What does it mean when we say that we can't 'follow' a story? Who's leading who here -- the language or the reader? I'm only asking because I'm almost finished reading INHERENT VICE, by Thomas Pynchon, a private-eye tale set in late-Sixties Los Angeles, with hippies galore, acid in abundance, and enough colourfully warped, fucked-in-the-head characters to fill up an old VW van. but I can't honestly tell you what the hell I just read. This isn't a Pynchon problem; his novels are notoriously dense and recursive and intentionally odd, yes, but VICE is his most 'accessible' book, at least judging by all these erudite limey reviewers whose blurbs blanket the covers of my British edition both inside and out. Everybody seems to be absolutely gaga for this thing, but my own dirty little literary secret is that I can never understand most mystery stories, and I'm always trying to figure out why that's the case.
The story is essentially, all eccentricities aside, a typical gumshoe procedural straight out of the world of Raymond Chandler, or Ross Macdonald, or even John D.Macdonald, only it's amusuingly psychadelic setting adds an off-centre tilt. I got off on the language, and the characters, but, as always with these types of stories, I could never understand where I was going or why. Again, I do get that this is Pynchon w'ere talking about here; to say he's obtuse is cutting him some nice slack. Even so, I don't think this particular tale is designed to confuse us to no end. I believe it's just me.
Maybe I'm overthinking it, but I think my problem comes down to language itself, and how my brain innately responds to relatively complex systems of thought. Meaning, detective or crime stories are usually plot-heavy, relying on double-crosses and twists to advance the writer's agenda. These convoluted narrative arcs usually (but not always) tend to use the emotional aspects of their characters' lives as colourful backdrop to the plot machinations. As someone who tends to, first and foremost, dig into character before getting caught up in plot, perhaps my brain subconsciously ignores subtle clues in the story that would keep me caught up.
Writers of crime fiction often use a relatively streamlined appropach to their prose, avoiding most kinds of obvious artistic fuss. This doesn't mean that they don't have a smooth aesthetic glide that makes it all go down quite nice; but their language as such tends not to draw attention to itself. The Sunday dress shoes are usually left in the closet. (A masterful exception would be that off-his-rocker, self-educated, semi-genius James Ellroy, whose bullet-point prose assaults me in the face and dares me to stop reading). Pychon's style is always slightly aslant, only in this book its beautiful strangeness runs pretty much in tandem with a strangely-coiled tale. The combination of a quirky writing tone and a plot that veers left when I'm still looking right? Enough to make me feel pretty dumb as I drop the book to the floor and slump down on my pillow.
I think the best writing, the most vivid writing, the kind of writing that not only knocks your socks off but also washes them for you while you wait and chew gum, sort of bypasses all intellectual gadgets in your head and hits you quite hard in the instinctual, even reptilian part of our brains that craves emotion and oomph. Detective fiction sort of does the opposite; it leads you along via logic and incident, dovetailing with emotion only when it suits the story. Pynchon is overlaying this kind of traditionally noir narrative with a funky new vibe (even though it's retro, but you get what I mean), yet that smoky gloss still can't undermine the mazelike genre he inhabits. His prose is so colourful and dense that when he mashes it up with a deep plot I end up lost in the corners of the very mystery he's unfolding.
Late in the novel, a character explains what the term 'inherent vice' actually means, and I was very surprised to discover that it's a term taken from real life. To amplify it all a bit further, here's the definition from businessdictionary.com: "Hidden defect (or the very nature) of a good or property which of itself is the cause of (or contributes to) its deterioration, damage, or wastage. Such characteristics or defects make the item an unacceptable risk to a carrier or insurer. If the characteristic or defect is not visible, and if the carrier or the insurer has not been warned of it, neither of them may be liable for any claim arising solely out of the inherent vice."
Put (partly) in my own words, the 'hidden defect' of this story is my own inability to understand certain narrative progressions, which inevitably caused 'deterioration, damage, or wastage' to my enjoyment of the eventual denouement.
I'm not blaming Pynchon; I'm chucking pond-stones at myself. I'm perpetually stumped as to why my brain can't process simple instructions in life, physical tasks that need tuning, and I think have a similar problem with prose that's linear and designed to unfold and progress using a kind of connective straight logic. For me, language itself is counter-intuitive, logic's randy rude friend. Popping up, twisting around, slashing our brains. Language is essentially all Mystery with a capital 'M', its origins in our mind and second-by-second uprise in our thoughts a continual mind-fuck that frustrates as it strokes. Why don't I get certain things that are right there in plain English? I guess if I could answer that straight away, I wouldn't have to keep reading.