The Long, Strange, Mysterious Trip that is Thomas Pynchon’s INHERENT VICE

A Thomas Pynchon novel’s not supposed to be read in a single sitting. And yet, with one large interruption to attend a tribute for Donald Westlake at Mysterious Bookshop Tuesday night, that’s precisely what I did with INHERENT VICE, gulping down the raggedy narrative and colorful, off-kilter prose like it was a bag of neon-tinted jellybeans.  Some seem to be rather shocked that Pynchon would lighten up and entertain himself (and, by extension, a whole slew of new readers, judging by the high opening rank on the NYT bestseller list) after the doorstopper that was AGAINST THE DAY – not to mention a little book called GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, or other trifles like MASON & DIXON, VINELAND and V — but not me. I wouldn’t go so far as to play contrarian and claim INHERENT VICE is the book Pynchon’s been itching to write for decades, but I can totally see him wolfing down a secret collection of pulp paperback novels – or even a bunch of Hard Case Crime reissues – as research and/or inspiration.

Too many reviews to count play the Raymond Chandler card, which is understandable because Larry “Doc” Sportello, stoner private dick, is the reader’s fog-filled guide through the streets and byways of Southern California ca. 1970. But I couldn’t shake off the feeliing that INHERENT VICE was a sort of fun-house mirror of a very different type of crime novelist, one who burst on the scene right around the time of the book’s setting. Before I name this individual, a couple of chunky quotes to set the scene. First up is the description offered up by LAPD cop Pat Dubonnet of his superior, lieutenant Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, and his penchant for exposure on the boob tube:  “It’s bound to be a Movie for TV, ain’t it, whatever happens. Bigfoot can end up with script and production credits, even play himself, the asshole…“

And then later on, Doc goes on a rant to his pal Fritz about why, in his words, “PIs are doomed, man”:

"…[Y]ou could've seen it coming for years, in the movies, on the tub. Once there was all these great old PIs — Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, the shamus of shamuses Johnny Staccato, always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solvin the crime while the cops are followin wrong leads and gettin in the way."

"Coming in at the end to put the cuffs on."

"Yeah, but nowadays it's all you see anymore is cops, the tube is saturated with fuckin cop shows, just being regular guys, only tryin to do their job, folks, no more threat to nobody's freedom than some dad in a sitcom. Right. Get the viewer population so cop-happy they're beggin to be run in. Goodbye Johnny Staccato, welcome and while you're at it please kick my door down, Steve McGarret. Meantime out here in the real world most of us private flatfoots can't even make the rent."

The obvious hat tips are to shows like ADAM-12 and THE MOD SQUAD, all named explicitly in the book. But these quotes, not to mention the general far-out disposition of Bigfoot Bjornsen (my favorite character in INHERENT VICE, and whose complicated friendship with Doc could have been developed even more) smacks of Joseph Wambaugh, whose debut novel THE NEW CENTURIONS appeared in 1971 and redefined the parameters of cop fiction to include pathos and internal angst that Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels – not to mention those cop shows on the air – didn’t have room for. And who, incidentally, is roughly the same age as Thomas Pynchon, what with both men born in 1937.

THE NEW CENTURIONS’ publication date was hardly an accident, coming in the wake of the Manson Murders in 1969 and the general sense that the world of utopian hippiedom that Pynchon himself appears to long for still had spiraled into hell, taking the lock-and-key world of law and order as practiced by the police with it. Bigfoot Bjornsen more or less acknowledges this to Doc deep into INHERENT VICE:

"It's all turned to sick fascination," opined Bigfoot, "and meantime the whole field of homicide's being stood on its ear — bye-bye Black Dahlia, rest in peace Tom Ince, yes we've seen the last of those good old-time L.A. murder mysteries I'm araid. We've found the gateway to hell, and it's asking far too much of your L.A. civilian not to want to go crowding on through it, horny and gigging as always, looking for that latest thrill. Lots of overtime for me and the boys I guess, but it brings us that much closer to the end of the world."

And then along comes Wambaugh, who never made it to detective but understood the ways in which cases could work on cops of every stripe (read THE CHOIRBOYS, his 1975 masterpiece, to understand how necessary release from the horrors of work becomes a recipe for collective downfall involving sex, drugs and despair) and, had he met a character like Doc – or perhaps like Pynchon – might have found a way to understand him, or at least chronicle him as he truly was. 


It’s all speculation, of course, but speculation, paranoia, and Pynchon all seem to go hand in hand, even if the relationship more resembles the clunky, vestigial approach of evolution than some systematic series of decisions. Maybe the quasi-Darwinian thing is why I remain fascinated by Pynchon’s attempts to sustain his privacy when the world at large jettisons such things with each passing second. There’s no way to know if Pynchon ca. 1963, when V was published, really meant to keep his face away from the prying eyes of photographers who would later morph into paparrazzi. But the older he got, the world around him sacrificed the so-called “purity” of a writer allowed to be just that – a writer – in favor of the 247 spectacle of promotion and publicity, rumor-mongering and scandal.

Maybe it’s fitting that for INHERENT VICE, his “light read”, his attempt, however shaggy-dog-like, at staying within the bounds of genre conventions, Pynchon has relaxed his stance ever so slightly on the publicity machine that is de rigeur for a newly published book. The tentative step of the 2004 Simpsons appearance has given way for the raspy, burned-out voice narrating the novel’s video trailer, ending with the kicker that the book’s price is equivalent to three weeks of groceries ca. 1969. The total lack of information has cracked thanks to the mighty power of Amazon, which published a complete playlist of real and fictional tracks that figure in the book.

So that made me curious, and Tracy Locke, Associate Publisher of Penguin Press, kindly answered a few of my questions by email.

I'm curious how the publicity and marketing plan came about to involve Pynchon in a far more tangible way than ever before.

Tracy Locke: This is the second book of Mr. Pynchon’s that we’ve published, and in both cases we ran all marketing ideas by him. In the case of INHERENT VICE, developments in technology –coupled with the accessibility and broad reach of the book itself – afforded us promotional opportunities unavailable at the time of his last publication. And as Mr. Pynchon’s readers well know, he is unusually well-versed in cultural trends and the growing possibilities of the Internet.

Did some of these ideas originate
from him, and did he need any sort of convincing?

TL: The ideas for the book trailer and the playlist came from within The Penguin Press; both were developed in cooperation with Mr. Pynchon.

And what of the larger picture that even Pynchon – renowned for his
aversion to press, picture-taking, and the like – must now take part in
efforts to publicize his book?

TL: While we’re delighted with the role Mr. Pynchon chose to play in the production of the trailer, the decision to participate was his own. I’ve commented to press in the past that Mr. Pynchon is a publicist’s dream: his books, down to the one, receive the kind of coverage and attention rarely seen anymore in the current publishing landscape; and with the growth of the Internet in the last few years, his coverage has, if anything, grown considerably. So again, while we’re thrilled at Mr. Pynchon’s participation, he by no means “must take part” in our publicity efforts. His books publicize themselves – and beautifully.

In the end, what comes across in Pynchon’s efforts (or non-efforts) with regards to publicity, and the contents of INHERENT VICE is how much fun he had, and how much that sense of fun hinges on a state of mind that does nott exist todayy. It’s not his best work or his most important, but if this is the book to introduce him to a new generation of readers, or a new calibre of readership, why not do so with something that both idealizes and gently demolishes an era of hope and promise, when the Internet was still ARPAnet and fledgling, when technology didn’t create undue disinhibition and when privacy was still privacy? Again, speculation – but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it.