Note: This review was originally written back in 2016 as part of a personal "1001+ Book Challenge." I follow a Peter Boxall's 1001 Books: You Must Read Before You Die list and write about books I found particularly noteworthy. This post was edited recently to improve grammar and overall readability, but still reflects the views of a 23-year old me. My writing has improved since then, I promise!
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon Review
Thomas Pynchon is widely regarded as one of the greatest living American authors ever and also quite possibly the most reclusive. Pynchon is so good at staying out of the limelight (even surpassing Salinger in his later years) that no one is sure of what he looks like, which could maybe serve as an excuse for why I didn’t know of him earlier. Now that I have read about him, and finished Inherent Vice, my brain is packed with so much information that I honestly don’t know where to begin. While the author himself is very interesting, I am going to refrain from talking too much about him and instead focus on Inherent Vice, the movie and the book. So, light some incense, put on Jefferson Airplane, and get ready for a 60s detective story written by a guy no one has seen in years.
The movie was what initially sparked my interest. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice is like Fear and Loathing with a detective bend and somewhat more of a coherent plot line. The protagonist, Private Detective Larry “Doc” Sportello is hired by his ex, Shasta Fay, to investigate the disappearance of her current boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann. Of course, what initially seems like a fairly straightforward case quickly spirals into a broad spectrum investigation, with complicated ins and outs, detours, and surprises. When watching the film, I felt pretty confused about how every element fit in and what they all had to do with each other. Real estate development? Drugs? Smugglers? Biker gangs? Rehab centers? What…? At the end, while I greatly enjoyed the film, the plot line felt a bit clunky to me and the story somewhat incomplete. I chalked this up to movie constraints initially, thinking that major plot points found in the book must have been removed in order to shorten the film and make it more engaging. After reading the book however, I’m not so sure.
Generally speaking, the plot of the book is just about the same as the plot of the movie. The only real difference is the ending and removal of some segments that I felt didn’t really add much to begin with. For example, about halfway into the book, Doc travels to Las Vegas with a woman named Trillium Fortnight (suggestive) in search of a guy, Puck Beaverton (very suggestive), whom she’s in love with. While the trip does, in a way, advance the plot overall, I felt that the act of agreeing to go to Vegas in the first place was kind of unnecessary on Doc’s part and that him finding another clue in his investigation was kind of a lucky break. In fact, thinking about it, for most of the book Doc doesn’t do very much sleuthing, instead he seems to stumble upon most of his leads and clues while out doing apparently irrelevant things. While I understood the connections between the different elements of Doc’s investigation in the novel, I was often confused as to how he got from point A to B.
The narrative style and structure of the novel didn’t help clarify things either. Pynchon’s sentences here are long and full of 60s references. Often I felt sure that a sentence was going to end and was then surprised that it kept going for 3-4 more lines. To add to this, the book is full of characters, many of whom don’t add much to the story other than small moments of dialogue and further info about the investigation that they just happen to know. For example, the character, Jason Velveeta only appears in chapter 10, and while he does contribute to Doc’s investigation, the fact that he had relevant information to share seems like a big coincidence and his absence for the rest of the book makes me question the reason behind adding him in the first place.
Now, it seems like I’ve been pretty critical so far, but keep in mind that this isn’t simply a detective novel, it is also a reflection on Los Angeles in the 60s. Here is when things get interesting. At first glance, it appears that the oddly spiraling and often incoherent plot of the novel take away from its literary quality, however, they in fact add a great deal to it. There are several seemingly irrelevant elements in the story that caught my eye, namely: Doc’s frequent drug use, his concern about karma, references to the “lost continent” Lemuria, and a considerable focus on surfing, to name a few. When these things are combined with the detective plot line, Doc’s investigatory “style” of stumbling upon clues and even Pynchon’s use of long winded sentences start to make a lot of sense. The novel is not just a story about finding a real estate developer, it is also a reflection on time and change. The narrative style and investigation is supposed to give the reader an impression of being, well, stoned and the references are indicative of loss.
The fabled lost continent of Lemuria is particularly significant to the meaning of the novel. Lemuria was hypothesized to have been a continent which once existed in the Indian Ocean, but later sunk. Some believed that an ancient civilization once thrived on it and after the collapse some of its inhabitant were able to escape to California, specifically Mount Shasta (!). The mountain was said to house a network of tunnels which stretched underground and made up a city. Its inhabitants were believed to occasionally come out of the mountain wearing white robes (just like in the rehabilitation center featured in the novel). The inclusion of this element and frequent reference to the rising and dipping tide as observed by the surfers of Santa Monica (and the obvious connection to Doc’s girlfriend) lead me to believe that the novel is a kind of a nostalgia trip, a reflection on an end to an era that no one really saw coming. The 60s to the hippie generation were like Shasta was to Doc, an ex-lover forever lost, but ever present. Doc still cares for Shasta, but knows that he can’t be with her again.
Of course, this is a fairly shallow analysis for such a complex novel, but neither of us have all day. All I can say is that the novel makes one feel that they are part of Doc’s world and everything contributes to this feeling in one way or another. It’s a bit difficult to explain the feeling, and I suppose this was Pynchon’s intention all along.
I give Inherent Vice an 8/10, very well written, complex, and entertaining. Potentially not everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, you have to respect the way everything kind of works and kind of doesn’t in this one. I would definitely recommend both the book and the movie.
Pynchon, Thomas. Inherent Vice. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print