Early in Inherent Vice, the new hippie-detective yarn by American novelist Thomas Pynchon, a perpetually stoned PI named Doc Sportello recoils at the growing complexities surrounding his case. At this point, barely 50 pages in, Doc has it pegged as a kidnapping that somehow involves Doc’s ex-girlfriend, a shady real-estate developer, various acquaintances, Nazi bodyguards, and a grudge-holding LAPD officer/TV actor named Bigfoot Bjornsen. Doc shakes his head at the possibilities: “Too much to think about.”
It’s a feeling any Pynchon reader can relate to, though by the author’s own labyrinthine standards Doc’s is actually a rather manageable story. Set in 1970 in the fictionalized Californian town of Gordita Beach—allegedly a stand-in for Manhattan Beach, where the reclusive Pynchon is said to have lived at that time—the novel is a hedonistic rush, with equal parts sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, B movies, and greasy food.
Perhaps because he’s tethered himself to a single genre, Pynchon keeps a relatively short leash on his hyperactive imagination, even when recounting Doc’s various acid trips or detailing the history of a mysterious entity called the Golden Fang—which is a smuggling boat, or a New Age rehab clinic, or a tax dodge invented by dentists, or all or none of the above. As Doc’s case spirals outward, his moment-to-moment actions make a certain loopy kind of sense, even if the big picture often remains as frayed as his white Afro.
Much of Pynchon’s recent work has drawn criticism for overindulging in pop-culture references and outright silliness, and those who agree with this assessment will probably find much to dislike about the new novel, too. Reproduced lyric sheets to several made-up surf songs, such as “Soul Gidget” and “Just the Lasagna (Semi-Bossa Nova)” (the latter’s opening lines being “Izzit some U, FO? (No, no-no!) Maybe it’s—wait, I know!”), seem particularly ripe targets for scorn.
But Inherent Vice, with its gumshoe hero and general air of pot-induced paranoia, may be better equipped to stand on its own. After all, what is every splinter of cultural driftwood that meanders onto the page but another potential clue? What is a pizza topped with pork rinds and boysenberry yogurt but a Rosetta Stone waiting to be discovered?
Penguin, 384 pp, $35, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, October 1, 2009)