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.