Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Totally Booked: Inherent Vice [REVIEW]

“Inherent Vice,” by celebrated postmodern author Thomas Pynchon, is a thrilling, theatrical and psychedelic web of hilarious and compelling characters. Pynchon perfectly links them together through a variety of intertwining neo-noir mysteries that seem to tie back to the powerful and illusory criminal organization, the Golden Fang. 

There’s a surf rock musician in recovery from a substance use disorder, whose death cannot be confirmed or denied by American Intelligence, an armed and dangerous right wing militia called Vigilant California, a Vietnam veteran turned hippie out of guilt who’s into environmentalism and film, and his girlfriend who’s part of a cult that does acid to commune with the Sea God of Lemuria. There’s also the good American boy police officer, fascist and aspiring TV star, Bigfoot Bjornsen, with a personal hatred and suppressed respect for our hippie detective hero. Finally, there’s Jewish real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman, (surrounded by neo-Nazi biker gang bodyguards), whose disappearance involving his wife, her boyfriend, and perhaps the FBI, is what draws our protagonist, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, into it all. Doc Sportello is a loveable screw up, a washed hippie stoner and private eye, asked by his ex Shasta Faye, recently involved with Mickey, to investigate Mickey’s disappearance. As he stumbles from questionable lead to questionable lead, sober maybe 30% of the time, Doc begins to unravel, or be unraveled by, a mystery with seemingly endless layers. 

The complexity and hilarity of Pynchon’s imagination in this novel cannot be understated—both in his ability to come up with a massive cast of characters like those listed above and his elaborate execution of complicated scenes involving them. It’s only a slight overstatement to describe every page in this novel as endlessly fun. 

To emphasize the fast-paced and easily enjoyable nature of this novel is not to undermine its substance. Pynchon uses his characters and the ever-expanding mystery they’re caught up in to write a true love letter of a period piece. Set in the year 1970, this book critiques, appreciates and mourns the 60s, powerfully documenting the decades attitudes of revolutionary social change, of genuine desire to make the world a new and kinder place, dissolving into a much more conservative 70s, through a combination of US intelligence efforts, corporate greed, racism, an expanding militarized police force, and other forces both sinister and mundane.  

“…Yet there is no avoiding time, 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 the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever,” Pynchon writes, in a beautiful and melancholy chapter ending, one of many throughout the book. 

If you’re looking for a companion novel, I highly recommend “CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the 60s,” by Tom O’Neill, which, aside from being a fascinating read, provides insight into the underlying realities Pynchon may be pointing to with his complex and conspiratorial story. The specter of the Manson murders and their cultural impact lurks behind the pages of Inherent Vice.

Through all the novel’s fast-paced hilarity, Pynchon knows when to slow down, offering moments of melancholy, love, and genuine humanity between his cast of damaged people on the edges of society. Portraying a world stumbling away from a potentially kinder future into the much darker one we now inhabit, the book still feels oddly optimistic, stressing the importance of sticking to one’s morals, and doing right by one’s family and real friends, especially in its final few chapters. Doc is a dying breed, a hippie through and through, genuinely against the powers that be, and for the downtrodden, despite his disaffection with it all. His continued love for his ex-girlfriend Shasta and their memories together, as well as his quest to reunite one of the mystery’s key players with their family, are touching.

“Inherent Vice” is a perfect period piece not only of the 60s, but specifically of 60s Southern California. Set in a fictional, yet very real, surf bum town of Gordita Beach, on the outskirts of LA, anyone with more knowledge of the area than me will appreciate the incredible attention to detail present in Pynchon’s descriptions and satire of the setting, its culture, and its politics. 

“Inherent Vice” has been described as ‘Pynchon-Lite,’ a watered down, accessible, and mainstream side project for the much celebrated author. This view is supported by the existence of a fantastic Paul Thomas Anderson film adaptation, and it wouldn’t even be a bad thing, as many of Pynchon’s books are too long or too postmodern for everyone. I would argue however that “Inherent Vice” stands alongside the author’s other works, and deserves a little more recognition.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
About the Contributor
Dylan Berman, News Editor

Comments (0)

All The Spectator Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *