The Closed Circuit Game: a Hippie Noir

The end ennobles every act.
— Honoré de Balzac, “The Atheist”

But wait, there’s more!
— Ed Valenti

Thomas Pynchon is too difficult. He is overly tortuous (and torturous). In his work, nothing ever gets resolved. There’s never a point. You can rarely say that he has protagonists. He’s given leave for authors to take what James Wood calls “hysterical realism” too far. His novels are all a muddle.

These are many of the common complaints of Thomas Pynchon readers, those who don’t happen to enjoy the paranoia, the complex networks, and the insanity that define his novels. And for the most part, they’re right. Pynchon brings readers to far-off lands, investigates hundreds of characters in as many pages, meticulously researches esoteric and inane subjects, comically employs jingles and songs much to the effect of James Joyce, and presents plots that refuse to fold together neatly. In some way, it’s as if Pynchon’s fiction project is simply to resist readers and reading itself. By not allowing narratives to conclude completely and by keeping characters’ lives and plot twists up in the air, Pynchon avoids resolution and thus abrades the idea of the closed-circuit. This inhibits total discussion because ideas can’t be substantiated without the hard evidence which Pynchon’s narrators refuse to give. And yet, Pynchon’s novels have one of the literary world’s most ardent fan bases.

With Inherent Vice, Pynchon returns to the 1960s and to Southern California—the same time and landscape as The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland. But unlike his former works, Inherent Vice is a true L.A. detective story, which makes it aberrant in regards to the system Pynchon seems to have created over the half-century he’s been writing. Although one can make the strong argument that all of Pynchon’s novels are like detective tales—where characters are delving into their lives, their jobs, and their situations for explanations to the random and terrible things that happen to them—none of his novels employs an employed private investigator. His novels refuse to be contained by standard definitions of genre and style.

For example, in The Crying of Lot 49, the narrative concludes a sentence before the characters (and the reader) can pull everything together: the reader never reasons out why the last days of Oedipa Maas’s life are so heightened, terse, and comical; why she is named executrix of friend Pierce Invararity’s will; or why an underground mail service may be influencing hundreds and thousands of people worldwide. During the investigation, Oedipa drives through Southern California to see an ex-Nazi psychiatrist, questions a Royal Shakespeare–esque company about its choice of play, listens to the lovelorn music of the pop-rock group The Paranoids, and uncovers the shortest line in blank verse history: “T-t-t-t-t.” In one of the final moments of the book, one of Oedipa’s barroom acquaintances, Mike Fallopian, asks about her findings: “Has it ever occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s putting you on? That this is all a hoax, maybe something Inverarity set up before he died?”

This is something that the reader should be thinking the whole time she’s / they’re engaged in a Pynchon novel. In essence, his books ask whether we really should be searching for clues in life or in literature because, what if it is a hoax in the end? Isn’t the novel the biggest hoax of all: something that suggests truth but is based upon lies, is essentially fictive?

Inherent Vice examines this very question. It is a true detective / noir tale, one that follows the conceits and structure of the genre. It has a private investigator protagonist. It has a villain. People have motives, and their motives are uncovered. All the elements are there. Except, instead of cigarette smoke, we find hash clouds. Together this means that, shockingly, we find a Pynchon world that is in fact a traditional closed-circuit narrative, in which there is something rational at work behind every character and intention. Although there are certainly still little ditties, outlandish names, zany acronyms, distracting side-stories, and amusing peripherals, this is the most reader-friendly and straightforward novel this author has served to his audience. And it’s one that has a conventional conclusion, without frayed and loose ends—a conclusion that pieces the Pynchon oeuvre together, completes the puzzle, encapsulates itself, and allows the reader to see a more lucid “reality” than ever before.

The book begins with standard crime-fiction tropes: a haze falls over Southern California—a dope haze. Hippie private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello is visited by his ex-ladyfriend Shasta. She’s worried about her new love interest, a real estate investor named Mickey Wolfmann, and concerned that he’s part of some sinister plot. Shortly after Doc and Shasta’s meeting, Mickey and Shasta both go missing. In his search for them, Doc ends up being at the wrong place at the wrong time and finds himself involved in a murder mystery that brings one of the LAPD’s finest doorbusters (and Doc’s moral and social enemy), Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, to Doc’s own home.

Believing Doc to be central to Mickey’s disappearance as well as the death of one of Mickey’s thugs, Bigfoot is doing everything in his power to get Doc to squeal—yet he won’t accept a single word Doc says, due to what the narrator and Bigfoot both lovingly refer to as Doc’s Doper Memory. From L.A. to Las Vegas, a cast of corporations—though none as memorable, amusing, or perhaps as sinister as Pynchon’s earliest creation Yoyodyne—create subtle labyrinths for Doc as he tries to find out who kidnapped Mickey (and possibly Shasta); what the faked death of a tenor saxophone player may mean in the grander scheme of things; and why this mysterious vessel in the L.A. harbor, the Golden Fang, might be a cover for corrupt dentists who enjoy picking off people in freak trampoline accidents.

The typical Pynchon digressions are limited in Inherent Vice. It’s stylistically more staccato, with less stream-of-consciousness rambling. The writing is almost minimalistic when compared to standard Pynchon fare. For example:

Doc’s history with Bigfoot, beginning with minor drug episodes, stop-and-frisks up and down Sepulveda, and repeated front-door repairs, had escalated a couple of years ago with the Lunchwater case, one more of the squalid matrimonials that were occupying Doc’s time back then. The husband, a tax accountant who thought he’d score some quality surveillance on the cheap, had hired Doc to keep an eye on his wife. After a couple days of stakeouts at the boyfriend’s house Doc decided to go up on the roof and have a closer look through a skylight at the bedroom below, where the activities proved to be so routine—hanky maybe, not much panky—that he decided to light a joint to pass the time, taking one from his pocket, in the dark, more soporific than he had intended. Before long he had fallen asleep and half rolled, half slid down the shallow pitch of the red-tile roof, coming to rest with his head in the gutter, where he then managed to sleep through the events which followed, including hubby’s arrival, considerable screaming, and gunfire loud enough to get the neighbors to call the police. Bigfoot, who happened to be out in a prowl car nearby, showed up to find the husband and the b.f. slain and the wife attractively tousled and sobbing, and gazing at the .22 in her hand as if it was the first time she’d seen one. Doc, up on the roof, was still snoring.

Fast-forward to Compton, the present day.

As the last line indicates, there are obvious clues to help the reader realize that the flashback is over and that the narrator is coming back to the present time of the narrative. It is another anomaly in the Pynchon system. Contrast this with Vineland—in which there is one chapter where a supporting character, the female ninja DL, recounts memories of the origins she and her sometimes lover / assistant assassin Takeshi Fumimota for tens of pages. This chapter in Vineland is in the vein of Conrad’s Marlow, cunningly cutting into his storytelling in Heart of Darkness: subtle and quiet, where if you’re not reading carefully you’d miss the slight thrust back to the present. While DL speaks, her companion Prairie Wheeler periodically interjects questions, reminding the reader that they’re engaged in an extended reminiscence and not a narrative flashback. And since it is a memory, the style of that chapter is aqueous; it takes many hysterical but naturally flowing side trips and effusive descriptions. However, in Inherent Vice, instead of a fluid back-and-forth, the narrative shocks us immediately out of the drug- and memory-induced reflections—perhaps an homage to Doc’s doper memory.

Outside of this stylistic difference, Pynchon’s latest follows in the footsteps of The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, literally and figuratively. In Lot 49, Oedipa Maas’ complicated route to discovering why she became Inverarity’s executrix occurs slightly before Prairie Wheeler’s instigating mother shoots some controversial films that send her family underground inVineland, which in turn occurs before Doc Sportello’s investigation of the Mickey Wolfmann disappearance and the mystery of the Golden Fang ship. These are not exactly connections but are too close to be disconnected, and Pynchon hints at further hidden continuities. It is the side characters who most strongly link these narratives: Oedipa’s former husband-turned-“zombie”-turned-music mogul, Wendall “Mucho” Maas, is friends and colleagues with musician Scott Oof, Doc’s cousin and a friend of Prairie’s father Zoyd, who is famous for his transfenestration acts.

These tenuous relationships are augmented thematically when one considers the presentation of the novels outside of the context of zaniness and paranoia. Their DNA is replete with the loving memory of the 1960s: counterculture and revolution, fighting “the man,” and smoking dope. Using the 1960’s sociopolitical aura as a lens to analyze contemporary times, Pynchon has been able to refract and comment (always amusingly, sometimes frighteningly) about the mess of American life. As The Crying of Lot 49 was the only one of these novels actually written in the 1960s, it is also the novel most focused on the way subaltern histories of a century ago still resonate today—how an underground mail carrying service was the first of its kind in America to offer some sort of viral campaign against the U.S. government that may still be extant. On the other hand, Vineland’s double helix narrative uses the 1960s as a light to illuminate the 1980s—how the reign of Nixon explains that of Reagan, how McCarthy’s witch trial red-scare terror tactics never really terminated, and how those living in the 60s handled problems slightly better that their progeny.

Inherent Vice brings the themes and outlook of the 1960s to the eyes of those who have lived through the George W. Bush era. In this case, Nixon is used as a lens again, this time to examine Bush. Living in fear for one’s privacy and one’s own life, being involved in a war that is widely unpopular—these are sentiments felt today and in the world of the novel. Nixon is in fact featured on the tube, stating “There are always the whiners and complainers who’ll say, this is fascism. Well, fellow Americans, if it’s Fascism for Freedom? I… can… dig it!” Additionally, the use of computers and the proto-Internet becomes prevalent, an area of our culture that Pynchon has not hitherto tackled (although he has always been generally interested in systems management). Doc gets a friend Fritz to help him use ARPAnet (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), a proto-web, to look for news about Mickey and Shasta:

[Fritz:] “It’s a network of computers, Doc, all connected together by phone lines. UCLA, Isla Vista, Stanford. Say there’s a file they have up there and you don’t, they’ll send it right along at fifty thousand characters per second.” . . .

[Doc:] “But . . . you’re saying somebody hooked up to this thing might know where Shasta is?”

“Can’t know till we look. All over the country, in fact the world, there’s new computers gettin plugged in every day. Right now it’s still experimental, but hell, it’s government money, and those fuckers don’t care what they spend, and we’ve had some useful surprises already.”

“Does it know where I can score?”

The sharing of information through wireless instruments is shocking and fresh to Doc and his companions. Here the internet is still in its early, inchoate, innocent stage. Pairing Pynchon’s general aura of paranoia with our gift of hindsight, though, it is inferred that this apparently wonderful information exchange will someday morph into a powerful tool for the invasive Patriot Act.

This ability to get information instantly via computers amplifies another theme that is recurrent in Pynchon’s work: the concept of the dehumanized “zombie.” In The Crying of Lot 49, “Mucho” Maas loses his humanity to Dr. Hilarius’s LSD and becomes emphatically alienating, unable to attach himself to his wife or to humanity any longer. In Vineland, we are invited to see the cult of the Thanatoids, people who watch television every day, day in, day out. They are beings that are “like death, only different.” Giving up free thought as “Mucho” did before, they lose their individuality and become part of a collective, which embraces an apparently passive nihilism. In Vice, Doc is impressed by the way computers remove aspects of his job so that he can lessen the time he would need to research, which in turn lessens the amount of physical human-to-human interaction. With the instant gratification of internet searches, there’s no longer any need for patience, or for long-winded detective trails.

And so there is a pervasive sense of lethargy here, even though the plot is ostensibly moving at a hundred miles per hour. It’s this slight desire to fight passivity—for Doc could easily give in and become a “zombie”—that makes this man a hero and a true detective. He’s a beacon or a harbinger, humorously reminding us to stay focused and stay active and not take what those powerful around you say at face value. Pynchon writes in Vineland: “When power corrupts, it keeps a log of its progress, written into that most sensitive memory device, the human face. Who could withstand the light? What viewer could believe in the war, the system, the countless lies about American freedom, looking into these mug shots of the bought and sold? Hearing the synchronized voices repeat the same formulas, evasive, affectless, cut off from whatever they had once been by promises of what they would never get to collect on?” This sentiment is echoed in Inherent Vice:

People in this town saw only what they’d all agreed to see, they believed what was on the tube or in the morning papers half of them read while they were driving to work on the freeway, and it was their dream about being wised up, about the truth setting them free. What good would [it] do them? Especially when it turned out to be a place they’d been exiled from too long ago to remember.

Although Pynchon could never be called a sententious writer, this is as close to sermonizing as he gets. In these three novels, we are presented with a dichotomy between becoming brain-dead vessels or actively engaging with our surroundings. ThroughoutInherent Vice, Doc seems to be striving for the latter, but he enjoys the trappings of pleasure and intoxication out too much; he rides the threshold between stoned and unaware, and being physically and mentally passionate.

Doc’s role is the point by which Inherent Vice becomes either wild or disappointing, depending on your perspective. The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, as mentioned above, are detective stories without detectives or stories—a series of strange and seemingly connected things happen to the protagonists, who then go on some inane quest in order to discover why these events befall them, and typically fall short of the answer. To place a true detective in a Pynchon world is now to allow the narrative some form of closure. Detectives drive their stories to an end with the perpetrators behind bars, uncovered corruptions, or murder cases solved. The detective, though usually somewhat scathed, saves the day. All the confusion and mystery that shrouds everyone’s actions in the story are understood; they come together because the detective presses forward to figure everything out. The end gives every prior act meaning, meaning that can be substantiated by the dénouement. By employing these tactics in Inherent Vice, we find Pynchon in fact transforming his own typical narrative style.

In following the generic detective fiction template and a detective who somewhat fits the traditional model, Pynchon presents to us an actual “rational” world instead of a completely defamiliarized and confused one, like those he stages in (and are perhaps the point of) his former works. Inherent Vice is thus a much cleaner narrative. It’s as if Pynchon is seeking peace through the paranoia—as if Pynchon’s narrator has come to terms with the insanity of the world and can perhaps finally close the book on it. A counterintuitive sense of optimism pervades this novel, as Doc and the reader can make sense of the actions of the characters, the manipulation of corporations, and the psychology of mad dreams. In a way, this novel operates as the period—the full stop at the end of his fictional sentence.

About Salvatore Ruggiero

Salvatore Ruggiero attended Cornell and Oxford Universities. His writing has appeared in Rain Taxi, Powell's, and the Five Borough Book Review. Currently working in publishing, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.