Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tripping over clues, while dreams go up in smoke: Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice

Speaking of the end of the sixties (see preceding film review)... When we catch up with the Southern California counterculture at the start of Thomas Pynchon’s
Inherent Vice (Penguin, $35) the rust has already started to eat away at the carburetor. It must be early 1970 from the sound of things. Manson’s going to trail. Cambodia’s getting pummeled. Drugs are getting uglier. Funkier Los Angeles is well on route to becoming a grid of massive real estate developments. Permanently groovy Gordita Beach private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello, meanwhile, is getting a visit from his past that will prove more tumultuous than a mere flashback, however extended. His ex-girlfriend Shasta appears at his door one night with something like a job, something about a billionaire named Mickey Wolfmann who she appears to be in love with, who takes a lion’s share of the responsibility for the aforementioned real estate development binge, and who might just be about to get kidnapped. The whole thing makes Doc instantly nervous despite his wealth of first-hand experience with danger. “Doc had outrun souped-up Rolles full of indignant smack dealers on the Pasadena Freeway, doing a hundred in the fog and trying to steer through all those crudely engineered curves, he’s walked up back alleys east of the L.A. River with nothing but a borrowed ’fro pick in his baggies for protection, been in and out of the Hall of Justice while holding a small fortune in Vietnamese weed…” But still. If hippy telepathy counts for anything he’d better steel himself for some unusually not-so-good vibrations, a process which, like every other process in Doc’s daily doings, generally involves getting high. Perhaps a horoscope will be consulted.

Two related movies. In director Robert Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett’s iconoclastic and satirical adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s greatest novel, The Long Goodbye (1973), private detective Philip Marlowe finds himself transplanted from the 1950s to the 1970s, where his once unshakable code of ethics dissolves in a post-hippy haze. In the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (98), a wildly imaginative pastiche that leans heavily on Chandler’s legacy, a pothead bowling fanatic and relic of the 1970s who actually calls himself the Dude finds he’s roped into playing private detective after the theft of his favourite rug during the 1990s. Pynchon’s Doc exists in a curious realm somewhere between these two film-based-on-literary protagonists. He lives in nearly the same the milieu of the former while guiding his actions by what feels like virtually the same philosophy as the latter. Unlike either he’s not an anachronism but is rather perfectly in keeping with the spirit of his age, and that spirit and its sticky residue are to a considerable extent the real subject of Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s first and, to say the very least, irreverent attempt at the mystery genre. From what I could keep track of in my reading the mystery plot does basically hold together, but it’s gleefully obscured by a tangled web of cultural observation and critique manifesting in near constant digressions. It’s pleasantly meandering, obsessively detailed, probably over-written, at times poetic, and quite often extremely funny. Funny in that zany, busy, baffling, conspiracy-laden, pop culture-crazed Thomas Pynchon kind of way. (If you’ve read him—greatest hits include V. and Gravity’s Rainbow—you know what I mean.)

The elusive Mister Pynchon, circa a hell of a long time ago

Doc covers a lot of ground, not only in Los Angeles but Las Vegas, too. He visits a massage parlour called Chick Planet, where queries about certain sought after figures are responded to with counter-questions such as “Far out. Does he eat pussy?” He patronizes several disparate restaurants where the servers seem always to be warning their customers against eating the food. He visits his cousin Scott Oof, drummer in a band called Beer, and a friend who’s on the verge of discovering the internet in its nascent form. He visits a luxury home with lighting design by James Wong Howe. He gets into a car driven by an insane young woman named Japonica he was once paid to find and is pulled over by cops belonging to a special squad called Cultwatch. He enjoys a rare sighting of the Golden Fang, a schooner that miraculously survived the Halifax Explosion, was later purchased by a blacklisted Hollywood movie star, was later still used for anti-communist activities in the Third World. All the while there is this ongoing tension with regards to Doc’s autonomy—is he picking up clues or simply being led along a path designed by unseen agencies? Of course Doc’s paranoid, but often with reason. He’s a private dick—not a gumshoe but, as one character suggests, a “gumsandal”—and thus a natural outsider, and maybe a pawn of the LAPD, who’ve taken to farming out their dirty work. In any case, Doc’s being perpetually adrift in fogs both literal and figurative is the running joke of
Inherent Vice, but it’s also the meat of it. As Endless Summer turns into endless bummer Doc slowly emerges as a lonesome, damaged emblem for a generation whose dreams of fun, freedom, tolerance and respect for privacy, however wishful or misguided they may be, are exploited and finally dashed altogether by the rise of corporate power and ubiquity. Pynchon has a great old time poking fun at Doc’s lifestyle and philosophy, but under all the farce lies a genuine melancholy nostalgia for a time when such dreams could even by conceived.

By the end of Inherent Vice, even mellow old Doc might be getting hardened to the way the tide is turning. “I should trust only good people?” he asks his pal Denis (pronounced, incidentally, to rhyme with penis). “Man, good people get bought and sold every day. Might as well trust somebody evil once in a while, it makes no more or less sense.” But Pynchon at least mercilessly leaves Doc in a state of meditative suspension, of unknowingness that’s relatively comfortable, driving in yet another fog, singing along to ‘God Only Knows’ on the radio, with more than a half a tank of gas and an almost full pack of Kools, feeling ready enough for whatever might happen.

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