Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reading Rainbow: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

From what I have heard (and I can't say that I frequent book review sites and publications), the newest Thomas Pynchon book has been received with a somewhat tepid reaction. Having read everything of his but Against The Day*, I can see where the disappointment may arise from. That being said, my reaction wasn't one of disappointment, per se.

*I was about 250 pages through Against The Day when I stopped having a reason to ride the bus. As the bus ride went, so went the time to read. I was pleased with what I had read but knew the climb would be a long one, and a disservice to the reading experience. I'll probably revisit if I'm ever in white collar prison or too poor to have a television.

In Inherent Vice, we find the inimitable Thomas Pynchon stretching out in the genre of the Private Eye novel. If you told that to someone with only a vague idea as to who Thomas Pynchon* is, they would probably think it odd. Hell, a good deal of casual Pynchon readers would look askance at someone bringing them that news.

*The author, of course, not the person, as there are only a handful of people out there with that kind of information.

The thing is almost all of his books have found their protagonists on a quest to solve a mystery. In V., Herbert Stencil is searching for the answer to Who V. is. In The Crying of Lot 49, heroine Oedipa Maas is trying to get to the bottom of a centuries-old battle between rival mail distribution companies. For Tyrone Slothrop, the quasi-hero of Gravity's Rainbow, it is the quest to discover the cause of his erectile conditioning having been tuned to the dropping of V-2 rockets. I could go on, but you get the point.

There is a sense to this slight transition. Rather than have non-detectives trying to solve a labyrinthine mystery, Inherent Vice features Private Investigator Larry 'Doc' Sportello being put onto a case by his ex-girlfriend that starts out simply enough but quickly devolves into the multi-layered, multi-faceted post-modern yarn we have grown accustomed to. Present is the drug-induced paranoia, perverse corporate greed, silly character naming, and fear of authority. It is just operating (loosely) within the constructs of the noir genre--or as others have labeled it psychedelic noir.

The easiest way I can describe this book is to say the following: Imagine that Thomas Pynchon was writing an homage to The Big Lebowski but set it in 1969.

And really, by setting it in the time and place that clearly begat the mindset that has been a driving force in all of his works* no matter their setting, it allows him to finally return to the ground that has so deeply permeated all of his work, while not having actually been the setting since The Crying of Lot 49.

*Just try to tell me that the Benjamin Franklin of Mason & Dixon wasn't a Californian hippie at his core.

The elements of California in the 1960s are able to flourish in their own habitat in Inherent Vice.

Now, if I'm being totally honest, I am not a writer with enough skill, nor a reader with enough intelligence for that matter, to be able to decipher what each bit of minutae means symbolically or historically. When talking about Thomas Pynchon, few are. That being said, this was probably his most accessible book yet. I read it in a week and a half--roughly half the time it took me to read the much shorter Lot 49--and at no time did it feel like a chore. Coming from someone who read Gravity's Rainbow twice*, I know what a chore reading Thomas Pynchon can be.

*Don't worry, my comprehension was limited, too. I still feel like I need to go back and read it a third time, this time taking very detailed notes.

If you've not read Pynchon before, this actually isn't a bad starting point (of course, neither is V.). The book is good fun and is maybe the weirdest entrant into the noir genre yet.

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