Inherent Vice

If Thomas Pynchon were a stand-up comedian, and Inherent Vice his newest routine, the heckling would start around page 10. “So Doc,” relates a character called Denis (whose name, we are informed, is commonly pronounced to rhyme with — heh, heh — “penis”), “I’m up on Dunecrest, you know the drugstore there, and like I noticed their sign, ‘Drug’? ‘Store’? Okay? Walked past it a thousand times, never really saw it — Drug, Store! man, far out, so I went in and Smilin Steve was at the counter and I said, like, ‘Yes, hi, I’d like some drugs, please…’ ”

Boo! Get off! I mean, obviously — by way of mitigation — the character in question is a typically Pynchon-esque hippie burnout, and obviously some brand of haute-Pynchonoid satire is being enacted here upon the concept of, you know, “signs.” But the fact remains: the drugstore/drugstore joke, qua joke, is an exhibition of stoner wit so feeble it would have been sent back by the writers of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and accepted only with some demurral by Cheech and Chong.

The ’60s, of course, were a historic low point for humor. I mean humor of the sort enjoyed by people who aren’t a) tenured or b) high, the sort defined by William James as “common sense, dancing.” Categories, hierarchies, proprieties, the basic intuitions of mankind as to its own status and destiny — those things on which humor has traditionally depended were suddenly up in the air, and while there was plenty of inane and liberated laughter to be heard, the sound of the authentic assenting chuckle, of the joke being solidly got, almost died away. Was everything meaningful, or nothing at all? Ah, that was the gag, the cosmic put-on, expressible only via cracked puns and the smirk of satori. Pynchon danced upon this pinhead with an insistent nimbleness: whose fictional world signified more compulsively and indiscriminately than his, the significance itself being quite beside the point? The quasi-allegorical names (Floyd Haruspex, Dichotomy Jones, Dr Whitewhale — to make up a few in the Pynchonian vein), the veiled acronymic entities (WASTE, IGLOO) that might be gangs or priesthoods or think-tanks, the omnivore’s digressions into science and pop culture, the fluorescent landscape, the sense of bottomless and undiscoverable conspiracy — for a setup this elaborate, no earthly, or indeed celestial, punch line was possible.

With Inherent Vice Pynchon has returned to the territory of The Crying of Lot 49 — which is to say, California in the late ’60s. The Manson Family has just done their “thing,” throwing a new shade of jitteriness (or “post-Mansonical nerves”) into straight/hippie relations. Acid-gobbling Gordita Beach private dick Doc Sportello is trying to extricate his ex, the beautiful Shasta Fay, from a sketchy romantic embroilment with local real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, who has just disappeared, or been disappeared. The Aryan Brotherhood, on motorcyles, are making their presence felt, as is an ineffable organization called the Golden Fang. And the Feds, of course — Special Agents Flatweed and Borderline — are in attendance. Radio waves hum. Rudimentary computers are being used to collate data, combining with pandemic psychedelic telepathy to offer premonitory hints of a realm that may or may not, eventually, turn out to be cyberspatial: “I’m surfin’ the wave of the future here,” Doc’s tech-geek pal tells him, “…I swear it’s like acid, a whole ‘nother strange world — time, space, all that shit.”

One way to enjoy Inherent Vice might be to imagine it as the work, not of Thomas Pynchon, but of a tenacious coven of Pynchon devotees — pranksterish post-Aquarian zanies who have the great man locked away somewhere and are writing the books they think he should write. They know his rhythms and his obsessions, the deep grooves of his mind; they have the style down. At this point, who can say, they might be doing Pynchon better than Pynchon himself. “A private eye didn’t drop acid for years in this town without picking up some kind of extrasensory chops…” They know that no detail, however mundane, is to be denied its ration of underglow; even the parking laws in Gordita Beach have been “devised secretly by fiendish anarchists to infuriate drivers into one day forming a mob and attacking the offices of town government.” We meet a British band called Spotted Dick, coiffured uniformly in “scissor-cut asymmetric bobs,” and clackety-clack goes the fake authorial brain towards a classic Pynchon almost-joke: “Last week in fact the lead vocalist had decided to change his name legally to Asymmetric Bob, after his bathroom mirror revealed to him, three hours into a mushroom experiment, that there were actually two distinct sides to his face, expressing two violently different personalities.” Trippy, yeah. Funny? Of course not.

A saner appreciation of this book, perhaps, would salute it as the work of a reclusive literary eminence, a septuagenarian by most accounts, who still writes with the spermatic fizz of a 25-year-old ginning up for his first book tour. The surfers off Gordita Beach go “on rides of five minutes and longer through seething tunnels of solar bluegreen, the true and unendurable color of daylight.” Doc Sportello, after an inhalation of Asian indica, “prepared to be knocked on his ass but instead found a perimeter of clarity not too hard to stay inside of.” This is bravura, look-at-me stuff, of a caliber to rival that other great California drug novel, Denis Johnson’s Already Dead.

At such moments Inherent Vice seems to escape from the droning orbit of Pynchon-ness and into a freer imaginative space, into seething tunnels of solar bluegreen, even. But then the old gnostic vibration returns, the paranoid’s gleam, the feeling that “the world had just been disassembled, anybody here could be working any hustle you could think of, and it was long past time to be, as Shaggy would say, like, gettin’ out of here, Scoob.” Amen, brother.