Sunday, January 04, 2015

INHERENT VICE (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Or At Least Grudgingly Accept The Fact That I Don't Have a Fucking Clue As To What's Actually Going On In This Novel)

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 "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.


Craig said...

The good news is that the movie is already in the can and will be playing shortly at a theatre near you with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role. Nobody has ever seriously seriously considered trying to make a movie based on a Pynchon novel. I read about half of Inherent Vice shortly after I bought it five years ago and do intend to finish reading it eventually, just as I also to intend to finish reading the last third of Against The Day. I've also purchased Bleeding Edge, Pynchon's take on 9-11, and have only read the first two chapters. None of his recent books pose as much of a challenge to reader's sensibilities as Gravity's Rainbow and Mason and Dixon do. I'd recommend reading Vineland first if you really hope to make sense of Inherent Vice.

Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott said...

I got through GRAVITY'S RAINBOW and VINELAND back in university, but I don't remember them much, and I haven't read any of his other recent stuff. I like what he does; I just found the private-eye blend of his style with a late-Sixties setting very difficult to keep track of. (Again, that's just me.) The movie's getting fantastic reviews, so I'm interested to see what the tone is, and how over-the-top it actually goes. I was a bit surprised that the book kind of UNDERPLAYS a lot of the more ridiculous elements, letting them simply be what they are, no emphasis necessary. I love the film's director, Paul Thomas Anderson, so I'm sure he'll offer up a take on the story that is, at the very least, as quirky as the novel. (And I can't remember a recent movie that could come even close to this vibe, although Altman's own modern take on the gumshoe genre, THE LONG GOODBYE, had perhaps twenty percent of the feel of this book.)

Craig said...

Two of my fellow students in English at the university I attended were faculty brats whose fathers were professors in that department. Both of them have childhood recollections of not just meeting Pynchon, but of entertaining him as an occasional if not too regular houseguest while he worked on the novel V which cemented his reputation as a literary force. Apparently he wrote public relations and advertising copy for the world's largest airplane factory for awhile to support his writing habit. His college degree was in physics, so the company could probably have found something more technical for him than technical writing had he truly been interested in pursuing a career in manufacturing armaments. That door probably swung shut once and for all after he published GR in 1974. A collection of his college short stories was published in the early 1980s, but he didn't produce his next novel, Vineland, until the 90s, a nearly two decade hiatus during which each passing year only added to the mystery and intrigue of his fabled elusiveness. Had he adopted both J.D. Salinger and Holden Caulfield as his role models? Was he incapable of writing another novel that would live up to the expectations generated by V and GR? Was he simply refusing to play ball according to the rules for famous authors set down by the publishing industry, or making them play by his rules? Vineland proved he could still write and please the audience he'd created. Sure it was strange and offbeat, but so were all of his previous books and each of them was strange in uniquely different ways. Maybe he'd earned so much in royalties from the books he had written that he could afford to take a twenty year vacation and who was there to tell him he shouldn't. He was his own boss. He had a cult following and when his royalty checks dropped off he knew the drill for pulling the handle on a well primed pump. If he can write well enough to capture the imagination of an entire generation of educated readers with dreams of matching his achievements, he can certainly knock out something susceptible to adaptation as a screenplay. And that's what he did with Inherent Vice. If the movie does well, he's collecting his pension. Vineland? You had to be in your twenties in the 70s to fathom it.

Scott said...

Thanks for those (second-hand) memories of Pynchon! Very cool. In this age of everybody-knows-everything-about-everyone, I love his reclusiveness. The work can speak for itself. Your thoughts on his disappearing act make a lot of sense. Here's hoping that he keeps pumping out some interesting stuff. (I have to go back and catch up on hist stuff from the past twenty years.)