Cape £18.99

Inherent Vice, By Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon's noirish thriller should have British readers giving him an all-American embrace

There's some problem the British have with Thomas Pynchon. Of those who've heard of him, few have read him, and of those who've read him, even fewer seem able to metabolise him. When his last novel, Against the Day, was published in 2006, weighing in at an eye- watering 1,100 pages, I remember a presenter of The Today Programme taking an almost personal offence, doubting aloud whether anyone actually read this sort of thing. She stoutly added that no one she knew had been able to finish Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon's 1973 winner of the US National Book Award. And if all the friends of a Radio 4 presenter can't stomach something, well! The problem was hardly likely to lie with them.

Across the Atlantic, by contrast: widely recognised as one of America's most important writers ever, Pynchon is also the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Award and a controversially overruled Pulitzer; he's been America's best chance for the Nobel for a decade now, and, probably most significantly, a two-time guest star on The Simpsons. So, even before we get to the text, we have a huge and not necessarily soluble puzzle.

Which is appropriate. Inherent Vice is ostensibly a hard-boiled mystery, set in 1971 Los Angeles and Las Vegas, following the adventures of dope-fiend and private investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello. Doc's ex-girlfriend turns up out of the blue and hires him to investigate a plot to kidnap her new billionaire boyfriend, the notorious property developer Mickey Wolfmann, supposedly cooked up by Wolfmann's wife and her lover. Doc is, naturally, still in love with his ex, although he's currently seeing a junior district attorney, so his motivation is as complex as hell – as is the plot already, and we're not quite at the bottom of page two.

So far, so noir. We take in bent and straight cops, mysterious knockings-out, hookers with hearts of gold, corruption in the DA's office and conspiracies up to the highest levels of government. From that point of view, it's a rare display of genre discipline from Pynchon, and we never stray too far from the central quest into the mystery of Wolfmann's disappearance. Like in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, our hero appears in every scene, and indeed, Inherent Vice is reminiscent of that archetypal neo-noir in both darkness and subject matter.

But 1971 is also the year of Hunter S Thompson's most famous drugs binge and rare is the page without a joint, tab, stash, roach clip, bag of junk, trip or weed-fuelled sex. Everyone has an amazing, indeed numbing, amount of sex, reinforcing the sense of anomie and permanent bummer, which would imbalance any less saturated story. But that's just another of Pynchon's talents: to write several books simultaneously. Because, for all its darkness – Nixon and Kissinger shimmer like evil spirits just beyond sight – the novel is more or less continuously comic, stuffed with one- liners and addled doper humour: "Come on, Sportello, you know we'll be more than happy to give you a lift. Watch your head."

"Watch my... How'm I spoze to do that, man?"

Pynchon is both the US's most serious and most funny writer. With his most accessible book to date – half Chinatown, half Fear and Loathing, all searing jeremiad about the modern American soul – he may have come up with something even the British literati can read.

Thomas Leveritt's novel 'The Exchange-Rate Between Love & Money' is published by Vintage

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism