Imagine the cult film The Big Lebowski as a novel, with touches of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential thrown in for good measure. Imagine your favorite Raymond Chandler or James Crumley mystery retold as a hippie whodunit, set in Gordita Beach, Calif., at the very end of the 1960s. Imagine a great American novelist, one who is now a septuagenarian, writing with all the vivacity and bounce of a young man who has just discovered girls. Most of all, imagine sentences and scenes that are so much fun to read that you wish Inherent Vice were twice as long as it is. Imagine saying that about a Thomas Pynchon novel … a terrific pastiche of California noir, wonderfully amusing throughout...and a poignant evocation of the last flowering of the '60s, just before everything changed and passed into myth or memory.
The experience of reading the novel is probably as close to getting stoned as reading a novel can be. It brings on fits of the giggles and paranoia jags, and badly messes with your short-term memory: the plot, as ever with Pynchon, is bewilderingly hard to follow, the plethora of characters almost impossible to keep track of without taking notes (as it happens, Doc’s a bit of a compulsive notetaker, to help compensate for his doper’s memory). It doesn’t, however, make you fall asleep or, despite the many descriptions of the consumption of every conceivable variety of fast food, give you the munchies … Characteristically hilarious and thought-provoking though it is, Inherent Vice lacks much of the menace and the passion of its predecessors. Then again, perhaps this flattening of affect is deliberate, analogous to seeing the world through a haze of cannabis smoke, or entirely mediated through TV.
It’s a slightly spoofy take on hardboiled crime fiction, a story in which the characters smoke dope and watch Gilligan’s Island instead of sitting around a night club knocking back J&Bs. It’s The Maltese Falcon starring Cheech and Chong, The Big Sleep as told by the hippy-dippy weatherman … The twist is the time period. The events in Pynchon’s story take place in the spring of 1970, something we can infer from frequent references to the Manson trial and the N.B.A. finals between the Lakers and the Knicks. And the book is loaded—overloaded, really, but Pynchon is an inveterate encyclopedist—with pop period detail … Inherent Vice is a generally lighthearted affair. Still, there are a few familiar apocalyptic touches, and a suggestion that countercultural California is a lost continent of freedom and play, swallowed up by the faceless forces of coöptation and repression.
If Doc sounds like a literary joke — the Private Eye with drooping lids who can’t trust the evidence of his own senses — then he must be a joke with a lesson to impart, since Pynchon isn’t the type to make us laugh unless he’s really out to make us think … Once the plot gets rolling (spurred by the search for a missing land developer whom his trampy ex-girlfriend has a thing for), the story takes on the shape of his derangement, squirting along from digression to digression and periodically pausing for dope-head gabfests of preposterous intensity … Doc’s manhunt for the AWOL billionaire eventually spirals off into absurdity, becoming a collage of trippy interludes peopled by all manner of goofs and lowlifes. These scenes only fitfully advance the narrative and sometimes cause us to forget there is one.
Noir is new territory for Pynchon, but he handles it as deftly as masters of the genre. It eerily resonates with a Chandleresque vibe, and yet it's all Pynchon … The names of Pynchon's characters alone are worth the price of the book: Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, Jason Velveeta, Crocker Fenway and Arthur Tweedle … If you think you don't possess the patience or the gray matter to ‘get’ a Pynchon novel, Vice is for you. This reader would go so far as to call it a beach read.
Inherent Vice not only reminds us how rooted Mr. Pynchon’s authorial vision is in the ’60s and ’70s, but it also demystifies his work, underscoring the similarities that his narratives — which mix high and low cultural allusions, silly pranks and gnomic historical references, mischievous puns, surreal dreamlike sequences and a playful sense of the absurd — share with the work of artists like Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac and even Richard Brautigan … Though Inherent Vice is a much more cohesive performance than the author’s last novel, the bloated and pretentious Against the Day, it feels more like a Classic Comics version of a Pynchon novel than like the thing itself.
In classic Pynchon fashion, random incidents add up to conspiracy — maybe. Behind powerful figures loom shadowy, more powerful figures, and complex layers of knowledge lead to confusion as much as clarity. There is also a lot of sex (if little romance), many pop-culture allusions (one scene references at least two classic noir films), characters who cross over from Pynchon's other work (Vineland, predominantly) and silly names galore … If Inherent Vice exhibits nostalgia, it is not for the Los Angeles of yesteryear but for the days when genuine mystery was possible, when Doc's acid trip could be as relevant as Det. Bjornsen's world, when complex layers could both contradict and coexist. It's a love letter to a time when obsessives couldn't get all the answers from computers, when we might embrace the unknowable.
I liked its wit, style, and grasp of locale, but deplored its cavalier way with plot. The book confounds, entertains, and stumbles in almost equal measure … Pynchon does not treat that lurid, Manson-defined period with gravity; rather, he spins a convoluted, insistently light-hearted procedural in which private investigator Doc Sportello comes to grips – and terms – with the Golden Fang, a fantasy, a cartel, a refuge for corrupt cops, you name it … Inherent Vice crosscuts characters and plot lines, effectively shedding all notions of linear development in favor of complexity and provocation...Pynchon mixes these all together to keep the reader interested, and it works, almost compensating for the numerous, confusing plot lines. But in striving for the cosmic, Pynchon failed to write about anything in depth.
Inherent Vice has weird moments, but is for the most part a fairly conventional detective story. Doc is a counterculture Sam Spade, shaped by the hard-boiled novels and movies he loves … Inherent Vice evokes the era powerfully. In the romantic mythos of insular drug culture, ‘the contrast knob of Creation had been messed with enough to give everything an underglow, a luminous edge, and promise that the night was about to turn epic somehow.’ But on the eve of the Manson trial the voices of Black Power, feminism and the antiwar movement are muted. For Doc, the worm has turned, and it seems that ‘the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all.’
Doc is so stoned most of the time that it is amazing that he manages to keep anything straight. But somehow, out of all the confusing threads, the detective’s investigation begins to weave something interesting in the last quarter of the book. It’s a pretty strange bit of fabric Mr. Pynchon ends up with—a kind of paranoid blanket, embroidered with conspiracy theories—but it manages to cover the mystery elements and put the story to bed in reasonable shape … Take it to beach, if you like, and spend an afternoon reading it. Inherent Vice will do as well, I suppose, as any of a half-dozen other volumes on the summer fiction best-seller list. But isn’t that a sad, diminished way to describe a Thomas Pynchon novel?
...a pastiche of the noir detective novel … The new book turns on its head the conventional wisdom that if you remember the '60s you weren't there as it plunges ahead full steam with a story about the abduction of a Southern California millionaire developer and the short and stoned hippie private eye named Doc Sportello who goes in search of him … After reading the opening paragraph, I found myself charmed and pleased with the way Pynchon meets the genre square and fair, on its own terms, and makes it his own. My second thought was about how much I enjoyed the rhythm and music of the sentences, and how much I wanted to read — read ‘sing’ — along with them.
The new book delivers at least two big surprises. The first is that it starts out as a pastiche of a well-known genre, the big-city private eye tale, though with a psychedelic twist: Pynchon's private eye is a permanently stoned hippie based in southern California, ‘circa 1970’. The second is that it more or less stays that way, with no sustained excursions into mathematical logic or mind-bending shifts of narrative direction … Pynchon keeps his detective plot moving with the aid of drug-based humour, replacing the traditional chloral hydrate-laced whisky with a joint soaked in PCP … Behind a lot of Pynchon's complication, there's a simple sadness about lost possibilities and the things that America chooses to do to itself.
...a manically incoherent pseudo-noir hippie-mystery that should fit in nicely with the author’s recent series of quirky late-career non-masterpieces … 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.
Inherent Vice, seemingly a confection of spoofs on its genre, belongs to a wider group as well: the personal-liberation mythology of the ’60s and ’70s … What Pynchon is after with the prodigal absurdities of Doc’s adventures is not really parody, but something larger. They are a way to enter into a time and place of extravagant delusions, innocent freedoms, and an intoxicated (literally) sense of possibility. And to do it without sententiousness, to write in psychedelic colors disciplined by a steel-on-flint intelligence (thus the incandescent sparks). He writes with a rich mastery of the era’s detail: rock groups now forgotten, odd hangouts (a Japanese greasy spoon that offers the best Swedish pancakes in Los Angeles), surfing, motorcycle brands, and the generosity of forbearance among the ’60s generation.
Inherent Vice is a mix of The Big Lebowski, the noirish novels of Ross MacDonald and/or Raymond Chandler and a whole lot of kitchen-sink, pop culture references thrown in for good measure … As with all of Pynchon’s fiction, an undeniable sense of the absurd is always present. But with Inherent Vice, the loony-tunes outlook on life seems to have been turned up half a notch. The author even lets his penchant for zaniness run rampant through the lowest forms of ’60s pop culture … Nevertheless, the dark fog that hovers over the author’s comical mystery (musings about the end of national innocence) as well as the wordplay so relentlessly present in any of his books, keep Pynchon’s Inherent Vice from being just another thriller — and ensure it is never less than entertaining.
For better and worse, this is the closest Pynchon is likely to come to a beach book. A psychedelic beach book, of course: It’s hippie-era Los Angeles, and our hero smokes marijuana the way others smoke cigarettes, which is something of an occupational hazard in a profession that requires deductive abilities … Groovier than much of this erratic author’s fiction, but a bummer compared with his best.