comets on Fire and Rangda is felt substantially here. While I appreciate the evolution of Chasney’s style over the last decade and a half, I find myself missing the quiet, droning, meditative acoustic work that was the hallmark of the outfit for the first half of its existence. Ascent is more like a rock album than the previous dozen albums. But fans are mightily used to experimentation when it comes to Six Organs, and should be pleased with this record.

The band, a slightly reorganized Comets on Fire, does play well together, and the opener, “Waswasa”, is a dynamic, riff-based jam that evokes the familiar noise and chaos of Chasney’s electrified solos. Recorded live from the floor in Louder Studios by Tim Green, the LP sounds fantastic and the players mesh beautifully. Simultaneously clean and dirty, loud and subtle, Six Organs and Green have stepped their game up from The Sun Awakens (Drag City). And “Waswasa” has the perfect psychedelic drive to set the stage for a real Ascent.

Second track “Close to the Sky” has a nice mellow feel reminiscent of “Blue Sunday” from The Doors, but after five minutes the cyclical bass groove begins to wear. Chasney seems to be comfortable in a band setting these days; the drums, bass, and rhythm guitars fill the frequencies while his solos arc overhead. Earlier recordings highlighted Chasney’s acoustic folk-raga style, and fans of old-school Six Organs might find some of these tracks a bit diluted. Chasney relies on his bandmates a bit too heavily and some tracks lack the direction of earlier Six Organs.

The best example of this is “One Thousand Birds”, a re-imagined oldie from the Six Organs classic Dark Noontide (on Holy Mountain Records). The original has nothing but clattering percussion and one gloriously stringy acoustic guitar until an electric squall discharges and takes it to the next level. Ascent‘s version spreads the parts between more people without adding to the complexity and impulse of the song. And Chasney’s iconic voice, usually used like such an integral instrument, falsettos on top of the music and doesn’t sell the message like the original.

Fans of the droning profundity Six Organs uses to warp us through the interior maze will be happy with “They Called You Near”. It’s a deep, murmuring, dark space that drips down the brain stem with layers of guitar and noise supporting Chasney’s chant-like vocals. The acoustic coda is beautifully clean (both recording and performance) and melds with the slow Side A closer, “Solar Ascent”.

Side B is a four-song mix of familiar styles starting with the aforementioned “One Thousand Birds”. The dreamy, lilting “Your Ghost” gives way to a rocking entreaty to burn memories (“Even If You Knew”) that makes it past the seven-minute mark without getting old. And the finale, “Visions (From Io)” is a gorgeous slow jam that blends science fiction and magic to send us out into the world in a cloud of oneiric bliss.

The packaging of the LP is one of the slickest in the Six Organs collection. The cover hints at the sci-fi narrative Chasney has in mind for this record, while the back cover is a forthright magical symbol. This dichotomy works for the record and the themes can be seen across Chasney’s career.

Six Organs has always been about Ascent, both inner and outer. The simple liner notes (including lyrics) are printed on a lovely dot matrix one sheet. Though I haven’t heard the digital version, I’m betting fans will be happy purchasing the vinyl version, which is a great value for less than $20. Not the best Six Organs record, it’s still light years beyond most contemporary music.

 

BLU-RAY REVIEW: BLUE VELVET

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Blue Velvet on Blogcritics.

Blue VelvetIn 1986 David Lynch created his most concise and iconic film, Blue Velvet. A modern noir and a pervert’s detective story, it offers the most succinct iterations of the themes that have spanned his career. His first film with the coveted “final cut” clause (under De Laurentiis Entertainment Group), Blue Velvet is distilled Lynch – a textural ride into our subconscious where dark desires hide from the light of day. “It’s a strange world,” is the perfect mantra for this psychosexual masterpiece.

Blue Velvet is one of David Lynch’s most accessible films for those new to his work. Perhaps more balanced and commercial than any of his other movies, the film offers a striking blend of high school innocence and psychotic despair (embodied by the two female leads). The seeds planted by Blue Velvet blossomed into the cult television hit Twin Peaks by Lynch and Mark Frost, and both projects continue to influence popular culture from American Beauty to AMC’s The Killing. Other projects from Lynch feel much darker and esoteric. While I can watch Lynch’s films just about any time, I can confidently say that Lost Highway is not the best movie for a first date.

It’s obvious that mystery is what turns Lynch’s crank, and protagonist Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is the perfect surrogate for the auteur. Jeffery is an amazing blend of gee-whiz Hardy Boy and torrid voyeur. Mild-mannered, geeky, and friendless in his hometown, he is drawn irresistibly into the deep river of mystery just below the surface of his familiar world. It’s his compulsion toward the unknown that drives Jeffery. Lynch uses him as a key to our restrained impulses; we find ourselves drawn into the act of observation, afraid of how deep and dark our own desires go.

Dennis Hopper creates one of the most terrible villains in film history whose erratic and drug-induced violence shows us just how dark things can get. Frank’s twisted sexual behavior leaves us feeling gutted, but his emotional vulnerability to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” adds such a specific and bizarre dimension to his evil that we’re drawn into his mania even as we fear it. When Frank commandeers Jeffery for a wicked joyride, he leers at Jeffery in the back seat, and at us through Jeffery’s POV, and says, “You’re like me.” It’s chilling because we recognize Jeffery’s perversion as a faint reflection of Frank’s, as well as our own desire to look into the darkness of Blue Velvet.

Familiar themes of light and dark, love and fear, order and chaos, are set in motion in the first scene of the picture. Fifties-era white-picket fences and manicured lawns give way to a dizzying horror of bugs crawling and scratching the dirt. The iconic severed ear is a perfect symbol for Lynch’s work, acknowledging the senses before diving through perception to Something Else. And it’s his unique ability to show us that Something Else that distinguishes Lynch as one of the most important artists in the medium.

The 1080p video looks amazing. The digital transfer was supervised by David Lynch, as was the previous Special Edition DVD, which looked pretty good. But the Blu-ray edition blows the doors off the DVD. It’s unclear whether the bump in quality is from the resolution alone, or if they’ve carefully recolored and timed the whole movie, but the HD version captures much more of the original film look with beautiful fidelity. The dark scenes have depth and the colours are resplendent. I detected only a slight trace of noise in a few shots.

What impressed me even more than the picture was the sound. From the start of his career, Lynch has understood that video and sound are two equally important halves of filmmaking. One reason his films are so absorbing is because of his emphatic attention to sound design. From Eraserhead to Inland Empire, Lynch’s meticulous sound work builds the environment around the characters, forming a fuller sensory world than traditional filmmakers. Layering room tones, distant machinery, wind, humming lights, and musical score, he fleshes out the mood of each moment, bringing us more in touch with the psychology of the character.

One of the disappointing things about the old DVD version was the sound. Obviously a lot of time had been spent trying to manicure the soundtrack, but I believe the digital technology just wasn’t capable of delivering a satisfying product at the time. Background noise in the dialogue wasn’t blended properly with the ambience of the scenes, and so the dialogue seemed haloed with a subtle hiss. This may simply have been the result of bad compression. But the Blu-ray edition has fixed this impressively.

I marveled throughout the movie at how clearly I could make out subtleties in the quiet moments. Particularly with the sultry voice of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), the dynamic range of the soundtrack really shows off the depth of the original recordings. As both a cinephile and an audiophile, I can’t stress enough how important the sound is to the movie-watching experience, and I think this fact alone is reason enough to buy the Blu-ray edition. Even if you’ve only recently bought the DVD version, as I have, it’s well worth it (until the next jump in technology takes place later this afternoon).

The Blu-ray edition offers great special features as well. Over fifty minutes of deleted scenes have been found and beautifully restored in HD for fans who can’t get enough. Previously seen as only a “Deleted Scene Montage” of stills on the DVD, fans will enjoy Frances Bay’s comic timing, a hilarious jazz stand-up routine, and a gorgeous, electric scene with Jeffery and Dorothy on the roof of her apartment. A smattering of outtakes and vignettes only leaves us wanting more, but the “Mysteries of Love” documentary (previously on the DVD) bulks up the package.

Twenty-six years after its original release, Blue Velvet is still as fresh, shocking, and cool as ever. This Blu-ray release is as satisfying as I could have hoped. Not only are the video and sound leagues better than any previous version since the actual celluloid, but the restored deleted scenes make this the definitive version to own.

P.S. For a more plot-oriented review of this product, El Bicho has written a good one.