Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon Review (Unread 018)

As a reader, I like a challenge. A lot of the stuff I typically read would be, and unfortunately often is, considered trash by a certain other type of reader. Snobbish readers, the worst kind of readers ever! I love fantasy novels, comics, science fiction, crime fiction, and other genre works. I have no real interest in what people call “literary” fiction. I don’t recall who said it, but I once read that what is often categorized as “literary fiction” is basically just drama. Now, there is nothing wrong with drama, but why not have some fantastic elements with your drama? Still, every once in a while I feel self-conscious about my reading choices and I can’t help but ask myself “why am I ready this trashy shit?!” The obvious answer is that I love it and I love it because it stimulates me in ways that the books I read as part of my high school curriculum did not. I like novels with a lot of ideas, regardless of how wild and impossible they may seem, and I love it when those books take what at first can look like an outlandish idea and turn it into something profound, into something that focuses on a facet of human existence. Much to my dismay, sometimes the genre literature I prefer gives me big ideas without taking the time to develop them properly. It’s at this point that I start looking for books and authors with more ambition.

This leads us to Thomas Pynchon. I’m not sure why but I only discovered him recently. After finding out that one of my favourite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson, would be developing an adaptation of a novel by Pynchon, I started to read about the elusive author. He is an extremely fascinating person and his bibliography is one of the most interesting ones I’ve ever encountered even though I’ve read none of his books prior to this one. Something about Pynchon, something that remains just out of reach, absolutely captivated me. It also scared me a little. Here is a man who has such an imposing reputation that despite my rapidly growing desire to read one of his books I shied away until just three months ago. 

Pynchon is notorious for writing very dense, intricately detailed, confusingly plotted books inhabited by dozens, and dozens of characters. He’s one of the key writers of the last century, particularly in the postmodern movement. He’s also one of those authors that effortlessly exudes an intelligence that is, quite frankly, a little frightening. Here is a man who clearly knew more about the world we live in by the time his first novel was published than I will ever know in my entire lifetime. Go read about him online. Read more than just his Wikipedia entry, and you’ll quickly know what I mean. The desire of reading one of his highly acclaimed novels was chilling thought. It was also very alluring. What would it say about me if I could read a Pynchon novel and (miraculously?) understand it? Why, that might justify all the time I spend reading about made up worlds and herculean heroes and spaceships during my free time! More importantly, it might just give me that feeling I haven’t felt in a while after finishing a book. I desperately wanted to be blown away by a masterful novel and if that meant discovering a new author in the process, then so be it. The world has presented me with a challenge and it was my responsibility as an avid reader to face it head on.

As expected, it was worth it. Inherent Vice is by no means an easy book. Well, it might be an easy book if you’re already a lifelong devotee to Pynchon and his work. For me, a complete noob, it was a revelation. Here is an author who delivered exactly what I was expecting to find while doing it in ways I never could have anticipated. It’s undeniable that Pynchon is playing with genre tropes but here, with his main character being a private detective in Los Angeles. He only uses this as a foundation for his story because the rest of the book is so different from private detective novels that it’s honestly weird to mention both in the same sentence. What this book is really about is the transitional phase between two distinctly different decades: the 60s leading into the 70s.

The story takes place in the Spring of 1970 shortly before the Charles Manson trials. Inherent Vice is about a great deal of things but one of its defining characteristics is presenting the reading with the swan song of the 60s. It’s also a novel about the beach, surfing, music, drugs, hippie lifestyle, the basic evil that permeated the world of the 60s and fully erupted in the dawn of the 70s. It’s about how our dreams and goals can so easily lead us to dark and uninviting places. Another really great theme in this book is technology’s power to seduce and isolate individuals from one another. Excess in recreational activities can also lead to this isolation. People spend more time with their TVs than with their friends and loved ones. People have more interest in getting really fucking stoned and stare at shitty art than they do about doing any real socialization or social interaction. It’s no surprise that ARPANET, the Internet’s ancestor, figures as a plot point in this book because the Internet is a black hole of information and distraction inside of which all our time gets sucked up. While we’re distracted by the sounds of the grooviest tunes coming out of our brand new high fidelity headphones, large corporations and government officials are radically changing our world. To be fair, this era in American history was also characterized by a growing social responsibility, but it was also quite heavily counterbalanced by a desire to have a good time.

Most of the action takes place in and around Gordita Beach, a fictional stand-in for the real Manhattan Beach where Pynchon used to work and hangout. That’s one of the many interesting facts I learned while reading the Inherent Vice annotations. Gordita Beach is the home of many wonderful characters, all of them linked to our reefer-smoking, flip flop-wearing PI, Doc Sportello. The story begins with the investigation in the disappearance of Mickey Wolfmann, a wealthy land developer who is dealing with the reality of his karmic imbalance. He’s latest squeeze is Shasta, Doc’s ex-girlfriend, who pops up occasionally throughout the novel. They’re both mixed in with some of the flashiest and strangest characters in all of Los Angeles, such as Coy Harlingen who is best described as a reincarnation of Jesus, who willingly suffers for our sins by working for shady organizations. One of my favourites, is the always grumpy and often violent “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a cop frenemy of Doc’s who is as unobliging as he is helpful. He’s truly a very complex character. I would be to if all of Gordita Beach always ran to Doc to solve their problems instead of going to the police. Then again, Doc is pretty good at remembering things and solving cases. Only problem is that he often ends up doing it for free but that translate to good karma which probably prevents him from getting killed while navigating through the under-underbelly of crime and corruption in LA. This is but a tiny sample of the characters crammed within these pages. Even throwaway characters are given plenty of nuance and intrigue to keep the most demanding readers satisfied.

Pynchon’s psychedelic novel is also marked by two very distinct yet balanced tones. The first is a very strong tone of paranoia. Nothing is as it seems on the surface and Pynchon repeatedly peels back the layers, not with the goal of confounding the reader, but with the intent of forcing open our eyes by having us face our ignorance head on. The second prevalent tone of this book is its zany, goofy, and delightful humour and love of life. Pynchon might be suggesting that the 60s was the American population’s teenage years in which we found delight in almost all forms of entertainment. People mixed influences and interests without a care in the world and concocted admittedly strange ways of seeing and appreciating the world around us. To push this metaphor even further, it was also during the teenage years that the US started to lay the foundations of social change. Individuals can be represented as still being very immature in many respects but also having a wisdom that can be surprising. This is combined with an interest in traditionally adult concerns. It’s a fascinating mash-up of varying sources that makes for a highly engaging (if regularly off-kilter and sometimes confusing) read.

Why I really enjoy difficult and challenging reads like Peace by Gene Wolfe and The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien), I’ll never let go of my trashy books. They’re an important part of my identity, even if my immediate preferences change on a weekly basis. However, it’s very refreshing and (if not immediately, then eventually) energizing to read books that offer me a challenge. Books that force me to pay attention to the way a sentence is structured, a book that demands I keep track of multiple plot lines as well as thematic cues, a book that requires I invest myself in my reading instead of taking it for granted. Books like Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon also present me a challenge when it’s time for me to write a review. I don’t have the same kind of experience reviewing a book like this one nor do I feel that I have the write vocabulary to do the book justice, regardless of whether I liked the novel or not. Like Pynchon’s writing which so effortlessly blends high- and low-brow references and sensibilities, I think that the path to becoming a better reader lies in having a good balance of genre and literary novels on your bookshelf. It will fuel your reading hours with lofty goals and ambitions while anchoring your ego with the average Joe by way of Godzilla films, surfer music, and Star Trek. If you’ve never tried to read a book by Pynchon, I’d recommend this one. Based on my research online and having read it, I feel comfortable saying this is one of his most approachable and welcoming books. Trashy novel readers beware, you might have to work a little and that’s ok.

As a whole, Inherent Vice is an intentionally un-structured book about very complex characters, a detailed setting, a chaotic yet rich time period. That’s not to say the book has no structure, but the underlying shape of the plot and direction of the narrative are so fluid, almost carefree, that the book seems to tell you to just let go. Stop fighting the complexity of the book you’re reading and just give in to the madness. Your willingness to go along and try new things will be rewarding. 

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