Doc Sportello
Created by Thomas Pynchon

When I first started reading Inherent Vice (2009), American master of letters Thomas Pynchon's foray into detective fiction, I'll admit I had high hopes. Not that I was familiar with his previous work, but I figured it still oughtta be pretty good. After all, he's supposed to be one of the great writers of our age, right?

And it wasn't like this was some big shot slumming and loudly announcing he was going to transcend the genre -- everything I'd heard about Pynchon suggested he was pretty far from the elitist snob some of his fans were. I mean, the guy's supposedly a recluse, but somehow he actually popped up on The Simpsons, doing his own voice even. So this was one cat whose pop culture cool cred was definitely in order.

So I started reading it. It was a big chunk of a book, close to 400 pages, but I'd read bigger. And at first, I failed to see what the fuss -- either way -- was about. His meandering, substance-addled detective, LARRY "DOC" SPORTELLO, reminded me a lot of James Crumley's gumshoes, with a definite touch of Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye tossed in. So, nothing particularly original, but nothing particularly bad, either. I was enjoying it.

And so I kept on reading. Doc seemed pretty shaky as a detective, even for one working the hazy, dazy beaches of Los Angeles in the early seventies, and his constant barrage of wisecracks and quips was amusing, despite a few real groaners. And some of the bits are pure gold (I love the Sinatra bit with the cops -- it's pure Marx Brothers).

So far, so good, I figured. Pynchon's set the scene: Gordita Beach, a sort of 24/7 Surf City, full of babes, cheap dope, and perfect waves. He's got the girl from Doc's past needing his help: Shasta, worried about her super-rich boyfriend who's being blackmailed. And you've got Doc: an affable guide to it all. The good stuff will be happening soon, right?

Wrong.

Oh, sure, the plot sort of starts to warm up a little, but it never really comes to a boil. Hell, it rarely gets more than lukewarm. And then come the subplots, the sideplots and the counterplots. And the dope and the babes and the wisecracks keep coming. And then the digressions kick in and start to pile up, and then the subplots are interupted by more sideplots and the digressions digress and then digress again, and we're bombared with mini-rants and snippets of trivia on lost continents, maritime law, J. Edgar Hoover's sex life, the pre-Internet Internet, surf music and the quality of homegrown dope. And the humour starts to wear pretty thin after a couple of hundred pages.

And after a while, I began to ask myself "Is this all there is?"

Sure, the spirit of the times and place are captured well, but there's no trace of any sort of genius, either inherent or apparent, that I was expecting (or led to expect). All that dope humour gets real old real fast, and all those slow-mo witticisms and digressions and the absence of a coherent plot makes Crumley's mid-period books seem driving and tight. And then I realized that all those colourful supporting characters were all surprisingly flat; self-consciously quirky without being particularly original. And instead of adding any real substance to any of his characters, he just brings in new ones.

But the biggest problem may be my familiarity with detective fiction. If, as has been suggested by smarter people than me that "Fiction should take you to places you don't normally go" one of my main problems with Inherent Vice is that I'm not being taken to any place I haven't already been.

The early seventies? Hippies versus the Man? Stoners, surfers, crooked cops? SoCal? A detective not always quite as focussed as perhaps he should be?

This is familiar territory that most of us who are fans of the genre have visited regularly over the years, in film, television and books.

I'm not saying Pynchon has no right going near the detective novel or that he's condescending toward the genre as some have suggested, but I wonder how much of his reputation helped get this thing published?

Would a newbie have been able to sell such a fuzzy, vague book to a publisher, or would it have eventually been published by iUniverse or digitally on Kindle and sold for 99 cents? Because there's no doubt this book is a hard slog.

Were this by an unknown author, even some of the most rabid embers of the Pynchon cult might have found this wanting. Pynchon may be a great writer, but as a detective fiction author, he's no Chandler or Hammett. Or even Richard Prather.

I dunno.

Some people whose opinions I truly respect seem to have liked it well enough.

But at this point I'm not seeing what the fuss is about. It's a big, wordy chunk of a P.I. novel, perhaps a little more ambitious than most, (although what Pynchon's actual ambition is might be the biggest mystery here) but not as fully realized as others.

Now, it's been suggested in some quarters that I'm simply not smart enough to understand Pynchon, or that I'm not evolved enough to see the "big picture." But I'm beginning to suspect there is no "big picture," after all -- just the wishful thinking of the faithful.

But if you put enough English Lit majors and would-be intellectuals in a room, set them all to deconstruction mode and allow them to scratch their chins long enough, eventually you'll get all sorts of unique interpretations and blather about "non-falsifiable speculation," "the beauty of the forking paths and their effect on things" and "the basic splitting process of the alternate realities and histories as followed by the ordinary and extraordinary ray" as exemplified by the alternative tangents of Doc's investigation. And you'll hear all sorts of stuff about the genre being "transcended."

Yeah, right. Transcend this, toots.

The picture may not be that big after all. Maybe Pynchon just wanted to write a detective story. Maybe he's even a fan of the genre. Which is really cool. But he couldn't do it, and ended up with this Day Glo shaggy dog story, doing an adequate -- but not earth-shattering -- job of it.

There are worse crimes.

UNDER OATH

  • "Fans... will know (Inherent Vice) for the throwaway masterwork it is: playful as a dolphin, plaintive as whale song, unsoundably profound as the blue Pacific."
    --
    Publishers Weekly

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Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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