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Inherent Vice, the new Pynchon novel

Thomas Pynchon’s new book, Inherent Vice, is on sale. Read the first chapter in this pdf file, if you’d like to find out what it looks like. If you prefer the multimedia approach, maybe you’ll watch the video trailer for the new book first; the people at openculture.com think it might be Pynchon himself who is actually the narrator in the video clip (Pynchon being one of those reclusive authors who never give interviews … and in his case, nobody really knows what he looks like today). [excerpts from reviews after the video]

In his review for the Boston Globe, Richard Eder writes about how Pynchon sets the tone for his novel at the beginning:

In the venerable tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and dozens of successors, “Vice’’ begins when a beautiful woman arrives at the office of Doc Sportello, just south of Los Angeles. Sportello is hardly your hard-boiled detective. A weanling of the ’60s and pumped full of drugs and rock music, he is the psychedelic private eye. Standing for “location, surveillance, detection,’’ his business card reads LSD Investigations.

The woman, Shasta, a former lover of Doc’s, comes to report a plot to kidnap her new lover, a billionaire real-estate tycoon named Mickey Wolfmann. Shasta and Mickey disappear before Doc can do much about it: little more, in fact, than get himself knocked cold in a Wolfmann-owned massage parlor, get arrested for the murder of a Wolfmann bodyguard, then get quickly released and offered a job by the arresting detective to inform on the hippie-surfer community.

And he sums up what it is all about in these paragraphs:

What Pynchon is after with the prodigal absurdities of Doc’s adventures is not really parody, but something larger. They are a way to enter into a time and place of extravagant delusions, innocent freedoms, and an intoxicated (literally) sense of possibility. And to do it without sententiousness, to write in psychedelic colors disciplined by a steel-on-flint intelligence (thus the incandescent sparks).

He writes with a rich mastery of the era’s detail: rock groups now forgotten, odd hangouts (a Japanese greasy spoon that offers the best Swedish pancakes in Los Angeles), surfing, motorcycle brands, and the generosity of forbearance among the ’60s generation.

And he writes as recorder of the hardening that began in the early ’70s, the era in which the book is set: the industrial commercialization of rock spontaneities; the blown minds after the mind-blowing and fear that withered the flowers after the Charles Manson killings.

As epigraph, Pynchon quotes triumphalist graffiti from the buoyant Paris youth uprising of 1968: “Under the paving stones, the beach!’’ The illusion, that is, that the stones hurled at the lines of French police would lead into a time of splendor and freedom.

Andy Martin in the Independent:

Inherent Vice is an anatomy or perhaps an astrology of hipness. This is anything but straight (or “flatland”) history. Sun-kissed, psychedelic and sexually-enhanced, Pynchon has re-embodied, re-grooved the soul of the Sixties.

Laura Miller at salon.com doesn’t seem to have been too happy about Pynchon’s novel:

“Inherent Vice” almost succumbs to the flaws that scuttled “Against the Day;” in the middle, it certainly founders. The narrative, as is all too typical of Pynchon’s recent fiction, lumbers through a monotonous parade of indistinguishable characters, each with a silly name and one or perhaps two outlandish traits, as if selfhood were something to be ladled out in stingy portions like the gruel in “Oliver Twist.” Opportunities to portray interactions of import go to waste; in particular, Pynchon depicts women and sexuality with all the depth and nuance of a 14-year-old who has acquired his entire knowledge of these subjects from the dirty jokes printed on vintage novelty cocktail napkins.

Sarah Churchwell, however, liked the book and obviously enjoyed reading it. In the Observer, she writes:

Inherent Vice raises the question of whether pot-smoking, to take just one example, is really a revolutionary act. Triviality may be an act of resistance against the tyranny of the serious or it may just be trifling. Humour may be subversive or it may just be a smile. At his best, Pynchon casts a tragic shadow over his characters’ antics, grounding his frivolity in grief, terror, doubt – and lyrical grace. The Crying of Lot 49 contains some of the most beautiful, elegiac writing about America since Fitzgerald, as well as packing an intense metaphorical punch about revelation, hierophany, meaning and connection that is far too complex to reduce to precis. By contrast, Inherent Vice is often very funny but in the end only gestures toward meaning, significance in semaphore.

That said, it is probably Pynchon’s most readable novel. Remarkably, it features both a sympathetic protagonist and a recognisable plot, albeit one that is as impossible to summarise as any other Pynchon shaggy dog tale.

Churchwell also kindly includes an elucidating discussion of the title’s meaning:

The book’s title provides Pynchon with a new metaphor for three of his oldest preoccupations: entropy, capitalism, and religion, specifically Puritanism. For insurers and preservationists, “inherent vice” describes the innate tendency of precious objects to deteriorate and refers to the limits of insurability and conservation; it suggests that matter (and thus, by extension, materialism) carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. Winston Churchill used the phrase to differentiate capitalism from socialism: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” And the phrase suggests original sin, which is what both Pynchon’s protagonist and I first took it to mean. If vice is inherent, where do we locate virtue?

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