Saturday, December 19, 2009

Inherent Vice a Vision of All That is Good of Thomas Pynchon

I like the recondite, fragmentary style that has always been a staple of Pynchonian fiction and done to epic effect in novels like "V." and "Gravity's Rainbow." Sure, yes they are difficult to follow at times, a narrative is broken up and a new narrative is introduced, regularly without the slightest hint of warning and so keeping you, reader, on your toes. It's reading that can be very rewarding and stimulating, but it's reading I'll concede is taxing and requires some patience, as well.

Most of the reviews I read of "Inherent Vice" -- Thomas Pynchon's latest literary effort -- said that it was something of a departure for one of the great antecedents of contemporary fiction, a lion postmodern literature style. He wrote a novel that tells the same story, follows the same main character faithfully, from beginning to end? (Has Pynchon gone soft on us?) No, though certain elements of Pynchon are lost in this not-as-sprawling text of about 370 pages, the story is as interesting and enjoyable as any of his I've read, also as Pynchon-ey in just some of the best ways.

"Inherent Vice" is a uniquely Pynchonian take on the noir genre -- something akin to a novelization of "The Big Lebowski" but also simultaneously a story going by its own unique drumbeat, to be sure. Doc Sportello is thrust into a typically paranoid Pynchonian narrative, which begins innocently enough, as most detective novels do, with the arrival of his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth who informs him of a plot being hatched by the wife of a wealthy real-estate developer, Mickey Wolfmann, and her lover. The plot they've thought up is to take control of Wolfmann's assets by having him committed to a mental institution. Hepworth had meanwhile become Wolfmann's lover and is asked by his wife, Sloane, and Riggs Warbling, her lover, to assist them in carrying out their plans. Things devolve rapidly and chaotically from there.

I've always wanted to read a Pynchon novel that tells the story of characters like "V.'s" Benny Profane and The Whole Sick Crew and "Gravity's Rainbow's" Tyrone Slothrop et al without interruption. What some people don't know or won't admit is that Thomas Pynchon is actually extremely funny, although this is hard sometimes to pick up on when reading through dense tracts regarding the mechanics of a World War II era V-2 Rocket and its parabolic arcs and achieving "Brennschluss," or the strange nature of espionage and deceit and drunken elephants in early 20th century North Africa, plus conceptualization of the mid-20th century phenomenon dubbed "Non-humanity" by Fausto Maijstral.

Doc Sportello affords Pynchon with an ideal mark on which to spring various unfortunate and hilarious gags. To name some: pornographic neckties, confrontation with a motley assortment of strange musicians and bikers, a cryptic and sub rosa organization known only as "The Golden Fang" dangling precipitously on the tongues of everyone Doc meets. Then of course there is the pervading sense that America has failed to be a shining "City on a Hill," and perhaps there is a new undiscovered continent forming even further west, which it's supposed or implied will somehow reach fruition in a way that the United States has failed to, deliver on the promise that was once our own.

Is that a negative interpretation? Maybe it could be construed more positively. It probably could, but these are negative times, times that try souls. And thankfully we have still got Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo around to proffer their literary opinions, nebulous as they sometimes are -- and I hope it's not too much of a stretch to attach that kind of meaning to their writing (been reading a lot of Donald Barthelme lately and his opinion of literature and what effect it can produce has emboldened me to make this interpretive leap. More to come on Barthelme, though). DeLillo didn't publish a new novel this year, but he did make an appearance in the New Yorker last month with his short story, "Midnight in Dostoevsky." It describes two young students of a college town, walking around it and debating each other. I'll end with a quote from the narrator that I found particularly poignant:
At times, abandon meaning to impulse. Let the words be the facts. This was the nature of our walks -- to register what was out there, all scattered rhythms of circumstance and occurrence, and to reconstruct it as human noise.

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