Monday, February 17, 2014

Psychedelic Noir

By Lisabet Sarai

For the next two weeks, the denizens here at the Grip will be talking about our recent reading. I'm thrilled. Back at beginning of February, I finished Thomas Pyncheon's wonderful and bizarre novel Inherent Vice, but I just haven't had the time to write the review it deserves. Now I have additional motivation, although I doubt I can thoroughly convey the sheer brilliance of this literary gem.

Despite his stellar reputation, I am not in general a fan of Pynchon's work. On my husband's enthusiastic recommendation, I struggled through The Crying of Lot 49. I still can't tell you what the book is about, except that it has something to do with postal stamps. I tried to read Gravity's Rainbow and gave up. Pynchon's lengthy sentences and stream of consciousness style gave me a headache. The feeling that I'm too stupid to understand a book really ruins my reading pleasure.

Hence, when K. picked up Inherent Vice at our favorite used bookstore, I figured this was one book we wouldn't share. As he made his way through the neon-jacketed novel, snorting with amazement, chuckling with amusement and occasionally quoting outrageous passages, I changed my mind.

I'm so glad I did.

Inherent Vice, set in lurid, smoggy Los Angeles in the late sixties, follows the path of Larry “Doc” Sportello, a hippy stoner hanging out by the beach who just happens to make a living as a private eye. Doc's a hapless, big-hearted lunk with a sharp eye, even when under the influence of various pharmaceutical products, and a terrible fashion sense. One day – yes, you've got it – a lady walks into his down-at-the-heels office. The sexy femme's not a stranger, though. Shasta Fay is Larry's ex-lover and she needs his help. She's fallen in love with a married, billionaire property developer, and she suspects there's some plot against Mickey's life. Agreeing to make some pro bono inquiries for old time's sake, Doc soon finds himself enmeshed in illegal, evil and just plain weird activities involving murderous bikers, slutty stewardesses, heroin addicts, zombie rock and rollers, drug-inspired psychics, perverted dentists, kinky heiresses, gay ex-cons, crooked police and a vicious, shadowy organization called the Golden Fang. The PI navigates this maze with calm aplomb, assisted by copious amounts of marijuana and other mind-altering substances.

With dozens of characters, some straight out of an album by Diane Arbus, and a plot that blossoms and fades like some acid dream, Inherent Vice nevertheless remains comprehensible. It is simultaneously a satirical paean to the sixties, a classic noir thriller, and a meditation on the nature of reality. The book feels chaotic, the author's imagination set loose without the constraints of logic, but that's an illusion. By the last page, Pynchon ties up every loose end and hands every character his or her just desserts.

Meanwhile, every page offers new delights – absurd scenes, laugh-out-loud hilarity, crisp dialogue, wildly creative plot twists, and every now and again, passages of such beauty they stopped me cold. By the time I'd finished reading, I'd turned down at least a dozen pages to mark particularly remarkable prose. Here's an example from early in the book.

Back at his place, Doc stood for a while gazing at a velvet painting from one of the Mexican families who set up their weekend pitches along the boulevards through the green flatland where people still rode horses, between Gordita and the freeway. Out of the vans and into the calm early mornings would come sofa-width Crucifixions and Last Suppers, outlaw bikers on elaborately detailed Harleys, superhero bad asses in Special Forces gear packing M16s and so forth. This picture of Doc's showed a Southern California beach that never was – palms, bikini babes, surfboards, the works. He thought of it as a window to look out of when he couldn't deal with looking out of the traditional glass-type one in the other room. Sometimes in the shadows the view would light up, usually when he was smoking weed, as if the contrast knobs of Creation had been messed with just enough to give everything an underglow, a luminous edge, and promise that the night was about to turn epic somehow.

Long sentences, yes – I noted more than one paragraph without a single period – but nevertheless crystal clear, at least to me. I've seen those paintings. I get it, if you know what I mean.

That was a common sensation while reading Inherent Vice. The author would offer up some description, through Doc's eyes, and I'd have an immediate sense of understanding, a sense that I'd seen this myself and that I grokked the underlying meaning.

Now I did live in southern California for several years – though much later than the time period in this novel. And I will admit that I smoked some pot back in those days. Would this book resonate as strongly for someone who'd never seen Venice Beach or Griffith Park? Someone who'd never tasted good old Mary Jane? Is Pychon a sufficiently gifted writer that he could bring Doc's environment and mental state to life in a reader who had no real world experience to use as a reference?

Of course I can't answer that question. Perhaps that hypothetical reader wouldn't be interested in the book in the first place – and would end up the poorer for it.

Here's another paragraph, one of my favorites, full of imagery that will stick with me long after I've lost the details of this extremely complicated creation.

Later they went outside, where a light rain was blowing in, mixed with salt spray feathering off the surf. Shasta wandered slowly down to the beach and through the wet sand, her nape in a curve she had learned from times when back turning came into it, the charm of. Doc followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool's attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did. The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not. Shasta had nailed it. Forget who – what was he working for anymore?

Funny, surprising, original, insightful – a masterpiece of tongue-in-cheek social commentary, a vivid snapshot of a period lost to history, a no-holds-barred festival of the imagination – if you can handle sentences that ramble on for half a page, and you're not morally opposed to drugs, I think you'll enjoy this book.


  1. i haven't yet had a chance to read Pynchon. i heard this was his most accessible work. thanks for the review, Lisabet. i'll check it out.

    1. It's a guilty pleasure - literary and huge fun at the same time!

  2. Thanks for this review. I've dashed myself against the cliffs of Gravity's Rainbow a couple times to no avail, so thanks to this I'll know where to start if I decide to give Pynchon another try—it's good to hear you got into it despite not getting into Pynchon's other work.

  3. Thanks for posting about this book! I read Pynchon's book V. in the sixties, and loved it to the extent that my partner and I would use phrases from it frequently, but The Crying of Lot 49 left me cold, and I couldn't get into Gravity's rainbow. V. is a blend of realism and the surreal, with a rather disjointed story line, but accessible (at least to my young mind back then) and engrossing. And the setting--well, some of it--was the east coast and to a fairly large extent NYC (yo-yoing on the subways…) so it was familiar territory for me. Wildly funny, sometimes confusing, mind-blowing even for someone who never got much into pot (but the characters do.) My younger self heartily recommends it, and I'll keep Inherent Vice in mind.

  4. I know I started 'V' back in the day and didn't finish, but the buildup you give Vice makes me want to check it out. I'm pretty sure I have all the prerequisites you list. Hehe.

  5. hi Lisabet!

    Pynchon is one of those writer's I've been aware of but not yet read. Something you're saying here which I think is really important is the joy you have of his language which I feel too when I read these passages. This is kind of my peeve with popular genre fiction, not necessarily yours, that writer's don't experiment enough with language. I blame publishers for this, they need a novel that is easy to read and not too demanding most of the time. But how wonderful to read a writer like this when they just fearlessly take off with words and you want to copy them down with a pencil just to see how it feels to soar that high and sound that way. I think this is something everybody should aspire to. You have to love sentences. you have to love words.



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