Saturday, June 22, 2013

Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon)

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
Reread: 7 January to 15 January 2013
4 / 5 stars

When I first read Inherent Vice, my Pynchon intake was woefully scant. I also read it in little bits and spurts over the span of a few months -- oh, and somewhere in all that, I got married. And was working two jobs. And had no idea that the undeservedly derisive "Pynchon Light" just means it requires still frantic but slightly less infrequent consultation of a dictionary and only one additional reference material.

Nothing about my first read made for ideal reading conditions. Past Me gave this little gem a paltry three-star rating, which was a sad day indeed in my literary history. At least I realized that the fault was my own and Inherent Vice deserved better than being shoehorned between major milestones and other real-world distractions.

Three years later, my love for Thomas Pynchon has grown to the point where I made sure to take off 8 May for Pynchon in Public Day so I could traipse around New York City to, with little more than the pairing of a 2004 NYT article's vague location and my own keen eye for older gentlemen with buck teeth for guidance, harmlessly stalk literature's most elusive enigma while getting cozy with V. in highly visible areas. And maybe adding a few of my own muted horns to the city's sprawling landscape of graffiti. With the fangirl-tizzy-inducing news that T. Ruggs has a new novel on the horizon, what better time could there be to revisit a novel that demands far more fervent adulation than the lukewarm "meh" I originally belched out before moving on to other things?

Inherent Vice is easy to write off, I know. The Lebowski parallels are too obvious to pass up (likable, well-meaning stoner gets caught up in a noir-flavored mess that's, in all fairness, far bigger than both his good nature and weed-soured but still viable brain can process before Shit Gets Real and Really Ugly) but that's far too simplistic of a prejudgment to bring to this densely hilarious, heart-breakingly nostalgic love letter to the long-gone good vibes of the '60s. The references here are far more obvious (though still deftly delivered) than the obscure-1940s nods that are peppered throughout Gravity Rainbow like low-impact land mines, what with its smattering of music, television, cinema and general entertainment nods that every Flower Child and wanna-be hippie alike can't help but understand like a second language.

To truly appreciate the rich nuances, intricate layers and multitudinous similarities this deceptively simple tale of increasingly out-of-place hippies shares with its outwardly brainier older siblings, one needs either an encyclopedic knowledge of positively all of the things ever or the patience to refer obsessively to an outside source: As I am not a brain on legs, I opted for the second choice, which was really the best way to make sure that I caught all the brilliant little nuggets Pynchon scatters throughout this madcap whodunnit wrapped in psychedelic grooves and freely offered love by the California beach. And paranoia by the stolen-car-load. Because it wouldn’t be Pynchon (or an excursion with Mary Jane) without bricks and kilos and the occasional easy-to-stash dime-bag of paranoia.

One of the most immediate charms of this novel is that Pynchon either assumes the reader comes to his newest brainchild wielding a familiarity with his other works or is simply self-referential to a delightful extent, which is a far tastier treat after partaking in his other novels. Vineland is the most immediate parallel, given the gaggle of aging hippies (even if I had a hard time absorbing the fact that Doc is not even 30 -- which I don't want to talk about because that means he's roughly my age but with a truly old soul’s history) watching helplessly as their chronologic home slips farther and farther into the past and partying all the way to their cultural obsolescence, as well as the remarkable similarities (and foil-ish inversions of crucial traits) exhibited by Doc here and Zoyd in Vineland. But the sheer palpability of Californian characteristics also evokes the spirit of The Crying of Lot 49 to an unignorable extent, just as IV and CoL49 share a kinship of noir-y origin.

And even Gravity’s Rainbow has strong philosophical bonds with IV. My favorite example is to compare this passage from the former:

"Temporal bandwidth" is the width of your present, your now. It is the familiar "Δt" considered as a dependent variable. The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are. It may get to where you’re having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago, or even—as Slothrop now—what you’re doing here, at the base of this colossal curved embankment. . . .

to this passage from the latter, wherein our intrepid protagonist is recalling a particularly cosmic trip where alien beings thrust his hyperdense, perfect-specimen self three billion years into the future:

"Oh, and one other thing," just before throwing the final switch, “the universe? it’s been, like, expanding? So when you get there, everything else will be the same weight, but bigger? with all the molecules further apart? except for you—you’ll be the same size and density. Meaning you’ll be about a foot shorter than everybody else, but more compact. Like, solid?”

What I like best is that this principal (aside from the interpretation that the events leading up to this moment of Doc's substance-fueled adventure can be a nod to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which is further proof that I need to read it sooner rather than later) might get some actual demonstration if the lapses in IV are meant to be taken literally, as Doc has some serious lost-time moments that could be best explained by his slipping through wormholes. Or is Doc simply so super chummy with Uncle Sid that he's too busy tripping his face off to account for the funny things his sense of here-and-now is doing to his sense of self?

If that's not enough, the Pynchonian hallmarks -- extending beyond thematic, atmospheric and character similarities to include both the writing itself and the episodes of hilarity underscoring the gut-wrenching truths of reality -- are as omnipresent here as is the necessary haze of pot smoke. And there's a bonus rumination about three-fourths in that echoes Hunter S. Thompson's Wave Speech with a touching sincerity.

Or you can always enjoy this video, narrated by The Man Himself. If nothing else, it'll teach your the proper pluralization of "stewardess."

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