Is this Thomas Pynchon's "late style"?
"Congratulations, hippie scum", Bigfoot greeted Doc in his all-too-familiar 30-weight voice. "And welcome to a world of inconvenience. Yes, this time it appears you have finally managed to stumble into something too real and too deep to hallucinate your worthless hippie ass out of."
This is the sound of Thomas Pynchon doing detective fiction, noir as a packet of Rizla Black cigarrette papers. Pynchon has done pastiche and parody before - swathes of it in Against the Day, a novel of anarchism and ballooning. But this time it is for real: the old genre buster, master of digression and unfilmable plotlines, has produced a genuine piece of crossover commercial fiction.
Inherent Vice is the story of Doc Sportello, private detective and acid casualty, based in Pynchon's fictional homeland - LA's Gordita Beach - during the early Nixon era. Doc, like most Pynchon protagonists, still yearns for a woman he should probably forget; lusts after others he would in no space other than fiction have a chance with; and shoulders the sorrows of the world aided by large quantities of mind-expanding drugs, some so niche and so Seventies that their names have been forgotten, above all by those who took them.
Sportello's opening attempts to sort out a problem for his ex, Shasta, leads in short order to the disappearance of her boyfriend, property developer Mickey Wolfmann. Then to a whole bunch of murders, arrests and encounters during which Doc discovers the essential duplicity of the free-spirited surfer/doper community he's a part of, and the indispensibility of their treachery to the success of the counter-revolution.
Like Vineland this book is about the failure of late sixties radicalism, its collective self destruction in pursuit of individual happiness, its easy infiltration by and ultimate compromise with the law enforcement agencies of Nixonian America. Indeed there are even several characters re-used from Vineland: saxophonist Scott Oof reappears in a cameo role; Kahuna Airlines - the only Hawaiian based carrier with in in-flight head shop - is explored further. Other characters from Vineland are mirrored: we get two more crazy muthas just out of Vietnam, only with different names; we get a badass narco cop; a messed up organised crime king and of course an unattainable ex-girlfriend.
What's gone though are the large swathes of digression, reflection and description that make reading any other Pynchon novel an exercise in hermeneutics. Here the story is boiled down to chunks of movie-style dialogue and chunks of Pynchonesque description. I say Pynchonesque because there is, at times, and not for the first time recently, a slight suspicion that he is actually parodying his own style. The story elements are - like in no other Pynchon novel - highly filmic. He has accepted, for the purposes of the genre, Kerouac's doctrine that "the movie in words [is] the visual American form". It turns out that - again in contrast to every other Pynchon book - his agent is right now trying to sell the screen rights.
To people with hardcore Pynchon habits, for whom no year can pass without a sneaky dip into his world Jungian craziness and multilayered subtext, this book will come as a disappointment. It reads, at times, like Pynchon after a long week at the Betty Ford Clinic, with all the dirt, most of the digression and all of the movie-deal-breaking sexual perversions detoxed out of his system.
Indeed there were points reading this (you always experience some kind of paranoia reading Pynchon) where I began to wonder whether the author was not playing a giant joke on the literary world, and whether he would pop up on The Simpsons with a paper bag over his head (again) to decry the critics: "Jeez, you guys it was just a joke".
However, once your consider the recent trajectory of Pynchon's work you can see where he might be going here, and why. Gravity's Rainbow was at the same time a genre-destroying and genre-creating book. Vineland was a return to tightness and closure: set in two periods - the treacherous eighties and the betrayed sixties - and in the gorgeous landscape stretching from the fictional Gordita (LA's Manhattan Beach) to the fictional Vineland (North California's Mendocino County), it achived an emotional truth some would argue he lost in the two subsequent chorizo-thick books (Mason & Dixon, Against The Day).
Since he does not give interviews, apart from to Matt Groening, we are left to speculate: here is one speculative version of the thought process. Ever-more convoluted riffs on the same themes of paranoia, the death of leftism, bizarre sex, yearning and mind-expanding drugs are proving harder and harder to hold together with any kind of narrative. As with some of Charlie Parker's later solos, there is the suspicion that you can hear, as Pynchon once put it "ol' mister death drumming his fingers" in some of this later work. So adopt a narrative genre. In fact kill three birds with one stoner: detective fiction gives you tautness; the hippy-era California setting puts you back in the world of your most truthfully drawn characters; and hey, its also a prequel so that's another genre bent. (Surely once he is dead some member of Pynchon's literary stalking fraternity will, Tolkien style, begin the labourious task of back-plot filling the characters: "Zoyd Wheeler, the Surfer Years").
The result is a book that will probably remembered as the work that introduced Pynchon to the masses.But it is not the same journey; the excruciating trip into the nightmare of the soul is is cut short; the lyricism comes in movie-length chunks instead of those pages of forever.
As Edward Said noted in his reflections "On Late Style", artists often confront their later years with a defiant return to something: Richard Strauss to unashamed conservatism in Metamorphosen, Mozart to the simplicity of bedroom farce in Cosi Fan Tutte. Plus they exhibit a distinctive refusal to resolve, an abrasiveness, a determination to dig once more through the themes discovered in a period of youthful rebellion, to see if they can find what they were looking for.
If this turns out to be Pynchon's late style (he is 72 years old) then, how weird for the vast tribe of followers who've constructed all those Wiki sites devoted to line-by-line deconstructions of the texts: this hardly needs deconstruction. It is translucent; at times obvious. It is, in fact, a small masterpiece but because it adopts a genre it also has to be compared to other works in the genre, not just - as normally with Pynchon - itself.
Said observed that the late style artist typically "abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it". But Pynchon doesn't need to: he achieved that long ago. This late turn in his literary style achieves something opposite but equally surprising. It is a move towards form, and closed form at that, towards genre, and towards communication. And it is a move away from subtext.
I think, as far as you can presume to know anybody who has not given an interview or been photographed for forty years, it is a move towards himself.
* I am on holiday. Back on Newsnight in the second week of August