Tuesday, September 21, 2010

INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent Vice is minor Pynchon. I reached that conclusion before page 100, and nothing in the subsequent 269 pages altered it. I enjoyed the novel, but its pleasures are of a considerably lower order than those of Gravity's Rainbow or Against the Day--or even (a more appropriate comparison) The Crying of Lot 49. If I were to rank Pynchon's novels in order of excellence--omitting the one I have (inexcusably) yet to read, Mason and Dixon--I would put Vice near the bottom, above Vineland but below Lot 49. (Rainbow and Day would be at the top of the list, Crying and V. in the middle.) There are very good passages hidden here and there in this too often pedestrian performance--and the final two pages are absolutely marvelous, Pynchon finally writing full tilt--but there's not a single scene or imaginative flight in Inherent Vice that equals the brilliance of Esther's nose job, Benny Profane's alligator hunt (both in V.), Tyrone Slothrop's journey down the toilet of the Roseland Ballroom, the Schwarzkommando, the biography of Byron the Bulb (all Gravity's Rainbow), or Against the Day's Vormance Expedition. Inherent Vice is lighter fare, Pynchon that reads like Elmore Leonard. And some passages read more like Pynchonian self-parody than Pynchonian noir. If TP wishes to parody the paranoia of his oeuvre, that's certainly his prerogative, but as I read the book I had the uncomfortable feeling that Pynchon was descending into self-parody as a result of imaginative exhaustion. That would explain the reliance on a genre form that he fails to definitively explode (compare the deconstruction of novelistic form (and everything else) at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, or Lot 49's deconstruction of the mystery formula), and it would also account for such arbitrary but surprisingly unfunny character names as Trillium Fortnight, Scott Oof, Mickey Wolfmann, etc. Surely the namer of Benny Profane and Tyrone Slothrop (not to mention movie mogul Genghis Cohen) could've done better than this.

All the same, Inherent Vice doesn't disappoint me too much--probably because my expectations were not particularly high. Early reviewers, as I recall, dubbed this novel 'Pynchon lite' and thought they were paying it a compliment. Here at last, crowed the literate middlebrows, is a Pynchon novel that doesn't force its readers to work too hard, that doesn't ask us to (heaven forfend!) think deeply about its meanings. Even the book's deepest level, its simultaneous criticism of and elegiac nostalgia for the southern California of the late Sixties, is merely a more explicit statement of ideas implicit in Pynchon's other books. The whole of Pynchon's oeuvre since Lot 49 is, if read carefully, a highly critical meditation on America during and after the 1960's. Inherent Vice is a superior beach book, a thoughtful, occasionally funny genre novel. It's OK, but TP is capable of much, much more than just 'OK.' If I were asked to recommend one novel that would demonstrate why I consider Pynchon one of the best novelists writing today, that book would not be Inherent Vice.

6 comments:

jc said...

How can someone who, just a few years ago, produced a book like 'Against the Day' be suffering from "imaginative exhaustion"?

What absolute balderdash!

BRIAN OARD said...

jc:

Thank you for your wonderfully Pynchonian, self-deconstructing comment. My post finds evidence of "imaginative exhaustion" in 'Inherent Vice', an opinion with which you apparently agree, since you must jump back to "Against the Day" for evidence to the contrary. Nice try, but no seegar.

jc said...

Look, Brian, no offense, but you are under-estimating 'Inherent Vice', on a number of levels. Your review repeats many of the laziest points made in numerous reviews which came out at the time of the book's publication - Elmore Leonard dialogue, 'Pynchon Lite', beach book, etc. - which could, if one wished to be rude, be proffered as evidence of your own 'imaginative exhaustion'. Your presumption in ranking Pynchon's novels, and bald statement concerning what his post-COL49 oeuvre is 'about', sit uneasily with your admission that you have not actually read all of Pynchon's post-COL49 oeuvre. I could go on.

BRIAN OARD said...

jc:

Enjoyed the irony of that "no offence" at the beginning of your last comment. Your point would be better made with genuine evidence. Name one scene in "Inherent Vice" that equals in ironic complexity or imaginative power the nose job in "V." or Slothrop's toilet trip in "Gravity's Rainbow." As per your other comments, I and any other reader have a right to rank Pynchon's novels in any order we see fit. No law against that. And I can back my evaluations with textual evidence, something to which you seem curiously allergic. You will also notice that M&D didn't appear in my casual ranking because I haven't read it yet. If M&D in any way contradicts my blanket statement about Pynchon's oeuvre, I stand minimally corrected. (But I doubt that it does.) I, too, could go on...

But really, what's the deal here? Are you such a Pynchon fanatic that you can't take even the least criticism of your idol. (I LIKED the book, for pete's sake! I merely stated that it was a minor novel and extrapolated from this that bit about "imaginative exhaustion" that really seems to offend you. As far as I'm concerned, TP at age 70 is entitled to be exhausted. Most writers don't even achieve one book as great as GR; TP wrote two.) With regard to my post's seeming agreement with the early critical consensus on "IV", yes the critics were lazy. They also happened to be, accidentally, correct. This is no Against the Day. It's not even a Lot 49. Inherent Vice is Pynchon 'doing' Pynchon. It's entertaining, but it ain't no second coming of Slothrop.

Robert Dornenburg said...

Personally, I had a blast reading this book. What amazed me more than anything, was that Pynchon managed to write a novel with a genuine conclusion AND make it a fun, enjoyable read without (I believe) losing any authorial integrity. Assuming this is his final book, I don't think anyone will look at Inherent Vice and think any differently about his legacy and place in American Letters.
It is Pynchon Lite, but ehh, who cares? After 6 "serious" novels (and taking into the account the size of his previous two and the amount of research that seems to have gone into each), I think Pynchon is entitled to a brush-off book, something simple and less "important" and complex than what he normally does.
You (Brian) seem to argue that it is on par with Vineland (I haven't read it yet). From what I understand, Vineland is of the same sort of ilk as Vice. Perhaps we can chalk it up to exhaustion or simply a desire for something more free-form, simple, or (gasp) fun preceeding something significantly more difficult, complex and cerebral.

BRIAN OARD said...

Robert,

Well said. But I hope this isn't Pynchon's last book. I hope he has one more big mindblower up his sleeve. I like the idea of an octogenarian Pynchon ten years from now releasing a 1000-page novel that will blow us all away yet again.