Incoherent Vice

Photo: Thomas Allen

This is probably going to make me sound, yet again, like a Neanderthal shouting from the back of the classroom, and might even destroy my career and end a few friendships and scandalize my children and cast shame upon my ancestors—but I have something to confess. After years of deceiving myself and others (felonious head nods in grad seminars, forced cocktail-party chuckles), I have decided it’s time to stop living a literary-critical lie. There is no easy way to say this, so here it is. I hate Thomas Pynchon.

I should not, probably, hate Thomas Pynchon. He is an indisputably, uniquely gifted genius who shares artistic DNA with almost all my favorite writers (Joyce, Barthelme, DeLillo, et al). Basic demographics and taste-algorithms suggest, in fact, that I should be a full-fledged Pynchon groupie, the kind of guy who names all his hamsters Slothrop and slaps W.A.S.T.E. stickers on the windows of his local post office. But I can’t help it. My distaste is visceral, involuntary, and preconscious—a spasm of my aesthetic immune system. While I fully appreciate Pynchon in the abstract, as a literary-historical juggernaut—a necessary bridge from, say, Nabokov (with whom he studied at Cornell) to David Foster Wallace—sitting down with one of his actual books makes my eyebrows start to smolder. I find him tedious, shallow, monotonous, flippant, self-satisfied, and screamingly unfunny. I hate his aesthetic from floor to ceiling: the relentless patter of his Borscht Belt gags, his parodically overstuffed plots, his ham-fisted verbs (scowling, growling, glaring, leering, lurching) and adjectives (lurid, louche, lecherous), the tumbling micro-rhythms of his sentences, the galloping macro-rhythms of his larger narratives. I hate the discount paranoia he slathers over everything with an industrial-size trowel. I hate the cardboard cutouts he tries to pass off as human characters, and I hate—maybe most of all—his characters’ stupid names. (I even hate his name, which makes him sound like some kind of 29th-century sci-fi lobster.) I hate the fake song lyrics he invents for his characters to sing and the fake restaurants (Man of La Muncha) he invents for them to eat at and the stupid acronyms he invents for them to pledge their lives to.

This confession comes courtesy of Pynchon’s newest novel, Inherent Vice, a manically incoherent pseudo-noir hippie-mystery that should fit in nicely with the author’s recent series of quirky late-career non-masterpieces (Mason & Dixon, Against the Day). Our hero is Larry “Doc” Sportello, a thirtyish hippie private eye (or “gumsandal,” as one character calls him) who lives among surfers in early-seventies Los Angeles, just as the city’s funkier neighborhoods are beginning to turn into massive monolithic real-estate developments. Doc is no Sherlock Holmes: He’s reckless, disorganized (he takes case notes on matchbook covers and old grocery lists), gullible, unprofessional (he rarely gets paid), and crippled by “Doper’s Memory.”

The story begins, as all Pynchon stories do, with a neat little mystery that blooms quickly into a big zany mess. Doc’s old girlfriend, Shasta, asks him to help prevent a crime: the abduction and possible brainwashing of her new lover, a real-estate kingpin. I found myself, against all odds, deeply enjoying the book’s opening stretch. Its characters are refreshingly humanoid, its dialogue cracklingly American (“Thanks, all’s ’at’ll do’s just burn my lip”). Even the names are mercifully pedestrian. (Pynchon probably pulled a muscle resisting the urge to call his real-estate mogul something more outlandish than “Mickey Wolfmann.”) I chuckled when a pothead ordered a pizza topped with pork rinds, papaya, marshmallows, and boysenberry yogurt. I filled the margins with all kinds of sunny, optimistic notes. “This book is fun!” I wrote at the top of page 14.

That feeling expired, sadly, somewhere in the vicinity of page 15. You can almost hear Pynchon flip his big glowing “¡PYNCHON!” switch, after which everything gets extremely, oppressively busy—so busy that the early sense of fun starts to curdle. When Doc steps out to make a few inquiries, he is immediately buried under an avalanche of subplots and superplots and crossplots: faked deaths, false identities, corrupt cops, old prison scores, international drug smuggling, the machinations of Las Vegas real estate. Every time he turns around he runs into a key player with a silly name (Japonica Fenway, Trillium Fortnight, Fritz Drybeam, Sauncho Smilax), who proceeds to do a cartoonish turn, dump some helpful exposition, and pass the quirk baton to the next silly name, who repeats the cycle. (Some critics have detected a new human warmth in Inherent Vice—but that’s only by contrast, the way a walk-in refrigerator feels warm when you’ve just spent a month in a walk-in freezer.) None of this is accidental: Pynchon is clearly having a postmodern blast warping the building blocks of detective fiction—causation, probability, significance, suspense. But it’s not quite so much fun for the reader. It’s hard to stay invested in a plot in which everything is so casually interconnected. When things finally resolve into one big classic Pynchon parable of conspiratorial corporate greed, the solution seems preordained and therefore totally harmless. It feels like the net of genre constraints has been torn down, which drains the game of most of its meaning. With no suspense and nothing at stake, Pynchon’s manic energy just feels like aimless invention.

Pynchon has always been a cartoonist: He specializes in simplification, exaggeration, and brightly colored types. This means that, paradoxically, his wildest invention occurs right at the edge of cliché. He may have finally fallen over that edge. His types, after 45 years, have themselves become types. The characters in Inherent Vice are not only paranoid, they walk around constantly talking about their paranoia. Aside from the dopily lovable Doc, everyone is just the standard tangle of phonemes attached to a Pynchonesque hobbyhorse: computers, threesomes, chocolate-covered frozen bananas. Switch those hobbyhorses around and you don’t lose much. There were sequences toward the end of the book where I had no idea what was happening or even who was speaking, and it didn’t seem worth the energy to backtrack and figure it out. That’s not an ideal way to wrap up a detective story, however unorthodox.

It’s also not an ideal way to wrap up a career. Pynchon, now in his seventies, is very obviously not catering to me. Still, it would be exciting to see such a prodigious talent find his way onto some new artistic path—one, maybe, open to finding meaning in pauses and silence and understatement rather than the same endless manic invention. Otherwise, one of the most unique careers in American literary history is going to end by endlessly repeating itself. And, as Doc might put it: “Uh … bummer.”

Inherent Vice
By Thomas Pynchon.
Penguin Press. $27.95.

Incoherent Vice