I have always admired Pynchon, and believed if given a chance I could adore him.
I had a borderline religious experience reading a screaming comes across the sky
and commencing the literary acid trip of Gravity’s Rainbow through a hyper-landscape of world war frantic with crazed characters going batshit with epiphanies and neuroses and rage in the most psychedelic and encyclopedic of postmodern modes, Pynchon’s . . . this is not a disentanglement from but a progressive knotting into . . . as he begins to expand, an uncontainable light, as the walls of the chamber turn a blood glow, orange, then white and begin to slip, to flow like wax, what there is of labyrinth collapsing in rings outward, hero and horror, engineer and Ariadne consumed, molten inside the light of himself, the mad exploding of himself . . .
But there or thereabouts I'd hit a wall, or feel like I had, the way my head was hurting, and upon each attempt to resume the rainbow ride I eventually hit another and another and never reached the end. Kept losing the story in the delirium of language, which delighted until it sickened like too much of something too rich, or the slam of motion sickness after a roller coaster rush, and the hell with it I’d say.
I’ve yet to make it through Gravity’s Rainbow or any other brilliantly maddening Pynchon tome, but Inherent Vice is not that. It is noir in the finest American storytelling tradition, with unmistakable psychedelic and encyclopedic twists. Pynchon’s. Brilliant as ever but no longer maddening. Cluttered with cultural and countercultural references and surreal set pieces, but I followed the story straight through the streets of 1970 L.A. despite being on the heels of a sometimes mindlessly meandering California beach-bum gumshoe called Doc.
“The sign on his door read LSD Investigations, LSD, as he explained when people asked, which was not often, standing for Location, Surveillance, Detection. Beneath this was a rendering of a giant bloodshot eyeball in the psychedelic favorites green and magenta, the detailing of whose literally thousands of frenzied capillaries had been subcontracted out to a commune of speed freaks who had long since migrated up to Sonoma. Potential clients had been known to spend hours gazing at the ocular mazework, often forgetting what they’d come here for.” (p. 14)
He had me at “That you, Shasta?” Shasta being the sexy old flame who opens the story on Doc’s doorstep.
“She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish t-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.” (p. 1)
Seems the wife of Shasta’s shady billionaire lover has concocted “some creepy little scheme” to off him, and wants Shasta in on the deal, on the assumption that the promised pay-off will prove more enticing than the love affair, and offing him will be easier that way. Not about to be bested by the bitch, Shasta solicits Doc’s help in righting the accumulating wrongs, and from there there’s no end of seductive plot twists involving all manner of small- and big-time criminals, pandemic cop corruption, colorful characters with great Pynchon names (as lifted from The New Yorker
review: Ensenada Slim, Flaco the Bad, Dr. Buddy Tubeside, Petunia Leeway, Jason Velveeta, Scott Oof, Sledge Poteet, Leonard Jermaine Loosemeat a.k.a. El Drano, anagram of Leonard, Delwyn Quight, and Trillium Fortnight), comparably named dives and digs, and of course drugs.
Does it make complete sense? No, but as in all the best noir, storytelling is the point. Like sketchy jazz improv with a discernible melody executed by top chops, the language is all pitch-perfect groove and flow, the loose ends never unravel the plot beyond repair, and the pace proceeds at a clip with enough lulls on the downbeat to make for startling uptakes. And the ending satisfies. Down one last, lingering meander through a quintessential California freeway fog, I was ready to ride by Doc’s side into some eventual sunset, be it real or drug-induced I did not care as long as I was there, wherever there turned out to be on the way to the next crime.
An ongoing infatuation with noir prompted me to start my own Raymond Chandler Award candidate list. To paraphrase the award boilerplate: it honors a writer demonstrating exceptional noir panache by way of plumbing the paradoxes of suspect individuals and the even more suspect societies in which they live with nuance and humor on par with the standard set by Chandler’s body of work, which transcends the genre and amounts to literature. I further stipulate that the story be an essentially American one, though not necessarily by an American author, exploring the mystery at the heart of a hard crime, be it personal or political or both. Pynchon just made the list.