Friday, September 11, 2009

My Oh My - Vice!

Ok let me warn you straight away that I am a Thomas Pynchon fanboy. I've read all the novels, short stories, essays, and some books that most people haven't even heard of - Mortality and Mercy in Vienna for example, which I read and re-read happily in the Butler Stacks at Columbia University until someone stole it. I even struggled through Against the Day which is probably Pynchon's least accessible book but which had some memorable scenes set in my, then, manor - Denver, Colorado.
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Thomas Pynchon was born in Glen Cove, Long Island in 1937, went to Cornell University, joined the navy, became pals with Richard Farina and published his debut novel V in 1963 to great acclaim. He followed up with the brilliant Crying of Lot 49 and cemented his reputation with the WW2 masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow in 1973.
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After a long period of silence he produced Vineland in 1990 which divided critics, Salman Rushdie raved about it but Harold Bloom thought it was so bad that it "had to be the work of an impostor." I was of the former school of thought - Vineland for me was dark and funny and uniformly terrific. In some ways Inherent Vice is a prequel to Vineland or possibly a sequel to Lot 49. It's Pynchon's surreal, intelligent, re-interpretation of detective fiction. Set in LA at the tail end of the 60's it reminded me a little of Robert Altman's version of The Long Goodbye with Elliot Gould playing Marlowe. The plot follows the adventures of private eye Doc Sportello, his girlfriend and what happened or didn't happen to the whole counter culture movement in America. The book does what it says on the tin - channeling all the tropes of crime fiction through TP's warped, encyclopedic and densely clever imagination. I'm not cool with spoiler reviews however I will say that the narrative is maybe a little too familiar to those of us who are The Big Lebowski obsessives, though Lebowski itself was an homage to Chandler and Hammett. Like TBL, Inherent Vice is hilarious, laugh out loud funny, but also a sort of antidote to Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem and the California that gave Nixon and Reagan their shove into the big time.
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As much as I admired Against The Day life's too short to re-read it and I really enjoyed this looser, more relaxed Pynchon; I hope there are many more books like Inherent Vice festering in his big brain.
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Sunday update: I found this YouTube Video apparently made and voiced by Thomas Pynchon himself inhabiting his main character who is revisiting his Manhattan (Gordita in the book) Beach manor of 1970.