private eye fiction

Just Another Band From L.A.?

As I went out one morning a few weeks ago, there was a package at my door. It contained Inherent Vice, the new Thomas Pynchon novel due in stores next Tuesday. The book came my way because I sought the opportunity to review it soon after hearing, not that long ago, that a new Pynchon novel was scheduled for release this summer. As followers of Pynchon no doubt know, his previous novel appeared in November 2006, less than three years ago. Sure, there was only three years between his first novel V. (1963) and his shortest novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), but it’s been some time since any Pynchon opus was followed so quickly by a new work. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) was seven years after Lot 49, and then there was no new work until a funny, friendly intro to his old short stories, ten years after his National Book Award in 1974. Finally, in 1990, Vineland, a new novel appeared, seventeen years after GR. Then, a mere seven years later, the massive Mason & Dixon in 1997. Almost another decade would pass before Against the Day, formidable at over 1,000 pages, arrived. So, by any estimation, the new novel, at 369 pages, is a quick turn-around for the Reclusive One. It should be noted too, going in, that TP’s short novels are set in California, predominantly. Lot 49, Vineland, and now Inherent Vice. We can think 'California trilogy' if we’re so inclined. And I must add that I’m both inclined and not inclined. I’m inclined because, yes, all three, besides taking CA as their location, also all take a certain 'California State of Mind' as their main theme. When the smoke clears -- and need I tell you what kind of smoke it is? -- what the three novels share is TP’s penchant for both basking in and gently needling the predominant culture of California in the era from the mid-sixties to the early seventies. Indeed, Lot 49 was set only a few years before the year of its publication, lending it an immediacy of setting not common in Pynchon’s works. Vineland, set in 1984, looked back both at the era of Reagan’s re-election and of Nixon’s first term and suggested that, bummer-wise, they had a lot in common, though the Reagan years were worse due to all the ‘karmic adjustments’ that had to be made because of how the Sixties went down. Now, we’re back in Nixonland again, summer of 1970, a year after the Manson murders, about to go to trial, a recurring reference point à la Joan Didion’s take on the Californian ramifications of that event in her essay 'The White Album.'

Why I’m not inclined? No particular reason, I suppose, other than a certain Imp of the Perverse which makes me want to read each of the three CA novels more in terms of what they mean in their particular moments rather than what they mean yoked together as a connect-the-dots of California culture as presented by everyone’s favorite Paranoid Author. In other words, each of the three CA novels feels to me motivated by a completely different ‘trip.’ In Lot 49, the novel is ahead of the curve, satirizing aspects of the day -- who can forget DJ Mucho Maas explaining the effects of LSD -- that hadn’t quite become common currency in 1966, to say nothing of its glance at the Berkeley Free Speech Movement as something simply in the air, though major protests at non-Californian universities were yet to come.

In Vineland, the task was to remind all those who might like to bury their memories of those days, as they rode whatever conservative and generally more lucrative bandwagon through the soulless hype of the Reagan years. But it should be said that the narrative voice of Vineland was more complex than many of its initial reviewers gave it credit for. It wasn’t simply a ‘nostalgia’ trip in which TP, suffering from Tubal Addiction and jonesing for the heady days of tie-dye and patchouli, tried to reignite synapses long grown dormant. The attitude was wiser, sympathetic, but ultimately skeptical, though not snide. A bit like Frank Zappa’s attitude to hippiedom in its heyday, but more affectionate toward those ‘hungry freaks, daddy.’

Then too, both Lot 49 and Vineland treat different aspects of CA: for Lot 49 it’s the area around SF with forays to the fictional San Narciso, closer to L.A. For Vineland, it’s northern CA, Humboldt County, in 1984, with the College of the Surf shenanigans of the Sixties set between San Diego and San Clemente. And this time, in Inherent Vice, it’s L.A. all the way. The prose, enacted through the viewpoint of a Private Eye named Doc Sportello, reads like Raymond Chandler meets Hunter Thompson, and each finds the other simpatico: ‘hard-boiled’ becomes ‘head-fried.’ But one senses the book had to get into print fast, while the ‘groovy vibes’ of Obama-mania are still in the popular consciousness, and that whole Ding-Dong-The-Witch-Is-Dead thing might support cranking back into a simpler time and place where Chinatown’s Jay Gittes and Easy Rider’s Billy are, like, one.

I haven't finished reading it yet, but it’s easily TP’s lightest novel, his most simply entertaining. It might even become one of his most popular if its target audience can stop watching Nick at Nite broadcasts of the TV shows of the era and/or replays of The Big Lebowski long enough to get on board. And I wish we all could be California PIs ...