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Thomas Pynchon: Inherent Vice

The novel starts out as a fairly straightforward wise-cracking, smart-arse, hard-boiled Californian detective story. Larry Sportello, known as Doc, is a private eye but not making much money at it. But this novel is set in Los Angeles in around 1970 so everyone, particularly Doc, is doing drugs and much of what they do is seen through their drug-induced vision. As the Sixties are fading, things are going bad and Pynchon is keen to show us how the Summer of Love dream is fading fast, with cops chasing not just the hippies but, more enthusiastically, the rising Black Power movement, the Vietnam War is hovering in the background and Nixon is alive and well. He even appears on a stash of US currency the FBI finds. More interestingly, though it is still a good twenty years away, the Internet starts creeping in, with Doc’s aunt accurately predicting it and one of his friends using an early version of Arpanet, with which he is able to give Doc some useful information in his investigation.

Pynchon starts off with the classic introduction. Doc gets a visit from a mysterious dame looking for information, only she isn’t mysterious but his ex, Shasta, with whom he is still very much in love. She is dating a property developer (“a Jew who wants to be a Nazi”) and there is apparently a scam going on, concerning the property developer, his wife and the wife’s boyfriend and Shasta wants to know what is going on. This leads inevitably to an incredibly complicated plot, replete with the usual Pynchon odd people and odd events, from Lemuria to obscure bands, one of whose saxophonist is apparently dead but is continually seen by many, including Doc, from a complex organisation called Golden Fang, which may be a ship that mysteriously disappeared and then reappeared or be may be a group of dentists, to a cop of Swedish origin who may be Doc’s worst enemy or his best friend. All of this is against a background of California of this time, with the full range of music of the period (with Pynchon writing some of his own songs), drugs of choice, surfing culture and, of course, junk food.

Doc, with the help of some friends, travels around Los Angeles and Las Vegas, getting stoned, knocked out, accused of murder by the Swedish cop on more than one occasion, getting threatened by various other bad guys, dealing with vigilantes, the Mob and various thugs, including one who seems to commit murder at will and get off every time. As we might expect from Pynchon, conspiracy is rife and the plot is so complex that it is not entirely clear at the end who killed whom and why. Love does triumph, sort of, even if not for Doc, the bad guys don’t come out too well and Doc more or less retains his integrity. It is not up to the standard of Pynchon’s earlier work but it is great fun.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by The Penguin Press