Inherent Vice, By Thomas Pynchon

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The Independent Culture

I was reading the new Pynchon while grooving at a music festival. It seemed as if the ambience of hipness and the aromatic mellow mood found a fraternal echo in these pages. Listening to Thom Yorke and reading Thomas Pynchon, more or less simultaneously, struck me as deeply resonant and right. The book exudes a vibe that locates it somewhere between Woodstock and Altamont, the rhythm of peace and love syncopated and blood-spattered by baseball bats and motorbike chains.

Inherent Vice is Pynchon's hymn to the Sixties, both homage and lament. In the novel we are at the end of the long Sixties, when the Manson gang have already sliced up Sharon Tate, the US military is still napalming Vietnam, and the West Coast counter-culture is suffering from an immense post-coital depression and hangover.

Haight Ashbury is over the hill. The Beach Boys have given way to the Grateful Dead. Everything is going to pieces, the way it always does in Pynchon, but - and this is a first, I think - one improbable hero, Doc Sportello, a beach bum turned private eye (thus a "gumsandal"), is offering to fix it. Maybe I was inhaling too much at that festival, but I feel that this could be Pynchon's most deliriously enjoyable and compelling book to date.

If you had to pick one author that Pynchon most resembles, it would have to be François Rabelais. Terence Cave once defined the work of the French Renaissance master as the "cornucopian text", and Pynchon is nothing if not cornucopian: overflowing, virtuosic, allusive, fizzing with ideas, dense, erudite, insanely inventive, wildly over-the-top, obscene, excessive, sprawling, polyphonic. Tony Tanner suggested many moons ago that "entropy" was Pynchon's defining feature, with his novels, like Gravity's Rainbow, poised on the brink of dissolving into incoherence and coolness and indifference.

When his previous novel, Against the Day, came out, it inspired two reviews in the New York Times, one passionately for, the other seethingly against. But they agreed that Pynchon was verging on unreadable. It seemed to depend on whether you were a professor of literature or just a reader looking for a good time which way you were going to jump.

Inherent Vice is different. Pynchon sets his idyllic Californian dystopia in Los Angeles by way of referencing the great Raymond Chandler tradition of Bay City. Doc Sportello is a long-haired Philip Marlowe in flower-power flares with a joint in his hand. The sign on the door says, "LSD Investigations".

He is handed the hermeneutic problem of solving a crime and the more moral one of eradicating corruption. Perhaps he achieves neither, but he sticks in his wayward way to the cynegetic paradigm of following traces, scents, clues - like some ancient hairy hunter-gatherer relentlessly pursuing his quarry - through the mean streets and polluted beaches of SoCal.

The effect on Pynchon's raving entropic digressiveness is spectacular. By his standards, Inherent Vice reads less like a novel and more like a 300-page haiku or - to surrender to the mood of the book - a song, weaving between soaring, transcendent acid-fuelled highs and aching, suicidal lows. Even amid the dopehead haze, there is a discipline to the absurdity, a logic to the rhetoric that was not there before.

But there is another crucial difference. Inherent Vice has more heart than any other Pynchon. His writing tends naturally towards satire and denunciation. This new work is more of a love affair with a place and a time. That mood is reflected in the relationships between the characters. In most Pynchon you run into the "Where's Wally?" problem. You know he (or she) is there somewhere, in the midst of the teeming, screaming multitudes that populate Pynchonland, but do you care enough to keep looking? In Inherent Vice, the beach is never too crowded.

At the core of the book is a triangle, hooking up Doc Sportello with Shasta, his irresistible but ambiguous ex-girlfriendon the fringes of Hollywood, and Bigfoot Bjornsen. This cop and hardcore anti-hippy who nevertheless tolerates a lot of substance abuse: an avenger, friend, enemy, and addict of chocolate-covered frozen bananas. The mazy plot pulls together Bigfoot's recently deceased partner, Vincent Indelicato, and a missing land development tycoon, Mickey Wolfmann. There are echoes of Double Indemnity and a host of other noir classics, but Pynchon has cunningly twisted them together and crumbled in some mind-blowing ingredients of his own.

Sportello has a kind of benevolent empathy that serves him well on his spaced-out odyssey, all the way to Las Vegas and back, weaving between loan sharks-turned-hitmen and gay bodyguards with swastika tattoos and officially dead sax players, gorgeous but stoned nymphos and the Golden Fang (which may or may not be a consortium of dodgy dentists), until he finally has to pull out a gun and start shooting. The turbo-charged pimped-up vernacular reads like Beckett on speed ("Watch your head." "How'm I spoze to do that, man?"). To be honest, I could still have done with a list of characters at the back to remind me who is who.

Maybe, this time, that is part of the point. Inherent Vice has the feel of an RD Laing fantasy where everyone is a divided self, late 20th-century schizoid man and woman, each capable of becoming their opposites, just like the Wolfmann who precipitates the crisis by turning hippy and trying to give away the land he has accumulated.

Pynchon rewrites The Endless Summer (Bruce Brown's mythopoeic surf-orama) as the "Endless Bummer". But there is an underlying tone of nostalgic wistfulness. If this is a failed utopia it still carries you along as powerfully as a Harley Electra-Glide or a Ford Woodie. Even with the smog, the oil spills and the occasional psychopath, Sportello's Gordita Beach is still Paradise Regained to the Paradise Lost of Pynchon's Vineland.

In the background is the pulsating throb of West Coast surf (and surf bands), and ghost-like apparitions of the heaviest break in the world far out to sea. Doc's alma mater is the Ondas Nudosas (literally, Gnarly Waves) Community College. As in John Milius's film Big Wednesday, people are always drifting off to Hawaii and Waimea Bay or dreaming about the perfect wave. This is still the naïve wide-eyed era of Huxley and Leary, and the doors of perception are wide open. The mindset is pre-Aids innocence in which there is no safe sex, or rather all sex is automatically safe ("great stoned fun") come what may, including the "California department of corrections style".

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.

Andy Martin teaches French at Cambridge University; his books include 'Stealing the Wave' and 'Beware Invisible Cows' (Simon & Schuster)

Shy boss of American fiction: Thomas Pynchon

Born in 1937, raised on Long Island, Pynchon served in the US Navy and graduated in English from Cornell University. After short stories such as "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna", he published encyclopaedic, polyphonic novels that secured his fame as a cult leader of American fiction: 'V.' (1963), 'The Crying of Lot 49' (1966) and 'Gravity's Rainbow' (1973). Later works include 'Vineland' (1990), 'Mason & Dixon' (1997) and 'Against the Day' (2006). Never a "recluse", he simply lives as quietly as he can in New York City.