Keep On Keepin’ On: Pynchon Rewriting American History

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

(Penguin, August 2009)

Bradley J. Fest

The publication of Inherent Vice makes even more apparent that one of Thomas Pynchon’s fundamental projects for the past fifty years has been to rewrite the history of the United States.  If the novel is not exactly an alternate history in the mode of something like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), it is surely a history that privileges the outsider, the deviant, the interstitial, occluded, and secret.  If the Tristero was the mark of global conspiracy in the 1960s, it is the “Golden Fang” which reinscribes that secret history of the world into the aughts.  In this way, Vice finds its closest companion in the Pynchon oeuvre in The Crying of Lot 49.  A psychedelic-noir set near the end of 60s in Los Angeles, Vice is relatively and surprisingly straightforward… for a Pynchon novel.  Romping into the seedy underbelly is as-always-wonderfully-named-Pynchon-character Doc Sportello, a private detective who quickly becomes embroiled in a tangled network of postmodern intrigue.  But instead of being named the executor of an estate, an old flame of Doc’s comes walking up to his office.  Cue Humphrey Bogart smoking a joint.

I do not think it a mistake to call Vice a sequel to Lot 49, but a sequel that only forty years of hindsight could provide.  Like if Lucas didn’t screw up and wait another ten years before telling Jar Jar Binks’ story.  And this is what makes it so weird.  First of all, though I won’t tell you how, the book ends on an explicit contemplation of our current moment in which distributed networks are becoming  the form all social interaction.  Unlike Gravity’s Rainbow, whose ending feels like a cheap,  untimely meditation on technology, Vice explicitly transposes the 20/20 significance of ARPAnet (in brief: the internet) onto the fabric of the tale.  In considering Vice as a sequel, however, I must acknowledge that its similarities to Lot 49 are not always its strongest suit.  The sixties were kinda-sorta promising in Lot 49, whereas that optimism, or spirit of the time (if you will), is surely on the wane in Vice.  The main weavings of narrative motion—sexual escapades, drug use, mysteries wrapping into mysteries, protagonists who never really “get it” even if they show pluck and aplomb throughout— are still on display, and haven’t necessarily aged well.  Pynchon is every bit as foot-loose and fancy-free as before, but after publishing two massive novels Mason Dixon (1997) and Against the Day (2006), he rides Inherent Vice like the last leg in the Tour de France when the winner is already more-or-less crowned and merely has to coast in.

Still, it is fascinating to juxtapose pretty much straight-up noir with the psychedelic culture of the late 60s.  And it’s a viciously fun tale.  Having also recently traversed the sky with the Chums of Chance, I cannot, as a late comer, feel more and more tickled by his work.  So, some bias, eh.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Vice is, like, fun to read.  The pages turn, and all that; and it’s kinda sexy.

And here Pynchon is always pretty successful.  Juxtaposing one popular generic construct with another, as in Gravity’s Rainbow’s convergence of WWII stories with the spy narrative (mostly a Cold War thing), Vice permits noir to go beyond its recent status as merely inspiration to La Nouvelle Vague and historically enter a world which, to vastly oversimplify it, is a cross between Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, and Law and Order: Charles Manson’s Internet Dating Show.  In other words, it combines popular culture, established genres, and detritus pretty well.

Vice is definitively adding to Pynchon’s fifty-year paranoia project, multiplying the global conspiratorial forces whose goals could be anything from world domination in the form of eugenics (Alex Jones) to merely a tax haven for dentists .  This is ultimately the success of Vice: its paranoia is relevant.  Against the Day’s anxiety over time and light, to boil it down, was perhaps too metaphysical.  GR’s permanent implied mark of importance upon Slothrop prevented the materialization of the conspiracy of Rocket 00000 (or whatever) to escape farce, even if an infinitely complex farce.  Vice, however, lets the apocalyptic Pynchon—the Pynchon who imagines a “more-perfect-world” through a Tesla who never existed, an ARPAnet which throws Humphrey Bogart into the ash-bin of history (as Tarantino just did to WWII)—breathe deeply in returning to the late 60s.  In this late, strange age, it feels like something of a call to “remember” the sense of the future contained in that moment when the past was slowly falling away (rather than forget, something which Doc is constantly doing), when the revolutionary nature of the “hippie” lifestyle was becoming aware of its own narcissistic naïveté, when the apocalypse had already happened and everyone was clear about what exactly that was or meant.  There is simply too much of the 21st century here to see this as merely a critique of the LA (or the America) of the 60s and what it led to.  For there is a strange suggestion that “perhaps” it all went in the right direction: “Someday. . . there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers.  People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.”  In other words, Pynchon seems to be suggesting that if what we’ve gained from history is the ability to discern ourselves within a community of people, even if it be of the Facebook type, and if this is all we have of the past, of the perverted promise of it, then so be it.

Bradley J. Fest received his MFA in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh, where he is now a PhD student studying 19th through 21st century American literature, with an emphasis on literary representations of the apocalypse.


Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, Online