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Slapstick noir

In Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, a dope-buzzed PI watches the ’70s California dream unravel.

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John Freeman

California used to mean something. Not just Arnold Schwarzenegger and the epicenter of pornography, nor Kobe and Manny. California was where things happened that couldn’t elsewhere in America, because there, as Joan Didion put it, “beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”

Based on what little we know of his life, Thomas Pynchon probably spent some time in California, looking into the abyss of its high blue skies. He also wrote two books about it: The Crying of Lot 49, his manic satire of a revenge story, and Vineland, the most political novel of the 1980s, the book that asked what a decade of greed had done to America.

In his zany new novel, Inherent Vice, Pynchon goes back to the Golden State to paint a nostalgic portrait of a fictional beach town near LA in the ’70s—when the counterculture finally lost the battle to the forces of control, governmental power and sobriety.

Private dicks usually spend most of their time in the cups. Larry “Doc” Sportello, the diminutive, pony-tailed PI who narrates this novel, tumbles through its story in a doper’s haze. There is hardly a scene in which he is not puffing, toking or jonesing. He is so hooked, crooked cops try to pay him off with marijuana.

But he does have a moral center. So when his ex-girlfriend comes to him with word that her current lover is about to get whacked, Doc investigates. He pulls one thread, and 200 others unravel to reveal the messy weave of ’70s LA beach life.

Pynchon has always been—how to put this—a bit of a naturalist when it comes to plotting a story. Everything goes. So novels like Against the Day, his recent 1,200-page zeppelin, keep all but the most maniacally intelligent readers scrambling after them, chasing their shadows.

Inherent Vice is no different. This may be a 370-page slapstick noir, but you’ll need to remember biker-gang members, massage-parlor hookers, bent cops, straight cops, shady developers, gamblers, motorheads, bartenders, gay Vietnam war veterans, new-age gurus, Doc’s doper friends and the edgier beach-punk bands they all worship.

The Details

Inherent Vice
Four stars
Thomas Pynchon.
Penguin Press, $28.
Amazon: Inherent Vice

There’s a messy, untidy muchness to this universe, which is about to be wiped out—at least that’s what Doc fears. The people in power don’t want this ideological miscegenation; they don’t want dopers and vets and Mexicans living on top of each other on the beach. They want to create steadily rising home values and vacuum-packed suburban happiness.

Or maybe that’s just Doc’s (and everyone else’s) paranoia kicking in. With all the dope they’re smoking, anything can seem like a conspiracy. The book is full of hippie logic: “Remember how they outlawed acid soon as they found out it was a channel to something they didn’t want us to see?” one character asks while messing around with an early version of the Internet.

Inherent Vice would seem like a simple cartoon of those times were it not all so true. Indeed, Southern California has become a developer’s paradise. Orange County is one of the most conservative parts of America. It’s impossible to tune in, turn on and drop out, because, even on the beach, people are plugged in to the mainframe. Amusingly, wistfully, Inherent Vice reminds us it wasn’t always so.

John Freeman is acting editor of Granta and author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of E-mail.

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