Review: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pychon

At the tail-end of the 60s, as the peace and love generation have given way to something darker, Doc Sportello, a private detective with a serious penchant for soft drugs, is hired by an ex-girlfriend to look into the affairs of her current lover, a Californian millionaire real estate mogul, who she thinks is in trouble. At the same time he’s hired by an ex-con to look into the affairs of his former cell mate, and also by a woman who wants Sportello to look into the mysterious heroin related death of her husband. As the various strands weave together, Sportello realises that there are quite a few conspiracies going involving the authorities and an organisation called the Golden Fang.

Over the years I’ve read a fair bit of Pynchon’s back-catalogue (barring Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day) and his stuff is nearly always about conspiracies, power struggles and abuses of power by those in charge. And Inherent Vice is no different in this respect. It has all the elements one should expect from Pynchon: crazy conspiracies, interweaving storylines, stupid character names, postmodern playfulness, made-up songs and lyrics, and some utterly ravishing prose, but it also has a tightness that has been missing from his work since Vineland (to which Inherent Vice seems like a prequel of sorts).

Whenever a well-known literary writer attempts hardboiled fiction the results can often seem like the worst sort of parody (ie. total shit), but Pynchon’s work straddles homage and originality beautifully. He knows his stuff, too. The use of multiple, seemingly different, cases that ultimately become one big case is the kind of thing that Ross MacDonald built his career on. Also, the use of lead characters who use drugs copiously makes Pynchon’s flights of fancy (a surf-pop band becoming ravenous zombies, for instance) work because you never really know whether these things are hallucinations caused by narcotics or by something else entirely. Also, Pynchon generally keeps his previous habit of using long, elaborate sentences well under control, replacing them with tight, hardboiled, declarative prose.

I enjoyed Inherent Vice immensely. In fact, it made me want to finally try and scale the vertiginous, and somewhat difficult, peak of Gravity’s Rainbow in the very near future. Highly recommended.

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