Will Thomas Pynchon’s lightest, brightest novel put him in the Hollywood spotlight?
Thomas Pynchon’s darkly satirical masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow, doesn’t so much lodge itself in your mind as burn a permanent hole in the fabric of your psyche. Its structure is so complex, convoluted, and self-reflexive that it doesn’t so much have a “plot” as a “Mandelbrot.” It doesn’t so much come to an end as twist itself round, like some sort of multidimensional mobius strip, to meet up again with its own ominous beginning. Along the way, so many ill omens and grotesque morbidities have flown past that it might seem impossible for Pynchon to up the portentousness ante any further. As the final chapter of the book unfolds, however, he manages to trump himself once more, inviting us to imagine a situation so irretrievably dire that:
Philip Marlowe will suffer a horrible migraine and reach by reflex for the pint of rye in his suit pocket, and feel homesick for the lacework balconies of the Bradbury Building.
It really doesn’t get any worse than that. The clear implication is, if a character so heroically strong as Marlowe is defeated, then all is lost.
Now Pynchon has produced his characteristically idiosyncratic take on the detective genre, Inherent Vice, which Penguin’s Summer 2009 catalogue describes as a “lively yarn” that finds Pynchon “working in an unaccustomed genre.” But how “unaccustomed” is it? Like many Pynchon novels, Gravity’s Rainbow can be seen as conforming, loosely, to the contours of the traditional quest narrative. And Raymond Chandler, in the opening scene of his first classic Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep, flagged up the fact that the detective genre is in many ways a direct descendent of the quest:
Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree who didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the visor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
It stands as a perfect metaphorical microcosm for Chandler’s flippantly lugubrious hero’s blend of chivalry and cynicism. There’s also a familiar ring to the tone of Marlowe’s sardonic humour: that line about the knight having pushed his visor back “to be sociable” is classic Chandler, but it’s also pure Pynchon.
Given the similarities between the quests pursued by medieval knights, noir detectives, and the sort of wild goose chases on which Pynchon usually sends his long-suffering schmiel protagonists, it’s hard to see how the detective genre actually is “unaccustomed.” Add to that the fact that he actually drifted pretty close to this territory in his previous novel, the 1,085-page Against the Day — where his Lew Basnight character found himself falling into the role of a de facto detective, poking around on the fringes of the nascent Hollywood “shadow factory” in 1920s L.A. — and it begins to look like quite a bizarre claim.
What could perhaps most accurately be said is that Pynchon’s readers are unaccustomed to seeing him sticking to one genre at a time. Either way, if he was going to pick one genre and stay with it, this was an apt one to go for. And here Pynchon has produced a novel which can, with far fewer provisos than ever before, and hardly any qualifying caveats at all, be confidently described in simple layman’s terms: Inherent Vice is a noir thriller, with a plot that can — just about — be followed, in linear fashion, from commencement to denouement.
Like any classic noir, the premise is simple. Doc Sportello, Pynchon’s perpetually baffled, pot-smoking PI protagonist, is unexpectedly visited one night by an old girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth, who’s concerned for the safety of her current paramour, sinister-sounding real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, whose wife, along with her boyfriend, may be planning “some creepy little scheme.” As Doc deduces, the crux of the matter is that the wife and her lover plan to “make off with hubby’s fortune, yeah, I think I heard of that happenin once or twice around L.A.” The only slightly complicating factor is that the conspirators believe they can count on Shasta to help set Mickey up, and she seems to want Doc to help her figure out whether they should have faith in that assumption or not. From this almost laughably straightforward setup, the plot begins to thicken rapidly until it reaches a sort of critical mass of confusion such as Raymond Chandler himself might have doffed his trilby to:
Assuming she even wanted out. Maybe she really wanted to remain in whatever it was, and Mickey stood in the way of that, or maybe Shasta was seeing Sloane’s boyfriend Riggs on the side, and maybe Sloane found out and was trying to get revenge by setting Shasta up for Mickey’s murder, or maybe Mickey was jealous of Riggs and tried to have him iced only the plan misfired and whoever had contracted to do the deed showed up and by accident killed Mickey, or maybe it was on purpose because the so-far-unknown hitperson really wanted to run off with Sloane….
“Good shit, ain’t it,” Fritz handing back a smouldering roach in a roach clip, all that was left of what they’d been smoking.
“Define ‘good,'” Doc muttered. “I am, like, overthinking myself into brainfreeze, here.”
Fritz chuckled at length. “Yeah, PIs should really stay away from drugs, all ’em alternate universes just make the job that much more complicated.”
The most tenacious of these encrustations of critical consensus are as follows:
- This book is not so much Pynchon Lite as Decaff Skinny Vanilla Latte Pynchon.
- It forms the third part of a “trilogy” of California novels, along with The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland.
- Pynchon has produced a sort of literary remix of the Coen Brothers’ riotously funny noir pastiche, The Big Lebowski.
- Readers given a blind test could mistake this for the latest Elmore Leonard novel.
- This could be the book that brings Pynchon to the attention of a wider audience, not least as a result of the fact that, it is rumoured, the Hollywood vultures are circling, eager to procure the movie rights and thus turn Pynchon into a box office sensation.
As with any such critical consensus, whether these hold water or not depends largely on the angle by which you hold them up to the light, and how hard you shake them. Taking the last one first, there’s little way of accurately gauging, at this stage, just how feverishly keen the movie execs are to get their hot sweaty hands on those juicy Pynchon option rights — and Pynchon’s publishers won’t be drawn on the matter. But whatever the truth of these rumours, and whatever the reliability of the relationship between a box office hit (or even a near miss) and a resurgence of interest in the adapted novel, there’s no doubt that Pynchon would be an apt, if challenging, source of material.
For Pynchon has always been a movie nut, a fact that has long been apparent to his readers. In particular, Gravity’s Rainbow fizzes with film references, from Laurel and Hardy to German Expressionism, King Kong to Rita Hayworth. Characters often “act” the part of movie stars, taking on their attitudes and modes of dress, affecting a Cary Grant accent, say, or donning a “flopping Sydney Greenstreet Panama hat.” This is all great fun, but Pynchon also uses these acts of emulation to explore and illuminate a number of his perennial themes, not least the impact of technology on our lives. The classic example, which also raises a number of issues regarding the fuzzy borders separating fantasy from reality, concerns the genesis of the “countdown” that precedes rocket launches, so familiar now from all those NASA broadcasts:
The countdown as we know it, 10-9-8-u.s.w., was invented by Fritz Lang in 1929 for the Ufa film Die Frau im Mond. He put it into the launch scene to heighten the suspense. “It is another of my damned ‘touches,'” Fritz Lang said.
Pynchon’s books are full of dualities, and he clearly feels deeply ambivalent about cinema. On the one hand, he’s a helpless film fan, relishing every chase sequence, revelling in slapstick, cherishing each nuance of character and dialogue. At the same time, he recognises the contradictions intrinsic to the medium itself. One of the most intriguing aspects brought to light by Pynchon’s use of cinematic referents is our tendency to mine cinema for signifiers that help us define how we relate to (and cope with) reality in the short term, but that have a long-term tendency to alienate us from that essential reality. The everyday act of joining a cinema audience can be seen as one of modernity’s most sharply conflicted experiences, presenting an ironic dichotomy between communality and isolation. We are, says Pynchon, “strangers at the films, condemned to separate rows, aisles, exits, homegoings.”
This is most compellingly illustrated in the final moments of Gravity’s Rainbow. As a V2 rocket hurtles toward the Orpheus Theatre on Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles (night manager: Richard M Zhlubb, an avatar for Richard Nixon), “falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely and forever without sound,” several dense clusters of theme and metaphor converge upon the theatre’s screen, the word “screen” itself taking on an unavoidable double meaning: a screen can simply mean that familiar expanse of white plastic, onto which diverting fantasies are projected; but a screen can also be something people use to conceal or protect things, or themselves. In the end, though, will the power of cinematic escapism be enough to shield the audience from the rocket, or will it burst through the screen, shattering any remaining illusions about strength in numbers or refuge in shared fictions?
There is a strong suggestion that we, the audience — “old fans who have always been at the movies (haven’t we?)” — have not been reading a book at all, but have instead been watching a film. Not content with this inversion of the reader’s already unstable perceptions, Pynchon then flips it back on itself by describing the screen as “a blank page spread before us,” bringing to mind the beginning of a book, thus fuelling decades of debate as to the relationship between this final rocket descent and the one with which the book began.
This, by the way, somewhat torpedoes the idea that Inherent Vice is part of a “California Trilogy,” since not only does Gravity’s Rainbow end in Los Angeles, but there have long been suspicions that the whole book (published in 1973) is in some oblique way really concerned with the early 1970s America in which it was written, as much as it is “about” World War II.
Pynchon’s next novel, Vineland,” followed a worryingly long hiatus. No doubt he was working on other books during this time (definitely Mason & Dixon, and most probably Against the Day), but his old fans had been growing increasingly anxious, starting to fidget in their seats. Published in 1990, and set mostly in 1980s California, Vineland starred a loveable cast of affable hippy throwbacks, struggling to come to terms with the fact that they seemed to have dozed off in the happy haze of the Summer of Love and awoken to find themselves stranded in the “pre-Fascist twilight” of the Reagan years. Pynchon continued to pepper the text with film references, adopting the habit of appending the year of release to the titles of films that actually exist — “Psycho (1960),” for instance — as if to explicitly differentiate these from those titles he had invented for our amusement, such as “Woody Allen in Young Kissinger.”
Pynchon also carried on exploring the tendency of film and, increasingly, television (always ominously capitalised in Vineland” as “the Tube”), to induce passivity in its audience. Significantly, when asked by the New York Times Book Review, in 1993, to contribute to a feature on the Seven Deadly Sins, Pynchon selected “Sloth,” about which he wrote (in part):
In this century we have come to think of Sloth as primarily political, a failure of public will allowing the introduction of evil policies and the rise of evil regimes, the worldwide fascist ascendancy of the 1920’s and 30’s being perhaps Sloth’s finest hour, though the Vietnam era and the Reagan-Bush years are not far behind. Fiction and nonfiction alike are full of characters who fail to do what they should because of the effort involved. How can we not recognize our world? Occasions for choosing good present themselves in public and private for us every day, and we pass them by.
Now of course, lavish coffee-table books document “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles,” interspersing photographs of historic L.A. (including the Bradbury Building’s lacework balconies) with samples of Chandler’s stylishly acerbic prose. Pynchon was also something of an outsider in California, where he lived for at least part of the time he spent writing Gravity’s Rainbow, around 1969 to 1970. Specifically, he is believed to have rented an apartment in L.A.’s Manhattan Beach, almost certainly the real-life basis for the fictional Gordita Beach, which featured in Vineland and provides the setting for much of “Inherent Vice.” Indeed, there are sufficient hints of the autobiographical here for us to think of this book as depicting “Thomas Pynchon’s Los Angeles.”
One of Pynchon’s great strengths as a writer lies in his uncanny ability to summon up remarkably effective evocations of time and place. In Inherent Vice, he makes repeated reference to the varying quality of that famous Californian coastal light, attenuated as it often is by weather and pollution:
Santa Anas had been blowing all the smog out of downtown L.A., funneling between the Hollywood and Puente Hills on westward through Gordita Beach and out to sea, and this had been going on for what seemed like weeks now. Offshore winds had been too strong to be doing the surf much good, but surfers found themselves getting up anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which seemed like a visible counterpart to the feeling in everybody’s skin of desert winds and heat and relentlessness, with the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing with microfine Mojave sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-warning skies.
An apocalyptic tone frequently attends these sudden bouts of inclement weather, often heralding strange goings-on. But the ominousness is always shot through with Pynchon’s uniquely pungent humour:
Back at the beach, the rain continued, and every day up in the hills, another fragment of real estate came sliding down. Insurance salesmen had Brylcreem running down into their collars, and stewardii found it impossible even with half-gallon cans of hairspray purchased in duty-free zones far away to maintain their hairdos in anything close to a stylish flip. The termitic houses of Gordita Beach had all turned to the consistency of wet sponge, emergency plumbers reached in to squeeze the beams and joists, thinking of their own winter homes in Palm Springs. People began to go crazy even while on the natch. Some enthusiast, claiming to be George Harrison of the Beatles, tried to hijack the Goodyear Blimp, moored at its winter quarters at the intersection of the Harbor and San Diego Freeways, and make it fly him to Aspen, Colorado, in the rain.
There are numerous colorful descriptions of perilous journeys around the convoluted Los Angeles freeway networks. Here Pynchon follows Doc Sportello as he drives from the relative sanctuary of the beach, down into the dreaded Santa Monica:
Suddenly he was on some strange planet where the wind can blow in two directions at once, bringing in fog from the ocean and sand from the desert at the same time, obliging the unwary driver to shift down the minute he entered this alien atmosphere, with daylight dimmed, visibility reduced to half a block, and all colors, including those of traffic signals, shifted radically elsewhere in the spectrum.
Doc went automotively groping in this weirdness east on Olympic, trying not to flinch at what came popping up out of the gloom in the way of city buses and pedestrians in altered states of consciousness. Faces came sharpening into an intensity usually seen only at area racetracks, their trailing edges prolonged, some of them, in quite drastic hues, and often taking some time to clear the frame of the windshield.
Sixties pop-cultural artifacts are sprinkled liberally throughout the text, promising rich pickings for any future social archaeologists. Cartoons, sitcoms, TV show title sequences, The Wizard of Oz, and a range of police procedurals are subjected to a serio-comic, marijuana-inflected analysis, one of many “high” points being a meditation on whether Donald Duck is being made to shave each morning. A pretty reasonable record collection could easily be assembled just by following all the musical cues. Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” provides the in-car entertainment for one of Doc’s many rides through the increasingly smoggy plot; another is soundtracked by The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” The Doors crop up a fair bit, along with Dick Dale, the Electric Prunes, the inevitable Beach Boys, and a clutch of lesser-known surf rock outfits, real and imagined. But what really stands out is the number of references to movies from Hollywood’s golden age, Pynchon maintaining Vineland’s tradition of appending the year of release, and using movie moments as cultural referents: “If he was expecting a romantic smoke sequence along the lines of Now, Voyager (1942), this was not to be.”
In some ways, Inherent Vice can be considered a sort of sequel to Vineland. The tone is similar, the political viewpoint identical, the wry humour intact. There are repeated references to COINTELPRO, the FBI’s notoriously shady counter-subversion program; the LAPD are portrayed in a manner that makes the OJ Simpson trial seem like a publicist’s dream; and the CIA are unlikely to include quotes from this book in their recruitment materials any time soon. Pynchon is still angry at the way the media, especially television, manipulates its audiences and operates as a front for authority, how “the tube is saturated with fuckin cop shows,” whose police-favouring worldview amounts to “pro-cop fuckin mind control.” But even Doc’s nemesis, chocolate-coated banana-munching, hippy-hating Detective Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen — “named for his entry method of choice” — never really seems intent on escalating his mistreatment of Sportello beyond casual harassment and elaborately worded insults.
Despite the prevalence of old movies in the text, when people speculate on how a movie based on Inherent Vice might turn out, it’s clear that a lot of them have something like “The Big Lebowski in mind, and that film has been cited as a possible influence on Pynchon. The ghost of Marlowe (and therefore Bogart) hangs over “The Big Lebowski, which didn’t so much update the noir genre as drug it up, slap it around, and dump it on its ass in the street. Both Pynchon’s book and the Coen brothers” film have been labelled “stoner noir,” and there are some notable similarities between the two. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello would surely recognise a kindred spirit in Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, who is taunted by his namesake, the titular “Big” Lebowski, regarding the rightward drift of the political zeitgeist between the 1960s and the 1980s: “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences: the bums lost!”
It’s a line that could, at a push, serve as a summary of the central theme of Vineland, which looked back at the sixties from the perspective of the Eighties, a decade that might best be thought of as “the anti-sixties,” with a mixture of nostalgia and anger, wondering what went wrong. We can easily imagine Pynchon thoroughly enjoying “The Big Lebowski, but suggestions that the film may have influenced Inherent Vice should be approached with caution: if anything, it may well be that Pynchon’s much earlier novel influenced the Coen Brothers.
There are a number of crucial differences between Lebowski and Sportello. The latter, for starters, has some sort of moral compass. He may be holding it the wrong way up due to the discombobulating effects of his heroic weed intake, but it’s there. And he is (or at least makes occasional stabs at being) a bona fide detective, albeit one whose agency is named “Location, Surveillance, Detection,” or “L.S.D.” for short, and whose company logo is:
a rendering of a giant bloodshot eyeball in the psychedelic favorites green and magenta, the detailing of whose literally thousands of frenzied capillaries had been subcontracted out to a commune of speed freaks who had long since migrated up to Sonoma. Potential clients had been known to spend hours gazing at the ocular mazework, often forgetting what they’d come here for.
In Vineland, Pynchon’s characters absent-mindedly scratched at old political scars, trying to remember how they got them. In Inherent Vice, set at the beginning of the seventies, the wounds are still fresh. Sportello and his friends find themselves surveying the wreckage of an era that is still in the process of disintegrating. There is less explicit anger, however, the dominant feeling being one of bemusement, harking back ruefully to those brief years when it had really seemed as though the Doors” prophecy — “they got the guns but we got the numbers, gonna win, yeah, we’re takin over” — might actually come true, wondering whether that had always been an illusion:
Was it possible, that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?
Unsurprisingly, there are repeated references to Charles Manson, how he transformed the mainstream public’s attitude to the counterculture from amused condescension to abject horror:
Well, what I’ve been noticing since Charlie Manson got popped is a lot less eye contact from the straight world. You folks all used to be like a crowd at the zoo — “Oh, look, the male one is carrying the baby and the female one is paying for the groceries,” sorta thing, but now it’s like, “Pretend they’re not even there, ’cause maybe they’ll mass murder our ass.”
This feeds into a rumination over the sad fact that, whatever their differences, the wider public have a lot more in common with marginalised characters such as Doc and his “long-haired hippy freak” brethren than they might think, not least that they are all being fed a line by the press:
People in this town saw only what they’d all agreed to see, they believed what was in the tube or in the morning papers half of them read while they were driving to work on the freeway, and it was all their dream about being wised up, about the truth setting them free.
Here and there, surf and waves are employed metaphorically, the elegiac tone recalling Hunter S. Thompson’s famous lament, from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas:
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Of course, there’s always a dark side. Along with standard-issue niggles such as paranoia, freak-outs, and existential angst, Sportello also battles a sense of ineffable sadness. He still carries a torch for Shasta and, Gatsby-like, yearns for the green and magenta light on the dock of an older, gentler, more unruly and fun-conducive era. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a big influence on Pynchon’s early career, and The Great Gatsby is simultaneously a song of mourning for a vanished time, plus a kind of hopeless quest for the elusive grail known as the American Dream. Hunter S. Thompson, who basically spent his entire life chasing that dream, often cited Gatsby as his favourite book. Another infamous drug fiend, William S. Burroughs, once wrote that, if considering making a film of The Great Gatsby, it would be an interesting exercise to decide “how one would make it, how it could be made, and if it could be made. And I think the answer is probably not,” because, “you take the prose away and what is left. Wooden dialogue, creepy action and as for the reconstruction of the 20s you can do that better with a selection of old stock footage.”
Anyone considering an adaptation of any previous Pynchon book would have to grapple with very similar problems: it would be extremely difficult to jettison enough material to make a script filmable, without losing so much that it negates the whole process. Gravity’s Rainbow, for instance, is surely the most unfilmable of novels. Inherent Vice is different. There are some great descriptive passages — which could easily be handled with a voiceover — but most of all there is a preponderance of wonderfully sharp, witty dialogue. It’s this quality that has triggered the Elmore Leonard comparisons, but this is really just lazy critical shorthand for saying that the book is heavy with snappy, street-wise dialogue. In fact, comparisons with Leonard are misleading: nobody, not even Pynchon, has ever written dialogue of quite this sort before. Displaying a masterful grasp of vernacular nuance, that dialogue is — like the lithe, elegant prose in which it is embedded — rendered with astonishing verve.
Here’s Doc, discussing with an ex-con named Tariq Khalil, how Tariq had met an old friend of Doc’s, Sledge Poteet, in prison:
“They were teachin us both how to cook. Sledge still has about maybe a year more in there.”
“I remember him when he couldn’t boil water.”
“Should see him now, he can boil tap water, Arrowhead Springs water, club soda, Perrier, you name it. He the Boilerman.”
Much later, they meet up again, Tariq pondering whether he should tell Doc whatever it is Doc thinks Tariq may know about the case:
“But — ” Doc went to supervise the coffeemaker, “Wait a minute man, didn’t you say you had to take some oath of silence about that?”
“That don’t count,” Tariq said. “I thought it did once, but Puck and those other Nazis took a oath too, to watch each other’s backs no matter what, and look how much good it did Glen. Am I uh spoze to respect that shit? I’m off the hook now. They don’t like it, they can see how far they get with it.”
“Okay. So what was it Glen owed you, exactly?”
“First you got to take a oath.”
“What? You just said that was bullshit.”
“Yeah, but you a honky. You got to sign off in blood, Blood, that you won’t ever tell nobody.”
In “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing,” Leonard finishes off with what he says is the most important rule, one that sums up all the others: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” He quotes Joseph Conrad as saying “something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.” Which is all well and good. But a lot of the time, for Pynchon, the words actually are what he wants to say; the dialogue here is somehow both naturalistic and writerly — there is too much obvious enjoyment being taken in its creation for the craft not to show, but this doesn’t detract in the least from the illusion that this is a transcript of two characters conversing. It’s a kind of magic.
For readers familiar with Pynchon’s work, comparisons to Leonard, or Lebowski, will always fall way short of the mark. Pynchon is doing something new here, but it’s unmistakably Pynchon who’s doing it. If this book’s dialogue can usefully be compared to any other genre writer’s, then it has to be Raymond Chandler, whose heavily stylised, wisecracking verbal fireworks exhibit a similar mix of authenticity and art.
And if a neo-noir movie is required as a reference point, it would have to be Robert Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye, released in 1973. Altman conceived of his version as being a kind of “Rip Van Marlowe,” an old-school shamus who’d gone to sleep in the 1940s and woken up in the 1970s. Elliott Gould plays a bumbling, existentially somnambulant Marlowe, one who seems simultaneously out-of-step with, yet ultimately on the side of, the beautiful people, his approach to both life and the case(s) he works on summed up by his laissez-faire mantra, “It’s ok with me.”
Altman played down some of the more sombre aspects of Chandler’s book (which the never very sunny-dispositioned author had written when both his wife, and whatever affection he had ever had for L.A., were dying), while cranking up the playfulness of the sardonic humour. There are sufficient tonal similarities between Gould’s Marlowe and Pynchon’s Sportello that you could almost swap scenes from Inherent Vice to “The Long Goodbye,” and vice versa. Here, for example, is the dialogue exchanged between two LAPD officers, who’ve just pulled Sportello (or is it Marlowe?) in for questioning:
“He’s a real cutie pie, Lieutenant.”
“He’s a smart ass, that’s what he is . . .”
“That’s what I meant, Sir.”
“Well why don’t you learn to say what you mean!”
“He’s a real smart ass, Lieutenant.”
Pynchon, as the author of such deeply self-referential fictions, would surely appreciate the sheer knowingness of Altman’s film, which is steeped in movie mythology and wears its self-awareness on its sleeve. The film opens (and closes) with Johnny Mercer’s “Hooray for Hollywood”; the guard at the barrier of the exclusive Malibu Colony is apt to greet guests with impersonations of Jimmy Stewart or Walter Brennan; when the police refuse Gould’s Marlowe the opportunity to wash his hands after fingerprinting, he rubs the ink all over his face and launches into an Al Jolson impression. And Pynchon would doubtless appreciate Altman’s patented technique of having the camera pan one way while the action goes in the opposite direction.
Detectives are traditionally tasked with following trails, deciphering codes, discerning patterns, and solving puzzles. Noir plots routinely feature complicated entanglements, coincidences, and interconnections. All of which are also standard features of Pynchon novels, meaning that not only does this make the genre a fitting one for Pynchon to try his hand at (as we have already noted), but it also makes it hard to say when he is just playing along (and around) with the traditions of the form, and when he is being typically Pynchonesque. In his first California-set novel, The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon’s housewife heroine Oedipa Maas finds herself being sucked into a conspiracy that is not only hugely complex, but that may or may not actually exist. That book contains some of Pynchon’s neatest and most resounding metaphors for interconnectedness, hidden meanings, and the recurrence of patterns at every level:
She drove into San Narciso on a Sunday, in a rented Impala. Nothing was happening. She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.
Doc Sportello may be much more interested in surf boards than circuit cards, more concerned with motives than motifs; but questions of meaning and metaphysics do crop up — they’re just filtered through a cannabinoid haze. Sportello is told by Kamukea, a “spirit guide,” that he should not worry about Shasta:
“You don’t have to worry. That is another thing you must learn, for what you must learn is what I am showing you.
“I’m not sure what that means, man.”
The technological aspect resurfaces in the form of the ARPAnet, the precursor to the modern Internet, which is itself of course a perfect metaphor for Pynchon’s plots (noir or otherwise), being basically an ever-increasing cluster of interconnections. This new informational technology should be a great time-saver, but it eventually proves to be more of a time-devourer; it appears at first to offer invaluable assistance to Sportello, but soon comes to seem more trouble than it’s worth; and it even has some decidedly sinister aspects, promising a future where “everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape.”
As film historian Elizabeth Ward has pointed out, rather than the classic noir setup, where the detective cracks the case despite the meddling incompetence of the police, in The Long Goodbye Marlowe doesn’t find out very much at all, and “even the police know more than he does.” Like Gould’s Marlowe, Sportello doesn’t do a terrible lot of “detecting:” he stumbles around, stuff happens, situations don’t so much get resolved as gradually dissolve into fogginess.
There are trails to follow, though. Character names and movie titles lead in one direction to Californian folklore, in another to the Hollywood blacklists, and the hidden politics of movie making. As for the book’s title, its literal meaning comes into play in a legal context, an Inherent Vice referring to an intrinsic weakness that leads to an exception in an insurance policy: no claim can be made for a loss that resulted from some flaw in the insured item itself, rather than being caused by external factors. This being a Pynchon novel, however, the phrase is open to a number of interpretations, not least the idea that the author intends it to refer to whatever flaws or weaknesses within the revolutionary “movements” of the sixties led to the decline and fall of an epoch Pynchon probably would rather had carried on indefinitely. When the book’s epigraph — the classic situationist slogan, “Under the paving-stones, the beach!,” here both figuratively and literally appropriate — is considered in this context, one possible interpretation is that the beach (being a Pynchonian metaphor for everything positive and natural) may have been paved over by repressive political forces, but that it is nevertheless still there and, like Pynchon’s beloved rock ‘n’ roll, its spirit will never truly die.
It’s been pointed out that Vineland is structured a lot like a film, its nested narratives and complex flashbacks ideally suited to adaptation for the big screen, and that book does almost read as if Pynchon consciously had a possible movie in mind as he wrote it. Such an assumption would chime with rumours that Pynchon cited, as one reason for breaking off with his long-time literary agent, Candida Donadio, the fact that she had not done enough to generate interest in selling the movie rights to his books. It has to be said, though, that Donadio was reportedly flummoxed by this, claiming Pynchon had never asked her to pursue such sales. A number of other items of industry scuttlebutt hover around the Pynchon name: did he do some sort of work for MGM? Has he been involved in unaccredited contributions to a number of screenplays? Did he once put himself forward for a film reviewing column at Esquire magazine? These are tantalising questions, and we may well never know the answers; but the fact that this kind of buzz continues to circulate, points up the fact that Pynchon does have an enduring, if ambivalent, interest in film.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle, Jean-Paul Belmondo gazes wistfully at a movie theatre display case full of movie star portraits and utters the immortal word “Bogie.” Immediately and irrevocably, the audience is split into two distinct groups: the wise guys (and gals) for whom the totemic image of Bogart represents an immutably powerful mystique, and those poor saps who just don’t get it. While there are no Bogarts any more, and film as a popular art form capable of generating that sort of iconography is long dead, there are still one or two cultural figures whose one-word names can conjure up a sort of magic. In literary fiction, that name is “Pynchon.”
This book is a beautifully written, hilariously inventive page-turner, a shaggy (and Scooby) dog story that deserves a wider audience, whether it is eventually turned into a film or not. Yes, it’s light. No, it’s not up there among Pynchon’s greatest books. But it’s probably his funniest book, and exhibits more fully than ever before, his late-period largeness of heart. This book has good vibes.
Think of it this way: if Gravity’s Rainbow resembles a week-long acid binge, Inherent Vice is more like a single, perfectly rolled joint. On almost every page, there is something truly remarkable; again and again, Pynchon throws out an unexpected turn of phrase, a perfectly pitched joke, or a dazzlingly beautiful image. Each one of these takes root in your mind, where they ripen and bloom like kernels of psychedelic popcorn. You finish Inherent Vice and your first instinct is to flip back to the start and enjoy it all over again. It brings to mind what Oscar Wilde said in praise of one of his favourite vices, the cigarette: “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?”