Para-noir-a

The Rabbit, nose a wiggle, is aghast that Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice hasn’t been included in any “Best Of” year-end lists he’s seen. It’s Thomas Pynchon for Carrot’s sake! Full disclosure: The author has been at the top of the Rabbit’s living-writer list since the dumb bunny first read Gravity’s Rainbow so long ago. Added Inherent bonus:  that’s Pynchon doing the voice-over for the book’s promotional video, or so the rumor goes.

Pynchon always gives us the full experience…strange characters in strange situations, shady conspiracies with world-wide consequences, the illusion of triumph set against human fallibility; long, endless sentences that go on further and through more interesting territory than a wilderness trail, plenty of drug and drink abuse, disappointing love affairs and, best of all, justification for our endless paranoia. The Rabbit had high (heh) expectations for the new novel, thrilled that it took place in locales that the Rabbit used to haunt, from the beach at El Porto to West Hollywood’s Raincheck Room, albeit sometime after the early ’70s.

Less is more when it comes to Pynchon novels. At least, that’s what the favorable reviews of Inherent Vice would lead you to believe. The shorter, (somewhat) more plot-focused novels—The Crying of Lot 49 and now Inherent Vice—make more sense, these reviewers say, and avoid the wide-ranging anarchy of his weightier efforts  Mason & Dixon and Against the Day. Salon reviewer Laura Miller, who called Pynchon’s previous book “folderole” (when was the last time you saw that word used?),  finds Inherent Vice to her liking because its themes are presented “straightforwardly”  and a “surprising number of plot strands are more or less neatly tied up.”( Not everyone thinks Pynchon is inclusively guilty of loose ends.)

Miller’s frayed imagery suggests a knotty problem. The best Pynchon is the least Pynchon-like? The Rabbit thinks that misses the point. Inherent Vice is a variation on the noir/detective fiction theme, containing many of the genre’s tried-and-true qualities while placing it in different circumstances. The form doesn’t hold our favorite author in check as much as it gives him a formula with which to play. Moving the action to the early 1970s and the end of the peace-and-love-masquerade puts Pynchon on familiar ground. And any story seen through the eyes of a constantly stoned, long-hair—detective or not—doesn’t make for neatly tied strands. A man of ideas, Pynchon leaves dangle a number of strings in this relatively short (369 pages) send off. Not surprisingly, they’re the ideas he’s threaded through his other books.

That’s why we found Thomas Jones’ review of Inherent Vice in the London Review of Books so valuable. Rather than see it as standing apart from Pynchon’s  previous work, he sees it as part of the whole. Pynchon’s celebrated paranoia springs from the usual suspects—cops and rivalries from various arms of authority, shadowy organizations that seem larger and less penetrable than a major drug cartel, and relationships with femme fatales who may or may not have his best interests at heart. His final target is the vice and venom of capitalism.

The noir/detective form is a set up for a panorama of Pynchon themes. The Golden Fang, at once a shadowy organization that controls more than we can see and an off-shore haven for greed and corruption, stands in for the multi-national coporation that answers to no one but itself. Love lost is still love and often has a future. Confusion is a constant and the only thing that can be trusted, other than  the occasional friendship, is that nothing can be trusted. Inherent Vice has a few  differences from its predecessors. It’s plot is top-loaded into the first few chapters rather than planted in the center, the usual Pynchon modus, which allows character and complication to radiate like the design of a mandala. In Inherent Vice, evil characters (okay, one) become good characters rather than the other way around. And those long, Pynchonian sentences are (mostly) trimmed to manageable length, especially when delivered in dialogue, allowing readers with short attention spans like Salon’s Miller to follow along. Maybe that’s one less thing to marvel.–Cabbage Rabbit

Leave a Reply