Monday, November 30, 2015

The Wildflowers in Thomas Pynchon's Prose Garden: "Inherent Vice"



Everything in Thomas Pynchon's novel "Inherent Vice" (published in '09 and turned into a movie last year) happened too long ago.
           The year is 1970, with frequent rearview mirror glances to to at least 1969. Nixon is in the White House, paranoia is striking deep, short-haired muscle-bound security types are rushing all around the place, real estate pressures (among so many other pressures) are destroying the scene, and everyone is so routinely lighting up exotic varieties of their favorite weed it's hard to believe anyone is ever really worried about getting busted. But they're all worried about something.
            The place is some version of Los Angeles, a city I have never been to, but then I don't think anybody has ever been to Pynchon's version of this place and time. It's nothing but freeway, beach, bars, clubs, eateries, mansions and nuthouses. No old people, no children, no actual poor people. The closest we get to an 'ordinary' working person is a limo driver, and he's playing the angles like everybody else. The 'hero' is a PI, who displays a touching (and rare) concern for the well-being of others. The only 'straight' people are cops, and they're conspiring against one another. All the book's hippie characters act, talk, and think (if you can call it that) in ways incredibly naive, as if they're recently arrived on the planet, yet other aspects of their (mis)behavior have already achieved burn-out status.
            In other words, little of what happens in "Inherent Vice" has much resemblance to the real world, at any time or in any place. For Thomas Pynchon, the standard furniture of storytelling -- nuanced characters we can identify with and connect to a sequence of credible events -- is so much stage design. A plot is just an excuse to make words.
            And few writers can do that as well as Pynchon.
            It took me a while to remember how to read a novel by Thomas Pynchon. Not only is Pynchon's fiction not about character development or plot, so many of his 'characters' are such 'head comic book' figures it's almost impossible to remember who's who and what's supposed to be going on in the story except for the most basic of premises: somebody disappeared. Our narrator is supposedly looking for him.
            Instead of a novel about life in counter-culture California as the innocence is wearing off, what "Inherent Vice" is really offering is a vision of a TV, Hollywood, Pop Culture, Drug Culture larded alternate reality that flowers in Pynchon's mind when he thinks about that time and place. It's a thought dream, evoked by extravagant language.
            But a Pynchon is also about the pleasure of reading beautifully constructed passages such as this one, in which the book's version of a film noir PI hero, called Doc, meditates on the banally evil heavies he sees popping up these days in the Los(t) Angeles landscape:
            "Doc knew these people, he'd seen enough of them in the course of business.They went out to collect cash debts, they broke rib cages, they got people fired, they kept an unforgiving eye on anything that might become a threat. If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who'd make it happen."
            In other words, corporate honchos and their security armies 'just doing their job.' They are glaring symptoms of our world's "inherent vice."
            This passage, written in the same rolling-syntax style as Pynchon employs in the novel's meta-silly Head Comix scenes that stand in for human interchange, is more serious in tone than almost anything else in the book. But it suggests that the novel's vision doesn't really pertain to LA in 1970 as much as it does to our world, a time when the dream is indeed long over and the 'faithless money-driven world' has indeed reasserted itself with a vengeance. A world in which various government bodies, corporate entities, gangs and conspiracies of all sorts mixing public, private, technological and criminal facades "play with our world" (as Dylan's old song has it) "like [their] own private toy."
            Pynchon's language is marvelous, funny, over-blown, wry, frequently on the edge of self-parody, or heavily over it. But the book's silly, burlesque of a Hollywood film noir convoluted detective story is, in the end, nothing but a cover story. And that beautiful private toy we all played with is broken.