Saturday, December 19, 2009

Inherent Vice

One of the benefits of being a selective reader is that I like and often love almost every book I read. It pains me to say anything negative about any book, but I do want to talk about this one. Of the books I've over the last few months, I least enjoyed Inherent Vice. See, I can't even come out and say I didn't like it.

I should make a couple of points before I explain my problems with it.

Inherent Vice is the first Thomas Pynchon I've read. From the standpoint of accessibility, it was a great place to start. Based on my subsequent reading of Gravity's Rainbow and after talking to Pynchon fans, I'm certain this book is more straightforward than any of the others. And it's only fair to note that because the author's work has been so celebrated, my expectations were unusually high. And finally, Inherent Vice is a detective novel. Millions of people adore them, but they've just never been my thing.

Pynchon has a number of distinctive quirks. I've only read two of his books, but I'm betting these affectations are in all seven. His characters all have oddball names, he sprinkles fictional lyrics throughout the narratives and his sense of humor is kind of corny. Some readers adore this about his work. I find it a little goofy, bordering on irritating.

There are other qualities about his writing that I like a lot. His work is frequently described as encyclopedic. I was overwhelmed and amazed by the variety and sheer volume of cultural, scientific, mathematical, historical, cinematic, literary and religious references in Gravity's Rainbow. Although Inherent Vice is nowhere near as ambitious, it is full of cultural and political references that firmly place the story in 1970. In both works, the blend of both real and imagined musicians, actors, songs and other touchstones has the interesting side effect of almost, but never quite grounding you.

Because he's spinning so many plates, it's easy to overlook the fact that Pynchon is an exceptional prose writer. Unfortunately, there were far more examples of great writing in Gravity's Rainbow, but now and then, something in this book made me stop to read it again:

"He crept along till he finally found another car to settle in behind. After a while in his rearview mirror he saw somebody else fall in behind him. He was in a convoy of unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in taillight range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered awhile for safety in getting across a patch of blindness. It was one of the few things he'd ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free."

I won't take the time to run through the storyline. You can find many fine pieces from actual book reviewers to get the synopsis. For the most part, it follows the kind of arc you'd expect for a detective story, although it bogs down a bit in the middle. I confess that I spent a great deal of time losing focus, not really knowing what was going on or what the point of introducing yet more characters into the mix was, all the while feeling like I must have gotten high without knowing it. The main character's constant dope smoking is infectious. And unlike Gravity's Rainbow, the story does come to a resolution that's satisfying enough.

How do I feel about Pynchon? He's brilliant. This book was a miss for me, but I look forward to going back to the beginning and reading more of him.

Next up: Falling Man by Don DeLillo

No comments:

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf