Shortly before the release of Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon's eighth book, an odd rumour made its way around the internet where buzz for the new novel was building. If it was to be believed, an operative from the Creative Artists' Agency, the immensely wealthy (and itself vaguely Pynchonian) collective of Los Angeles talent-mongers, was shopping around the rights to adapt the new book into a film.
To anyone who has ever read anything by Pynchon, the idea will seem absurd. You can talk about the “unfilmable” nature of books such as American Psycho and Watchmen until you're blue in the face: at least they feature broadly anthropoid characters engaging in comprehensible acts within basically conventional narrative structures. The director who elects to film Pynchon, however, faces challenges of a whole other order. Fancy making a seven-hour chase movie about a man who gets an erection whenever the Nazis fire a V2 rocket, featuring an octopus with a Pavlovian mindwipe, a giant cocaine-addicted adenoid and a protracted adventure in the U-bend of a lavatory? (Gravity's Rainbow.) Or, what about a pastiche 18th-century picaresque about the American frontier, related by a clergyman, interspersed with erotic parodies and featuring a cameo from Vaucanson's Duck? (Mason & Dixon.)
So Pynchon fans will probably feel a mixture of apprehension and mistrust to learn that Inherent Vice is eminently filmable. Filmable, meaning that the plot goes in straight lines, the characters are distinct and rounded, and the book features large amounts of dialogue that is not only speakable but also very funny. Whatever the world expected America's most challenging, contrary and pyrotechnically talented writer to do next, it certainly wasn't to produce a novel whose cockeyed gumshoe satire, amusing stoned banter and winking elegy for the hippie dream resemble most of all a Pynchonian rewrite of The Big Lebowski.
Inherent Vice is set in southern California at the roach end of the Sixties, after the Manson murders had largely confirmed “straightworld people” in their mistrust of the flower-power movement. It follows the adventures of Larry “Doc” Sportello, a periodically lucid private investigator, as he attempts to find out the truth behind the disappearance of his former lover's lover, a property magnate named Mickey Wolfmann. Doc's researches, fuelled and often sidetracked by a diverse array of cannabis products, reveal that Wolfmann has been abducted after suffering a hippie epiphany and attempting to sell all his interests and build a rent-free commune in the desert. They also bring him into contact not only with the higher levels of police corruption but with the Golden Fang, an elusive organisation of a classically Pynchonian conspiratorial bent. Are the Fang heroin smugglers? Are they real estate developers? Do they control Nixon and the FBI, or are they (or perhaps They) just dentists?
Like many of Pynchon's novels, Inherent Vice deals with a time and a place on the cusp of extinction. Like the socialist workers' unions of Against the Day and the frontiersmen of Mason & Dixon, the peaceful dope fiends of Sixties SoCal are soon to have their paradise swept away by the forces of capital and change.
This countercultural impulse has been a feature of Pynchon's writing, and so has a sense of potent nostalgia for a future that never took place, for the side-turnings that humanity missed in its rush to modernity. In Inherent Vice, it swirls amid the madcap humour and the tortuous twists and turns of the plot. “There is no avoiding time,” soliloquises one character under a particularly aromatic influence, “the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must now live in forever.” And the introduction of ARPAnet, the predecessor of the internet, not only connects some flyaway plot strands but allows plenty of sly reference to a future in which “everybody's gonna wake up to find they're under surveillance they can't escape”.
Unlike much of Pynchon's other work, however, Inherent Vice wears its learning lightly, intermixing it with dialogue that zings, jokes that never overstay their welcome and a stream of hilariously bad puns and wickedly acute observations. Who would have thought it? One of America's most wilful and obscure writers has produced the most enjoyable beach read of the summer.
This review first appeared in The Telegraph.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009