Inherent Vice is the sixth Pynchon novel I’ve read. (Well, I’ve also read to the exact midpoint of Against the Day, so maybe it counts as number 6.5?) It has been on my shelf for a long while, but I sort of felt like I was up against a deadline, because I certainly wanted to have read it already when the movie hits theaters a few months from now. I read it fast, finishing it in under a week. It lacks the lovely sprawl so characteristic of books like V, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Mason & Dixon, but it is highly engaging.
Larry “Doc” Sportello is the pothead gumshoe who is the protagonist of this 1970 LA set-piece. As is typical for Pynchon, there are a cavalcade of quirky characters, a thickly-layered conspiratorial plot, and a narrative nose for injustice. Comments on the forthcoming movie have compared it to The Big Lebowski, which isn’t terminally off-the-mark, and in fact cued me in to what is perhaps a certain kindred spirit between Pynchon and the Coen brothers. (The movie, however, is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose fondness for big casts equips him to handle a Pynchon story.)
I was a few dozen pages in when I realized with a start that this, to me, breezy and often hilarious book presumed so heavily on the cultural knowledge of the reader that it might be entirely impenetrable to some younger (or more quadrangular) readers. Now, it’s easy to make fun of stoners, but Doc’s humane wisdom and sublime presence of mind (when he could maintain consciousness) kept me laughing with him, rather than at him.
None of which is to dismiss the book’s darker aspects. There is real menace about the obscure villains of the book, and fitting paranoia about Doc’s closest friends and allies. Another comparandum might be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for the book’s elegiac contemplation of the hippie counterculture and the ultimate futility of its aspirations — and an actual trip to Las Vegas in the course of the beach-based adventure.
This book certainly didn’t eclipse any of the other Pynchon novels, but it is a fine work regardless, enjoyable and reflective in its own off-beat way.