Surf Noir: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice


Slot Inherent Vice in with The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland—the other rock ‘n’ roll Pynchon novels in which unsettling levels and strains of marijuana are inhaled, where the counterculture still has a chance, if a dim one, and the characters hang around for a while, so you can get to know them. Like these other shorter, less daunting Pynchon novels, Inherent Vice is funny, maybe even the funniest. There’s a good bit in the book about Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (it’s real, 1964), a Japanese monster movie “remake of the classic chick flick Roman Holiday,” although you may prefer the gag about the black surf-rock band (“Soul Gidget,” a song name too good to be true), or the riff about how Donald Duck is always secretly having to shave his beak.

And, of course, there are Pynchonian acronyms, like the probable Sean Combs homage the P-DIDdies (short for the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division), and silly names: Sledge Poteet, say, or Leonard Jermaine Loosemeat, a/k/a El Drano, a drug dealer. There’s even an uncharacteristically forthright explanation of the titular term, “inherent vice,” marine insurance jargon for unsteady objects that contain within themselves the possibility of their own destruction—the San Andreas Fault, maybe, or an egg. As one character explains, inherent vice is the thing “you can’t avoid.”

The cargo to which the term applies here is, approximately, “the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light,” the potential closing of which keeps Inherent Vice‘s main character, Larry “Doc” Sportello, up late at night, worrying. Doc—a dope-smoking, softboiled, Hawaiian shirt­–wearing private eye—is the proprietor of LSD Investigations, LSD standing for “Location, Surveillance, Detection.” Inherent Vice, as these sorts of detective stories usually do, lurches into motion when one of Doc’s old flames, Shasta Fey Hepworth, comes to see him about a soon-to-be-missing person. Needless to say, things are about to get very complicated.

The MacGuffin in this case is Mickey Wolfmann, Hepworth’s present boyfriend, a wealthy real estate developer with a collection of erotically painted silk ties and a bodyguard corps full of white supremacists. When first he, and then Hepworth herself, disappear, Doc plunges into a search for them through an L.A. underground full of horny stewardesses, English zombies, spiritual gurus, drug dealers, amoral dentists, recovering gambling addicts, FBI thugs, refugees from Vineland with walk-on parts, proto-Internet nerds, and a saxophonist heroin addict, who may or may not be dead. Adding to our hero’s troubles is one Bigfoot Bjornsen, a part-time actor, full-time LAPD pain in the ass, who, when not chomping on his trademark chocolate-covered frozen bananas, can be found hanging out at the Waste-a-Perp Target Range in the “Urban, Gang-related and Hippie (UGH) section.”

A step, a day, or sometimes even weeks behind, Doc eventually finds himself up against a shadowy organization known as the Golden Fang, paranoid heirs to the W.A.S.T.E. of The Crying of Lot 49. The group manifests itself mostly by way of real estate; Doc stumbles upon its tendrils inside a nuthouse called Chryskylodon, amid a six-story-high fang-shaped dentist’s office on Sunset Boulevard, and aboard a shadowy yacht. Has the Fang abducted Wolfmann, possibly in retaliation for the developer finding a conscience and commencing work on the unfinished, free-for-all-who-come desert paradise of Arrepentimiento (Spanish for “sorry about that”)? Or was it the FBI, who need Wolfmann to help them challenge mob interests in Vegas? And what about all this fake U.S. currency with Nixon’s face on it?

Massive plot confusion is, of course, a noir tradition, from Chandler’s knotty intrigues to Faulkner’s notoriously incoherent script for The Big Sleep to the dazed indifference of Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Pynchon—and this will surprise no one—is far more interested in the fog banks and blind alleys and conspiratorial demons that haunt Los Angeles than he is in solving who did what to whom. As in Vineland, the true threat is not from any individual psychotic lawman or acid-crazed biker but from something more mysterious and evil—”the ancient forces of greed and fear,” those psychic agents at work in the dark at the dawn of the ’70s “reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday.” The inherent vice that lurks at the heart of every “concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in,” according to Pynchon, is that same undoing exploited by Vineland‘s sadistic federal agent and proto-Reaganite Brock Vond, whose “genius was to have seen in the activities of the sixties left not threats to order but unacknowledged desires for it.”

Tellingly, Doc’s hero is the actor John Garfield, cinema’s ur-rebel, famously blacklisted in the ’40s by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But Inherent Vice is full of less loaded pop trivia, too: ’60s surf-rock like the Chantays and the Trashmen; the British Invasion (in the form of a band named Spotted Dick); and an early version of the Internet, courtesy of the Department of Defense, called ARPAnet. “Does it know where I can score?” asks Doc, who—in good hippie fashion—appends question marks to most everything he says, even when he’s not asking a question.

It’s this kind of affectionate, low-key psychedelic nostalgia that is the upshot of Inherent Vice, which is neither as ambitious as Gravity’s Rainbow nor as abstruse as Against the Day. A lark for Pynchon, however, still qualifies as a more or less major novel. Animated in the pages of Inherent Vice are both the “great collective dream” of the 1960s and its rapid undoing—the optimism and tragedy and fundamental silliness of the decade united side by side by side.

Like Vineland‘s Zoyd Wheeler (with whom Doc’s cousin once played in a band), Doc is eventually forced to discover that though love itself endures, free-love most definitely does not. Already there’s the prospect, in the high, 1970 summer of both Willis Reed and Charles Manson, that “a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.” Which, if you know the rest of the sad, Nixonite story, is exactly what ended up happening. Bummer, man.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 4, 2009

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