Ceridwen Christensen Reviews Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice

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Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon
(Penguin Press, 2009)

There’s an old saw, beloved of high school US history teachers that goes: before the Civil War, correct usage was “The United States of America are“. After the Civil War, it became “The United States of America is. There’s a bunch of butt-patting and high-fiving after this little grammatical revelation. Once the North spiked the ball and spiked it hard in the South’s end-zone, we could all change the Chicago Manual of Style and revel in the beauty of uniting a country through fraternal bloodbath. In order to melt the pot, you’ve gotta apply a little heat, kids.

My high school history teacher, who no doubt dropped the aforementioned nugget in class to sullen and distrustful looks, was obsessed with three things: rail roads, barbed wire, and James Knox Polk. For those of you who aren’t up on your American Presidential arcana, Mr. K. Polk was the President who most perfectly articulated the concept of antebellum Manifest Destiny: ours would be an empire that spread from Atlantic to Pacific, from arctic to tropic; and Mr. Corrigan* just absolutely LOVED the idea that Polk was the only President in US history to have the goals laid out in his Inaugural Address actually come to pass within his term. Sure, the sea-to-shining-sea thing didn’t happen until after Polk was out of office & dead, but it still happened. Occasionally, one of us would rouse ourselves from our collective facedesk and try to interrupt his Polk sermonettes with stuff like, “Um, Mr. Corrigan, isn’t Manifest Destiny, like, super racist?” and so forth. He’d irritatedly wave us off. Yes, yes, of course it is, but Polk actually did the crazy ass thing he set out to do.

But I still think it’s The United States of America are: each of us hula-hooping out our individual Americas of constant and never-ending expansion. Even the most crushingly urban places are haunted by the dream of the wide open, the frontier, the Lockian wilderness where our Protestant individualism can run its inevitable course to philosopher-king, one size fits all, not labeled for individual sale. Sure, I can hear you yelling about how you’re not Protestant, or not even Christian, or that your people were here before the Anglos, or that your ancestors were not Anglos, but their chattel or enemies, or any of a hundred thousand things, but I still hold that this is one of our American dreams, and like most dreams, it is surrealist, nonsensical, and more than a little fucked up.

This book is that America: the one that is a hallucinatory fever-dream. I have a friend who likes to make declarations like, “Americans can’t do social realism.” This is arguable — The Wire? — although fun to lob at parties and see who rises to the bait and who thinks you’re a freaking dork — but I think in the sublimely crazy project of trying to write America, social realism simply will not do. The best novels I can think of that write America are all genre fiction written by non-Americans: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Neuromancer by William Gibson, and Saints and Strangers by Angela Carter. (Some caveats: William Gibson is Canadian, so he’s American in the catholic sense, but I won’t do him the disservice of confusing him for a Yank. Angela Carter’s stories are less genre fiction and more short story collection, like she had to come at the Americas of her acquaintance from several vantage points, which still kind of works for my wacky theory.)

Pynchon has long been writing America, but — correct me if I’m wrong — I don’t think he’s ever tackled genre fiction before. Noir is just absolutely perfect for this kind of project: downbeat, sprawling, and so completely worn out that its springs aren’t just visible, but poking out dangerously. I don’t have a good background in Noir — mysteries, meh — but I kind of don’t need one. It’s, like, transmitted in the American DNA through Scooby Doo. Sure, the meddling kids tend to get shot in the face in Noir, but the supernatural conspiracy is real, and almost always due to some expansionist entrepreneur engaged in that favorite American scandal: the crooked land deal. Forget sex and drugs, baby. Forget rock and roll and Evangelicals. Land is where it’s at. Since the colonists first bought Manhattan for a handful of beads and some smallpox — the clap was value add, btw — land has been our collective obsession. We are Realtors at heart.

So Larry “Doc” Sportello, winner of the Noir highass award and doper P. I. extraordinaire, gets a bunch of visits from similarly oddly named people. He takes several cases that will no doubt brew to a giant clusterfuck of epic proportions. He cracks wise. He wakes and bakes. He grooves on some tunes, has a knuckle sandwich or two, and as doggedly as someone with that much THC dissolved into his brain cells can, flat-foots his way to The Girl, who is just as much a mirage as anything else. The plot sloshes around like the trunk of an Oldsmobile filled with Pacific ocean water, complete with fish, and when all the water drains out, the fish look at you with their fishy surprise and flop. I think if I gave a shit about plot I might be pissed, but I don’t, so all was, as Doc would say, groovy.

I thought I hated literary wankerism, and maybe I still do when it serves no good purpose, but here the literary tricksiness isn’t just authorial show-off. (Or, it is still show-off, but Pynchon’s been doing this particular burlesque so long that it feels downright traditional when you spank him on the ass and call him a dirty girl.) Sportello exists in a sine wave of advancing and retreating chemical befuddlement, and the descriptions of the events themselves laze around, not relying on logical connectives like “and then,” but coming in and out of focus. Sportello finds himself here or there, whatever, and Pynchon treats these movements with both the incuriousness and obsessive detailing of the terminally high. I was reading a borrowed copy, so I couldn’t dog-ear the way I do, and I found myself reaching for the corner every other other page, to my complete thwartment. Or giggling and keeping my husband up. This is some seriously funny stuff: the sequence that takes place in the surf-rock mansion is one of the most cinematically orchestrated pieces of physical comedy I’ve ever seen in print. Where was I?

Oh. I don’t have a good grasp on the difference between Modernism and Post-Modernism, because I mostly don’t care, and also because they seem like Same Thing, Different World War. I recently tackled ye olde Modernist Classic, Ulysses, in which Joyce famously declared he’d written Dublin down to its subatomic particles. (Or possibly, it tackled me.) I simply couldn’t grok it — the Classical referents were too dense, the history too opaque. I blah-blahed about this a bit with my mother, who is smarter and better read than I by a good discus throw, and she said something that completely blew my mind out the back of my skull. Modernism presupposes an intimate knowledge of the Classics; Post-Modernism instead relies on a jacuzzi-style immersion in popular culture. Maybe I’ve never read the Iliad, but I have watched the crap out of some tv. Post-modernism, ftw! She prophesied that Gravity’s Rainbow would require the same kind of gloss in 30 years that Ulysses now requires to read — unless you’re Harold Bloom, but then he’ll be dead. (Ding dong.)

By locating this novel in the mythic 1960s, where his referents are almost as well-worn, occult, and contested as the Noir plot he hitches them to, Pynchon compounds both the strangeness and familiarity, like the way a mirror image reverses how you are normally seen by others. Pynchon’s California is not dissimilar from Gibson’s Sprawl — the cheek-to-jowl sub-meta-urbanity which Gibson hallucinated in his American dream. But Pynchon’s California is gonzo crazy, pin-wheeling, and more grotesquely comic than Gibson’s Sprawl. Put differently, Gibson’s feels more like social realism, but in the future. Pynchon’s is like the DTs, but in the past. *GET the bugs OFF* (I’d like to point out Gibson also hallucinated cyberspace for the first-ish time, and here we are virtually, actually — whatever — flaming out into the void. Maybe not realism so much as prophesy. Don’t bogart that.) Gibson, for better or for worse, still spells hypercolor with a u, and Pynchon has none of that gumming up the works. I don’t know if Kids These Days still get high and talk about The Great American Novel anymore — and honestly, I doubt they ever did — the getting high part has always and ever been the true activity — but this may just be that. The Great American Novel.

I can see you all dropping your bongs with a “wha? to the guns!” Fine. Do that thing that actors do when they’re learning their lines: repeat the phrase “Great American Novel” several times putting the emphasis on different words, different syllables. This will make you look stupid, and it’s a trick, but do it anyway. This is the reading that puts the emphasis on American, with an almost-dropped A and a swallowed N. It’s not THE Great American Novel; it’s dialect is too strong for that. Yes, yes, this is totally stagy and fake, but stagy and fake in the way that actually accomplishes the crazy ass thing it sets out to do: recreate America on a chemical level. And you can put that in your pipe and smoke it, my friends.

*For the record, I can’t remember this guy’s name, so I replaced with another high school history teacher. The real Mr. Corrigan was obsessed with Ben Franklin, fyi.

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