Thomas Pynchon’s reputation has risen and fallen over the past five decades; one of his conspiracy-chasing characters might note a pattern of inverse relation to rises and falls in the world’s financial markets. Gravity’s Rain- bow, 36 years ago, confirmed Pynchon as America’s new great reclusive genius; since then battalions of academics have made careers reinforcing his reputation for obscurantism, while sharp-jawed reviewers have leapt upon each perceived failure to top that book with the excitement of jackals scenting a dying lion. Inherent Vice may generate huge sighs of relief from both sides; it’s a third the length of Pynchon’s previous novel, Against the Day, and it’s structured as a detective story.
A period detective story, no less, set in 1969, when paperback copies of Pynchon’s second, slimmest, novel, The Crying of Lot 49, might still be found sticking out of the back pockets of dungarees. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello is the sleuth, approached by his ex-girlfriend Shasta to find her missing current squeeze, property developer Mickey Wolfmann. Doc slips comfortably into the continuum of Pynchon’s hapless ‘heroes’, like Benny Profane (V) or Tyrone Slothorp (Gravity’s Rainbow), and the parallels with Lot 49 are striking: in that novel Mucho Maas’ wife Oedipa left him for a richer, more powerful man who has disappeared. Lot 49 featured the shadowy Yoyodyne Corporation; Vice’s equivalent is the Golden Fang, which might be a drug- smuggling Chinese tong, or a worldwide conspiracy, or just a clearing house for dental conventions.
Quests into the hearts of conspiracies, real or imagined, lie at the root of Pynchon’s fictions, and those conspiracies often reflect forces of nature whose rules humans forget apply. In the context of the late Sixties, reality and imagination are shifting concepts, and Doc, ambling through the novel like a stoned Elliott Gould playing Marlowe in Robert Altman’s Long Goodbye is not the most reliable of protagonists. The book’s touchstones to reality mix that hallucinogenic era’s noblest artefacts, like TV’s Gilligan’s Island, with Pynchon’s trademark inventions: a restaurant called Tex-Mecca, the Panther-like ‘Warriors Against the Man Black Armed Militia’ or WAMBAM, the song ‘Soul Gidget’ by the Meatball Flag, or the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division, known as the P-Diddies. There’s even a bullying cop, Bigfoot Bjornson, classic hard-boiled foil to Doc’s very soft-boiled, if not scrambled, detective. On the other hand, this is the Sixties: Doc tracks down the supposedly-dead-from-overdose Coy Harlingen, former sax player for the Broads, playing sax in his old band, where no one recognises him.
It sounds dense, ready to send the professors scrambling to their reference libraries, but like all Pynchon’s novels, short or long, it is an almost hermetically sealed world, which you can navigate best by surrendering to authorial sensibility. In this, Pynchon is less post-modernist than 18th-century, Laurence Sterne rolling joints while driving with the top down and the radio blasting. It’s great fun, but as I chortled over an analysis of the inexplicable death wish of Charlie the Tuna, from television adverts of my youth, or nodded in agreement with the amazement of a character’s seeing The Wizard of Oz in colour for the first time, I wondered if others might experience a ‘you had to be there’ moment.
Which may be part of the point. Doc finds himself caught in a ‘low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into the darkness.’ He winds up driving, lost literally in the fog. Wolfmann’s disappearance has a lot to do with acquiring, and losing, the hippie mentality; Manson’s followers, after all, thought of themselves as flower children. Inherent Vice is Pynchon looking back on an era, caught up in its own stoned entropy, and looking back on himself, Lot 49 Redux. You don’t have to have been there; if you’re willing, he’ll take you there.