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Accessibility’s Rainbow

By Josh Potter

Inherent Vice

By Thomas Pynchon

Penguin, 369 pages, $27.95

By the time an author has produced a body of work singular enough in style to garner the “-esque” suffix with which other writers’ work can be qualified, the average reader has learned to either avoid all such work or ravenously ingest everything that bears its mark. Even more so when the name “Pynchon” precedes the “esque.” Having spent more than four decades crafting the most complex, fractal, and downright impenetrable postmodern fiction ever written, Pynchon makes the idea of a book review pale in comparison to the exhaustively annotated Wiki pages that serve as operating instructions for his monstrous tomes. Rightly so, as the act of reading Pynchon is akin to desperately tugging on loose textual fibers in hopes that you’ll finally find the one that holds the whole unwieldy charade together, and any writing about Pynchon will invariably leave something glaringly unsaid.

A mere three years after the infamously reclusive author released Against the Day, a 1,000-plus-page world’s fair of themes, characters and pastiched genres, Pynchon may have thrown us his strangest curveball yet by delivering a novel that is accessible, readable, and relatively short: that is, rather un- Pynchonesque.

Billed as “stoner noir,” Inherent Vice follows laidback, ganja-puffing private investigator Doc Sportello—“gumsandle” for Location, Surveillance, Detection (LSD) Investigations—through L.A. in the spring of 1970, just when the carefree “psychedelic sixties” are beginning to curdle under paranoia in the wake of the Manson Family murders, and crumble at the hands of cynical corporate developers. In an act of uncommon restraint, Pynchon maintains the detective novel framing throughout the story, and playfully injects all the savantish pop-cultural minutiae, for which he’s known, into the kind of plot Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett would recognize.

Sportello is a remarkably likeable protagonist, who functions as a deft embodiment of this confused moment in time. His hairstyle, wardrobe and marijuana habit make him a product of the fading counterculture, but he lacks much of that generation’s naïveté (Pynchon uses plenty of accessory characters to illustrate that). Some critics have drawn comparisons to the Cohen brothers’ “Dude” from The Big Lebowski, but Sportello is far from the hapless bum, who, by sheer luck, cracks a ludicrous case of “in and outs” by parroting other character’s theories. Although paisley, Doc is cut from a cloth closer to the likes of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade (or John Garfield, whom Sportello himself references as a role model), in that he’s conscious of the world changing around him, wary of any official story, competent and collected in the company of dopers, thugs, cops, rock musicians and dentists. Throughout, Sportello’s just trying to do his job and live something he’d come to think of as the good life, but he finds himself “caught in a low-level bummer . . . about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into the darkness.”

It all gets started when Sportello’s ex-old lady Shasta drops by with a personal request. She’s been sleeping with real-estate mogul Mickey Wolffman and fears that Wolffman’s wife is attempting a scam to have him committed to an institution. Sportello has only just begun to check in on the case when the widow of a heroin-addicted surf-rock sax player asks Doc to follow rumors that her husband may still be alive and working as an undercover government provocateur. That’s when things start to get convoluted. Through the haze of smoldering joints (which at first seems gratuitous, but later proves a necessary scene device), an investigative acid trip (that Doc admits might have put a few extra kinks in the case), a nightmarish puff of PCP (the kind of “mickey” a hippie villain would naturally slip), and a carnival of characters named wonderfully Pynchonesque things like Japonica Fenway, Jason Velveeta, Puck Beaverton, and Trillium Fortnight, Sportello finds himself inching closer and closer, from one unlikely synchronicity to the next, to the nefarious root of it all: a boat, a rehab center, a tax dodge for dentists, or Chinese heroin cartel called the “Golden Fang.”

The premise lends itself wonderfully to Pynchon’s digressive style, whereby a scene that begins in classic P.I. fashion can spiral through long-winded reminiscences brought on by the photo on a postcard, imagined song lyrics by the world’s only black surf-rock band, or lengthy meditations on unmade B-movies (Godzilligan’s Island), without losing the plot’s momentum. It comes, at this point, as a massive understatement, but Pynchon is above all a master stylist. His set pieces are at once tight and rollicking, as in a scene where Sportello arrives incognito and Fletch-like to infiltrate what he believes to be the Golden Fang’s headquarters, is offered coke by a womanizing dentist, loses his car to an incompetent acquaintance, encounters a buxom former client, and ends up in a car with the lot only to be pulled over by the Cultwatch department of the LAPD.

On account of Pynchon’s personal secrecy, and because his novels demand surgically close reading, it’s tempting to read his novels for clues about the man. Paradoxically, in its accessibility, Inherent Vice may stand as the closest thing to nonfiction that the author has attempted. Gordita Beach, the novel’s oceanfront surf haven, is a clear stand-in for Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived in the late ’60s while working on Gravity’s Rainbow. The era and setting, therefore, were clearly formative for the author, but moreover, Sportello comes off as a sort of comic self-portrait of the cool operator who can ride that monstrous, multidimensional wave of history, media, and quantum possibility and still come out of the water with something approximating a narrative. Whether there’s moral resolution somewhere in there is kinda beside the point. If Sportello’s investigative process in any way mirrors Pynchon’s approach to writing, it’s probably not coincidental. Then again, with Pynchon (and his novels), the surest thing might be the biggest ruse.

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