Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pynchon's Sentimental Journey

First of all: Thomas Pynchon speaks!

Yeah, that's his real voice, and it conveniently sounds like how you'd imagine the protagonist he's speaking for: hippie private investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello. Among Pynchon's fictional heroes, he's not in the league of Tyrone Slothrop or Oedipa Mass, but he'll do--and admittedly, it's kind of nice to have one character to follow after the cast-of-thousands impenetrability of "Against the Day." 

So I finished Inherent Vice this morning. Given its brevity--369 pages, a modest novella by Pynchon standards--I can't take too much pride in this being the first Pynchon novel I've finished since Vineland, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little satisfying. (It wasn't like I gave up on either of the last two, Mason & Dixon or Against the Day, quickly or easily: I got within 100 pages of finishing M&D, and maybe 200 of AtD. On the second book, I'd read that, like Gravity's Rainbow before it, there really was "no ending," and after 800-plus pages I felt like I'd gotten what I would get from it.)

That said, I'm not entirely sure what to make of this new one. On the one hand, the classic Pynchonian theme--large impersonal and conspiratorial forces twisting reality and bending nominal authority to their unaccountable wills, and small communities trying to come together in independent resistance to those forces--is there, but at a much more modest scale than in Gravity's Rainbow or Against the Day. Likewise the atmosphere of paranoia and dread that runs through all Pynchon's work: Doc is paranoid, for sure, but he attributes most of it to being high even when the facts suggest that anyone "on the natch" should be freaking out as well. Similarly, the master's stylistic tics--an endless parade characters all with goofy names, some of whom break into song at odd times--are present, but more subdued than usual. As if to make up for that (but also in keeping with the end-of-the-'60s milieu) there's more sex, and a lot more drugs, than usual. 

One review I read suggested that a few years back, Pynchon must have watched "The Big Lebowski," and thought "hey, I could do that." Maybe. But I think it's more likely that he decided to revisit in fiction a world he evidently knew and for which he has uncomplicated affection: I'm pretty sure he was in the LA area as the '60s turned into the '70s, writing Gravity's Rainbow and probably hanging out with the real-world analogues of Doc Sportello and Sauncho Smilax and Shasta Fay Hepworth. 

I'm a little surprised that I haven't yet read somebody try to present Inherent Vice as the capper of Pynchon's "California trilogy," starting with The Crying of Lot 49 and continuing through Vineland. (Actually, I now notice that Amazon refers to a "California cycle," which I guess sort of counts.) But it doesn't really work: Lot 49, like Pynchon's debut novel V., was an ambiguous shaggy-dog story that focused on the large, dark forces which Inherent Vice mostly keeps in the background, with many (and brilliant) digressions into things as varied as 17th century theater and the business of radio. Maybe more to the point, beneath the madcap comedic elements, there was something genuinely terrifying in Lot 49; for all the occasional references to subterranean gangs, mental institutions into which individuals are forcibly committed, white supremacist prison gangs and shadowy supporters of Nixon and Reagan, IV doesn't generate the same unease. To lift that off Pynchon's shoulders, the difference could be the difference between Lot 49's ostensibly sunny mid-'60s vibe, in which the darkness loomed, and IV's setting in 1970, by which time the darkness had started to take hold.

This book is even less like Vineland, which largely concerned itself with the defeated aftermath of The Sixties (and was set in northern California to boot). There's a warmth to Inherent Vice absent from Vineland, an affection Pynchon has for these characters that I think he mostly lacked for a group who, after all, had spent 15 years disappointing and betraying each other in a wide variety of ways. It's as if that book was, among many other things, his way of working out the disappointments of his salad days, where this one is a relatively unambiguous celebration that also gave him a chance to kick back after previously working in much heavier topical terrain.

No comments: