Pynchonesque Potboiler

sleuthing the cig-sties.

What we lost when we lost the addled Sixties, this novel is saying to us, is the illumination that may strike the truly confused….

-Michael Wood, “What Happened at Gordita Beach?,” New York Review of Books, 24 September 2009

Inherent Vice might be thought of as Thomas Pynchon’s sequel to The Crying of Lot 49 and (especially) Vineland, two of his shorter, more disciplined novels. In fact, references to characters and details from both turn up—clue-like—in Inherent Vice. Much as the book is, on the surface, a spoof of the lowbrow (but often in fact high art) detective story, Michael Wood makes the intriguing argument that Inherent Vice might be better understood as a historical novel. For Wood, the book is really more about the Sixties than it is about Pynchon’s literary appropriation of noir.

The more focused form does not mean that the book is not wonderfully sprawling and epic as we follow in the gumshoes (or as one character jokes, the “gum-sandals”) of a hippie private investigator named Doc Sportello and embark on a noirish detective caper. We find ourselves in a remake of The Maltese Falcon, but this time the bird is on acid, and the tale is set in a cloud of reefer smog hanging over the beach communities of the Los Angeles metropole, circa 1970. But they why does Pynchon use the noir form to explore the burnt-out scene of late-sixties L.A.? We might say that Pynchon’s novel uses the psychological intensity and paranoid lostness of noir (as well as its oddly self-aware, low-budget, and formulaic mannerisms) to uncover new meanings (and profoundly Flitcraftian meaninglessnesses) in the Sixties counterculture.

If Wood’s interpretation is correct, then the countercultural Sixties can better be grasped not as a superficial program or a coherent ideology, but instead as a kind of faux-detective story in which the most profound illuminations emerged for those who were most bewildered by the bewildering world of a bewildering decade. Sam Spade, it turns out, wasn’t the forerunner of Dirty Harry, but of dirty hippies.

In the Sixties of Inherent Vice, there was much more glaring, stark black-and-white within the psychedelic light show than we now think. Many more shadows lurked in the tie-dye swirls of the past than popular memory permits.

1 thought on “Pynchonesque Potboiler

  1. This novel is the one I’ve missed from Pynchon. I enjoyed and adored V and Vineland, as weel as the Crying Lot, so I’ll go into Inherent Vice one of these days. A very good video included in your post.
    best wishes

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