A weblog dedicated to noir fiction and film, music, poetry and politics.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Notes on Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
-Though Pynchon's latest novel is about the past, it is not one of Pynchon's book that tells us much about the future. Nor should it be viewed as such. Rather, IV is one of Pynchon's entertainments, like Vineland or Crying of Lot 49 (though more lightweight than the latter) that the author has been known to favor and produce from time to time.
-I had my doubts about it working, but it does. After all, the era of the noir parody seems to have long passed. Likewise, crime/noir novels set in, and about, the 1960s. But Pynchon, through language, observation, humor, wit and political insight, characature and critique, carries it off.
-Granted, it might not be everyone's thing, particularly if you're expecting something along the lines of Gravity's Rainbox or Mason Dixon. And you're certainly not going to like it all that much if you're into straight-ahead narratives, minimalism and verisimilitude. But I wonder whether crime readers who've criticised IV for its use of the genre's various tropes actually believe fiction writing is, or should be, a replication of reality, if that were even possible. If so, they are either suffering from bad faith or are selling fiction writing short.
-In terms of language and narrative convolution, Pynchon could, by a quite stretch of the imagination, be compared with Chandler. After all, Chandler, though a total original, was writing a parody of the Hammett/Black Mask school. One would have to put oneself back in the late 1940s or 1950s to experience the impact Chandler's language must have had at the time of publication. So in that sense, IV might even be more faithful to Chandler than some of the more obvious parodies of the latter.
-What keeps IV interesting is it's historical context, set in the past with an eye on the present, even if it studiously avoids telling us anything about the future. But the sixties were, as Tom Hayden has maintained in a recent book, a decade that has so far refused to die. Likewise, IV, appearing some forty years after the era in which it is set, speaks of estate and credit scams,and the beginning of the computer culture. Had the novel been published in the 1970s it would necessitate a radically different reading. Yet by trying to be be part of the historical moment, its disillusionment and displacement shows, portrayed, as it is, through wilted rose-colored humor, incongruity and a studied stupidity.
-IV is better and more picaresque than Vineland but comes out of the same mould. Though Vineland was for me a disappointment, because it was Pynchon's first novel to make me aware that the author had multiple guises- there was the Pynchon who immersed himself in popular culture, as well as a Pynchon who was obsessed by the contours of history- and that not every book was going to be like V or Gravity's Rainbow.
-IV might not be up there with Crying of Lot 49, but it's not far off. However, Lot 49 was about the present, whose resonances lasted for at least a decade. Here the theme isn't Waste or Paranoia, but drugs consumed during a particular time and place, and the signifier is a boat adrift at sea that turns out to be a tax dodge set up by a group of dentists. While the protagonist's dope smoking might occasionally give him an edge, mostly it warps his sensibility and contributes to an endearing fin de epoch stupidity, which, at the same time, allows for some off-the-wall observations- he thinks Sherlock Holmes is a real person, after all, he's got a real address, though he's probably not still living. If nothing else, having a moron as a p.i. makes a pleasant change.
-So IV is confirmation that there are two Pynchons- one who writes Vineland, Crying and IV and another who writes more substantial work like V, Gravity's Rainbow, Mason and Dixon and Against the Day. But that's no longer much of a surprise. After all, we know there's the Pynchon of the Simpsons, the Pynchon who loves garage and surf bands, the Pynchon who appreciates Warlock- the novel and the film- and thinks Jim Dodge's Stone Junction a great novel. And I have always sort of gone along, and mostly agreed with him on all that. But even his entertainments, like moments in IV when you wonder where this is going and where and when it will end, can wear thin. Yet you can be sure there's always something going on here, though it's often the way it's said more than what is said. But that's a vice that is definitely inherent.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.