Sunday, September 27, 2009

Let's Talk about Thomas Pynchon!!

When is a detective novel, not a detective novel? When Thomas Pynchon writes it. Inherent Vice, described in the run-up to its release as a hard boiled detective novel, is a lousy detective novel, but a pretty good Thomas Pynchon novel. Vice is ostensibly a novel, and main character, Doc Sportello, is a PI. And like any PI novel, Sportello's story starts with a woman, specifically, an ex-girlfriend who shows up one day and says her current boyfriend, a wealthy developer, may be in some trouble and asks Doc to check it out. From there, things go off the rails pretty quickly, but they never get to the Gravity's Rainbow level of weird. Rainbow reads like something an overly bright guy locked in a room with a typewriter and a lot of coke would come up with and, as such, it's pretty much unreadable unless you're putting the book down every half-hour to chop out a couple fresh lines.

Inherent Vice, though, is a more mellow Pynchon. He seems to be having fun. There are more dope jokes in this book than all the Cheech and Chong films combined, and they're considerably funnier than anything Cheech and Chong ever did. Pynchon's main problem is that, even when he lightens up, he can't stop being Pynchon, which means that there's not really any way to accurately describe the plot, because it's basically a loose conglomeration of episodes, some more amusing than others, as Pynchon muses on the death of the 60's, and "What it all means."

Pynchon's never been a real novelist. He's a writer the way William S. Burroughs was a writer, but not a novelist. I was hoping that
Inherent Vice would be a real detective novel, and not one of Pynchon's usual postmodern wanks with detective window dressing. The good news is, however, that this, apart from The Crying of Lot 49, is Pynchon's most accessible novel, and shouldn't scare off anyone who is curious about his work. I enjoyed it quite a bit as a Pynchon novel. It lacked his usual ponderousness, and really did have some quite funny bits, especially if you're a fan of smart stoner humor. Still, I'd have been more impressed if he'd written an honest-to-god crime novel and published it under a pseudonym, thereby shocking the hell out of everybody.


Kieran Shea said...

There was a line in there that floored me, something like "why is there chicken of the sea and no tuna of the farm?" Stoner humor indeed.

Nathan Cain said...

I liked that line too. It's an excellent example of the kind of non sequiturs stoners get caught up contemplating.

Ray Sawhill said...

Funny review. You sum up a lot of the feelings I've had about Pynchon much better than I've ever been able to. Amazing writer of some exhausting kind, but lousy fiction-writer -- that's it exactly.