Inherent Vice is the lightest and most ephemeral of Thomas Pynchon’s works. Given V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, his three greatest novels, he is entitled to self-indulge if he wishes. The title of this new novel alludes to the underlying corruption that the main character, Doc, a hipster doper private detective, discovers underlying the economic, law enforcement, and political system of greater Los Angeles and, by extension, the entire United States. The discovery is not unlike the one Oedipa Maas makes in The Crying of Lot 49, though the conspiracy she uncovers lies at the roots of western civilization, while the one Doc uncovers in Inherent Vice is more superficial and less surprising—there is much less at stake in this novel—it’s the kind of corruption that in 2010 we’ve come to accept as an inherent aspect of our world.
Inherent Vice is very readable, and there are moments of great description, but for the most part it lacks momentum and sometimes falters. Doc is often in an altered state of reality, and since we view the novel through his eyes the view is sometimes smokily obscured, which is part of the fun.
Doc reminded me of the Dude in The Big Lebowski—surely Pynchon has seen that film. Inherent Vice is set in the late 1960s, and Doc senses that the 60s not so much as a decade as a cultural moment are approaching an endpoint, a transition to something else. Pynchon himself does not seem entirely immune to nostalgia over this now distant decade. Nostalgia of a certain type lightly infuses the text of the narrative. He also occasionally inserts here and there small verbal innuendoes and references to more recent events that make clear his awareness that his readers inhabit a later decade than Doc, that they will recognize these nods and hints while Doc will not.
One character in the novel uses a very early form of the Internet, which gives him access to a considerable amount of information about various characters—it is difficult not to see this as cheating on Pynchon’s part, although the Internet was in early stages of development at the time when the novel is set.