Friday, October 23, 2009

Inherent Virtue

I practically squealed out loud when Inherent Vice first popped up on my Amazon page. I don't remember exactly when this was - early this year sometime - and I was shocked that the book was this close to publication and I hadn't heard about it yet. I deliberately avoided reading anything about the plot, but did take a quick peek at the page count. It was fairly short - glee! It was far too early to draw conclusions, but I harbored a hope that the book might offer a sublime readable-yet-deep experience like that of The Crying of Lot 49, rather than the more lengthy and obtuse books (Mason & Dixon, Vineland) that he has written in recent years.

I finally had the chance to pick up the book and read it. I fully enjoyed it, but Crying this ain't. That said, most of the reviews I've read since finishing the book over-emphasize how different this book is from Pynchon's other stories. The genre is totally different, but the more I think about it, the more I believe that this is of a piece with other Pynchon I've read.

First and most obviously, IV IS genre fiction. You can't really slap a label on, say, Gravity's Rainbow, at least not one that makes any sense - psychedelic historic rocket war science philosophical adventure, perhaps? IV is a noir crime novel, with the twist that its protagonist is a hippy in 1970's Los Angeles. It observes many of the conventions of the form: the experienced PI who bumps heads with the police, the attractive stranger who walks into the office, the menacing messages left by crooks, etc. Someone who's looking to read a mystery novel will feel at home and, hopefully, happy.

You can tell all along, though, that this is a Pynchon novel. First, the characters are brilliantly named, each and every one. More importantly, the cast list is sprawling. I don't think I've read another book this short with so many significant characters. He somehow manages to name them, give them motivations and actions, and still squeeze... I dunno, it feels like nearly a hundred people in here. I'm very tempted to create a diagram that would outline everyone's relationship to everyone else: who loves whom, who knows who, who assaults or kills who (fewer than you would think!), when various people arrive or leave.

This sort of complexity is the hallmark of Pynchon's work. I've read Crying almost half a dozen times, and still find new stuff each time. I've only read GR once, and can't claim to have understood even a quarter of what happens. That said, IV feels... easier, breezier. Well, let me be more specific. If I did draw out that diagram, it would take me, say, about a month to puzzle everything out of the text, put it into a coherent order, and draw it out. Once it was done, I would have solved a cool, puzzle, but that's it... I don't feel like there's any deeper prize than figuring out what happened. With Crying, I could create a similar diagram. It would have fewer nodes on it, but when I finished that diagram, I wouldn't have the answer: I would have a tool, something that I could then apply to the text in order to try and glean deeper meaning from it. The puzzles in Pynchon's other books are facades, fun gizmos that grab our attention and lead us into interesting territory that a book can't otherwise reach. IV is all facade. That sounds more critical than I mean it to - it's a gorgeous facade, the work of a master craftsman, but there's nothing underlying it.

Besides the complexity, I also get a kick out of the mystery aspect of the book. This is another area where I think that IV has more in common with Pynchon's other works than most people believe. Not all of them, but both V and Crying are about the protagonist's search for a mysterious quarry. The nature of that mystery is different: in V, the reader is presented with a plethora of V's throughout the book. It seems like any one of them might be a plausible candidate for the "real" V, but by the end of the book you (or at least I) can't say for certain who it is. There's no such multiplicity in Crying: the source of the mystery is one specific organization called Tristero. The mystery here isn't Tristero's identity, but rather its nature. Does it exist? Is it a hoax? Is it a hallucination? Crying succeeds by balancing on the edge of this dilemma. Throughout the book you constantly have at least two fully plausible and non-reconcilable theories, and those theories remain potential at the very end.


The mystery in IV is... well, it's a little hard to say. Nominally it's about what happened to a real-estate developer, but I preferred to view the central mystery as the Golden Fang. Golden Fang is a mystery more in the V sense than in the Crying sense: the name belongs to a mysterious ship, and a dental cooperative, and an Asian crime syndicate, and probably some other sources that I'm forgetting. It's impossible to dismiss all these shared names as coincidence, but at the same time, there isn't much overt information tying these things together. Doc Sportello, the protagonist PI, stumbles across one lead after another, gradually widening the perceived scope of Golden Fang, rather than narrowing in on its purpose.


Anyways, I think that element of mystery helps explain how this book does kind of fit in with Pynchon's earlier works. V and Crying can be read as extremely literary mystery stories. (That's not all they are, of course, but it's a perfectly valid way to read them.) VI is a mystery story, with maybe a tad less going on literature-wise, but with the same level of craftsmanship, play, and intricacy on display.

So, uh, that's that. Don't read this expecting the next Crying or you'll be disappointed. If you're looking for the best ever noir crime novel that features copious marijuana consumption, surf talk, and an incredibly groovy PI, you'll find it here.

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