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  • Last Updated: September 10. 2009 6:29PM UAE / September 10. 2009 2:29PM GMT

Part of the cover of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice.

Thomas Pynchon sends his stoned private eye down the mean streets of a California whose dreams are about to turn nightmare, to find that freedom’s just another word for what you lease, Mark Lotto writes.

Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon
Jonathan Cape

The first time we lay eyes on Doc Sportello, hippie PI, he is sober in the alley between his place and the beach. His sobriety is normally as rare as a hundred-foot wave, but he’s been interrupted – post-supper, pre-post-supper-joint – by an old girlfriend with a new boyfriend who’s in trouble and needs help. Doc, to be clear, might seem as turned on, tuned in and dropped out as every other Southern California stoner in 1971; he is also as rough and compact and obsessive as a pit terrier, with a closet, like Fletch, full of silly and surprisingly effective disguises, and a private eye’s requisite, accursed sentimental streak. Even if his old flame, once sprightly and sweet, now has the wallet and wardrobe of a kept woman and the bad vibrations of a femme fatale, and even though her new beau is Mickey Wolfmann – a real estate developer who makes “Godzilla look like a conservationist”, “technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi” – Doc says he’ll see what he can find. Because Inherent Vice is not just a hard-boiled detective story but a Thomas Pynchon novel, Doc will try to keep anyone from being hurt and actually end up making sure everyone gets hurt.

Doc’s escapades take place in the same California as The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Vineland (1990). These are Pynchon’s shorter works, written, we always assume, quickly and with relative ease; and they were once understood as breathers dashed off between, or as breaks from, the writing of big, shocking, awesome masterpieces like Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Mason and Dixon (1997). But these slim volumes, laid side by side, form their own longer narrative: about how the West Coast sprouted flower children, sprayed them down with the pesticides of law and order and adulthood, and eventually settled for selling them back Astroturf-versions of their own youth. Here we get the moment just after everything first got buried under manure – the early 1970s. The Manson trial is already underway and practically everyone Doc meets worries over it, obsessively, portentously, like drinkers fretting about how many more rounds they can squeeze in after a shout of “Last call!”

Pynchon populates his hard-boiled wonderland with a cast of characters who are as improbable as anyone in The Wizard of Oz and also a pretty handy cross-section of the counterculture and its discontents. These include but are not limited to: an extremely early adopter of the internet, who plants himself in front of a supercomputer bigger and brighter than a Christmas tree to watch the world’s data speed up and expand. St Flip of Lawndale, “for whom Jesus Christ was not only personal saviour but surfing consultant,” who walks on the water of some miracle swell only he can see. The Boards, who are maybe The Beach Boys at their jerkiest and who, hoping to stay under the radar of No Shoes, No Service policies, tattoo sandal straps on the ankles and the tops of their feet. Doc will run afoul of Aryan bikers and albino loan sharks and a cop with a membership to the Screen Actors Guild. He will do his stoner-best to help out junkies and black revolutionaries and a procession of California blondes distinguishable only by their manner of trouble.

There is the temptation, of course, to reduce Doc to a parody riff, all fun, a Marx Brother in a murder mystery. After all, the sign on his office reads “LSD Investigations,” as in “Location, Surveillance, Detection,” and features “a giant bloodshot eyeball in the psychedelic favourites green and magenta”, an “ocular maze” that so transfixes potential clients, they forget why they arrived at his door. The private eye has already been satirised too many times to count. Yet every lampooning from Garfield’s “Sam Spayed” to The Big Lebowski takes for granted that the hard-boiled dick was a kind of straight man, forever reacting to other people’s horrible, horrifying comedies of errors, and assumes that if you render him as strange as his villains and victims, then you’ve destabilised the whole genre. But the shamus of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler was a man of sorrows, despised, rejected, too acquainted with grief, closer, really, to a saint—and the saints who minister to freaks tend themselves to be even freakier.

Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, for instance, gets mistaken most of the time for Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, soft-hearted inside his trench, hard-headed under the brim of his hat, romantic and snarling and certain. Chandler didn’t help the confusion. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” he is oft-quoted. “He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” But Marlowe was somebody else: weirder and more delicate, a wallower, a blabbermouth, with the chipped shoulder and carefully colourful phrasings of a frustrated poet. He was a masochist whose accounts are settled with heart-break and blows to the back of the head as readily as cash or cheque. And a man of honour, sure, but his ethics, like Hamlet’s, have driven him a bit goofy.

Here he is, in Farewell, My Lovely, on a stakeout at sea: “I’m scared,” he says suddenly, and apropos of nothing, “I’m scared stiff. I’m afraid of death and despair. Of dark water and drowned men’s faces and skulls with empty eyesockets. I’m afraid of dying, of being nothing, of not finding a man named Brunette.” “You sure give yourself a pep talk,” chuckles his ship’s captain. Reactions are usually less generous. In Chandler’s great, sad masterpiece The Long Goodbye, a cop describes Marlowe, accurately, as a “sick chicken… a very sick chicken.”

So Doc is no more peculiar than his prototype; he is, however, significantly better adjusted. Where Marlowe says, “You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick,” Doc, when it comes to femmes fatales, endeavours at all times to be “professional if not groovy.” Instead, Doc has a love for the Lakers more ruinous and rewarding than that for any dame, and no matter how foul the murder or consuming the case, he always finds time at the end of the day to blaze up and catch the game. (Compare this with a regular evening for Marlowe: “I sat there and poisoned myself with cigarette smoke and listened to the rain.”) And about the drugs Doc’s always tripping on and smoking up: they do leave him slower and spacier than Sherlock Holmes, but substance abuse proves a far superior survival strategy to Marlowe’s “trouble is my business” pathologies, his despairing, furious nobility; the weed keeps Doc anaesthetised, like a chemo patient, against the pain of the world.

Once Doc starts poking around, he discovers that Mickey may have been, until recently, a ghastly piece of work, but his mind has now been fully blown, either by too many epiphany-inspiring acid trips or too many politics-spouting hippie chicks. In fact, this real estate titan has traded in profiteering for imagineering, and somewhere out in the desert is constructing a “scatter of concrete... among the scrawls of chaparral,” a kind of anti-Vegas, where everything is comped and anyone could come and stay for free forever, a “big giveaway” to make up for all the bad he’s built. Like Chinatown, Inherent Vice begins with a case of who’s hurting who and then broadens into the tragedy of who owns what. It’s really never personal – crime fiction teaches us this just as well as Das Kapital – and always just business.

Doc never makes it much beyond the margins of this mystery, and never gets closer to Mickey than a birdwatcher’s “blurred glimpse” across a crowded hallway. But his always-a-step-behind, always-a-day-late investigation still manages to piss off all the people pissed off at Mickey; and for hundreds of pages, Doc pursues and is pursued by what seems, at first, like Pynchon’s all-time dumbest conspiracy: the Golden Fang. It’s a tax-dodge for drug-dealing dentists, seemingly connected to every bad deed in the book, and housed in a headquarters as literal and conspicuous as any Bond villain’s: a six-storey-high spire covered in gold leaf, on a block smack dab in the middle of Hollywood.

But these orthodontic buffoons turn out to be, ah, only the tip of the fang – the distracting, clownish face of an even bigger and more insidious racket which, for lack of another phrase, is essentially the entire capitalist system. And when one of these so-called bad guys deigns to meet Doc, he turns out to be just another successful businessman: condescending, uncaring, perfectly friendly, proffering an invitation to his country club, a rum and coke, and a ready explanation for why Mickey’s utopian plan will not advance one inch. “It’s about being in place,” the businessman explains. “We’ve been in place forever. Look around. Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labour –all that’s ours, it’s always been ours. And you, at the end of the day what are you? One more unit in this swarm of transients who come and go without pause here in the sunny Southland, eager to be bought off with a car of a certain make, model, and year, a blonde in a bikini, 30 seconds on some excuse for a wave –a chili dog, for Christ’s sake.”

The California dream, we are not surprised to learn, is just another piece of real estate to be bought, developed, divided up, and then sold back at a profit or rented out –that’s the fine print near the bottom of this golden land, that transcendence and escape fuel an economy that cannot be transcended or escaped. With every rent check written, every used car purchased, every feast ordered to feed the munchies, all the free-lovers down by the beach are merely leasing their freedom, like they’re sharecroppers. Inherent Vice feels very much like a book written during and about the housing bust, where the aspirations and hopes of so many were the helium molecules to inflate the banks accounts of the wealthy few.

The novel’s title refers to maritime law, not subprime mortgages, but the implications are clear: “inherent vice”, Doc’s lawyer explains, describes the fragility of things too fragile to be insured; it’s “what you can’t avoid, stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo—like eggs break.” Under these terms, that’s us: humanity’s lower 98 per cent. We’re the eggs, cargo so breakable and easily replaceable as to not be worth worrying about, so long as the ship arrives in port. “We will never run out of you people,” declares the Fang’s frontman, “The supply is inexhaustible.”

But Pynchon has a physicist’s optimism, believing as he does that for every action, there is a reaction; for every conspiracy, a counterforce. We know this from way back in Gravity’s Rainbow, where he reminds us that despite every V-2 missile fired, there is also always “the Force of Gravity... That against which the Rocket must struggle,” always the possibility that it will falter and fail and be pulled harmlessly back down to earth before achieving its appalling parabola.

Maybe you’re hoping that our “gumsandal,” rather than gumshoe, is all the counterforce the book needs. “The private eye weeps for you, even a sockless junkie,” John Leonard, the late, missed critic, once wrote. “He evens the odds of the poor and weak against the rich and violent, the organised criminals, neighbourhood bullies, corporate goons, ministries of fear, drug cartels, death squads, and global conspiracies, usually with a jazz score.” But what a hard-boiled dick usually does is wisecrack about his and humanity’s helplessness, and then lose more than he finds. Like the independent monitor of a corrupt and rigged election, Doc will be able only to make his feeble protests and take testimonials and try his very best, despite his many dead and dying brain cells, to remember what went down after everyone else has succumbed or split.

Besides, the counterforce Pynchon has in mind is something more like gravity: kindness. Sure, backs are stabbed and guns are fired and PI’s get cold-cocked. But in the cracks of these mean streets, like blades of grass, there also sprout these tiny human gestures, “too precious to accept, being too easy, for Doc anyway, to abuse, which he was bound to”; the only things Doc’s come across that defy monetary value, and the best reasons he has to hope that maybe not everything in this world is property. In fiction’s nastiest genre, Pynchon has written his nicest book.

So after Mickey’s dream has been good and dashed, and after the Lakers get murdered in the NBA finals by the Knicks, Doc goes out for a drive. Fog drops down, everywhere, on everything, like a forest of nets, but he is lucky enough to find himself “in a convoy of unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in tail-light range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered awhile for safety in getting across a patch of blindness. It was one of the few things he’d ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free.” Maybe, he imagines, “people could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.” This is where we leave Doc Sportello, inching along the sightless road, accepting the guiding kindness of the car ahead of him, being himself kind to the car behind. This is what passes, in a Thomas Pynchon novel, for a happy ending.

Mark Lotto is an editor with the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.

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