Where to begin with Pynchon? Despite being fascinated by premonitory erections and scenes of submissive turd eating, I was defeated by Gravity’s Rainbow in college. This was before I felt the postmodernist bite, and I barely made it a hundred pages in. Years later, I attempted V., trudging through 19th Century British colonies and the Namibian Hereo Wars along with Stencil and the Whole Sick Crew, coming out the other end with less of a grasp of the historical framing than when I began. Ironically, The Crying of Lot 49, possibly Pynchon’s easiest to digest (ie: shortest), still sits on my shelf, unread.
With Inherent Vice, Pynchon gives us something a little different- an honest to goodness genre novel. Taking place in LA at the tail end of the sixties, Inherent Vice is a psychedelic Noir that is equal parts Chinatown and Easy Rider. Attempts at summarizing the plot would be futile, but it all begins with a woman. Doc’s ex-old lady shows up on his doorstep with billionaire-boyfriend troubles. When said boyfriend is kidnapped and said old lady disappears, things begin to get complicated. The story branches off into a myriad of plots and subplots, which all vaguely have something to do with a mysterious entity know as The Golden Fang. Who or what they are never truly becomes apparent, but it’s the journey, not the destination. And what a journey it is.
The idea of a pot smoking, hippie dick isn’t the most original in this post-Lebowski world, but Pynchon has been working on three to four novels at once since the mid-sixties, so who is to say when the seed for this idea began to sprout? It comes only three years after the mammoth thousand-pager Against The Day, so it’s entirely possible the adventures of “Doc” Sportello had their genesis well before Jeff Bridges donned the mantle of “The Dude.”
Like the Coen’s masterpiece before it, Inherent Vice is a modern take on the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. More densely plotted than The Big Sleep and less concerned with loose ends, Inherent Vice is a whodunit? that mourns the passing of an era. It is a love letter to free love, free drugs, and rock and roll, masquerading as a hard-boiled crime novel. Doc’s exploits seem free of consequences, like the casual sex of the time, and neither he nor the reader has any real sense of danger until it is too late and his life is on the line. Appropriately, the threat dissipates as soon as Doc lights up a joint and is out of harm’s way.
Despite the intricacies of the plot, Inherent Vice is the breeziest Pynchon I’ve ever read. It’s like a literary beach novel, and if advance word is to be believed, could wind up being the author’s first work to grace the silver screen. Pynchon’s trademark wit and humor are still present, but without some of the trappings that bogged down his previous work. There are no hardcore scientific or historical elements, just good old-fashioned hippie nostalgia. Vice has the spryness of a book written by an author half his age. Maybe it’s the detective milieu that makes it so easy to digest, because Pynchon does get up to some of his old tricks, following literary tangents like a dog chasing a rabbit and introducing new characters up until practically the last page.
Hardcore fans might decry Vice as Pynchon-light, and newbie’s might be duped into thinking they can tackle his more notorious works, but I’m sure Pynchon could care less. This is the man who broke a forty year silence on The Simpson’s, drawn with a bag with a question mark on it over his head. Vice is Pynchon doing what he does best- having fun and not giving a fuck. I can picture his response to snooty, would-be detractors claiming he has jumped the shark- Yeah? Well, that’s just like, your opinion, man.