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Is this Thomas Pynchon's "late style"?

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Paul Mason | 00:07 UK time, Friday, 31 July 2009

"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


  • Comment number 1.


    Not read any Pynchon, so thank you for introducing him. I have often wondered about "the failure of late sixties radicalism". My current thinking is that it was killed off by the collusion of Neoclassical (Monetarist / Solowist) growth economics who convinced a gullible world that we could have love, happiness and wealth for all, without having to concede to the limits of our natural environment.

    I've not read any of his books yet, but what articles and interviews I have seen leads me to think that Michael Hudson is close to the mark:

    This is not the first time that economic & financial (political?) dogma killed a credible dissenting movement:

    "Whatever happened to those heros?"

  • Comment number 2.

    It does strike me that you have been 'had' Surely this work is a parody in the strict literary sense:

    "As the literary theorist Linda Hutcheon (2000: 7) puts it, "parody is imitation with a critical difference, not always at the expense of the parodied text." Another critic, Simon Dentith (2000: 9), defines parody as "any cultural practice which provides a relatively polemical allusive imitation of another cultural production or practice." Often, the most satisfying element of a good parody is seeing others mistake it for the genuine article." (from since this puts it better than I can in ten minutes)

    Am I enjoying that 'satisfying element'?

  • Comment number 3.

    Sounds a bit like Denis Potters extraordinary TV series ' The Singing Detective'. Such a wonderfully creative and profound piece would never get made now, and even if it did it would never be on BBC1 and it would never get popular acclaim.

    I hate the demise of 3 channel TV and intelligent aspirational media in general, yet it has become taboo to challenge media freedom, simultaneously we seem to have forgotten that with freedom must come responsibility.

    I detest what western media is doing to the world, it did not use to be like that.

    i just have 'freeview' and most days i wish i only had BBC 2 to watch, because it is there I often find myself surfing through the dross of all kinds in a kind of bewildered facination , be it 'sexcetera on virgin channel or biarely 'quiz call' in a 'moth to a flame' type way, sucked into it by via my raw biology and ancient instincs.

    How tireing this all is to know that technology can finally give us what thousands of years of struggle tried to slowly, by attrition, lead us towards.

    Yet when we get there this generation chooses to **** it all away in a frenzy of consumerism, greed and titilation.

    Plato, Copernicus, Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein, Moses, Christ, Buddha, Muhammed and many others must be turning in ther graves and wondering why they bothered.


  • Comment number 4.

    #3 The late great Dennis Potter called Rupert Murdoch 'The Antichrist', shortly before died.

    For that we can be sure he was a great judge of character!

  • Comment number 5.


    I did not know that, he chose the timing of his words quite carefully did he not, considering his profession!

    It is a topic that is rarely debated in the west, the concept of 'media freedom' is touted around as if it is an undeniable basic human right, challenge that and you are challenging democracy, our whole way of life, freedom itself.

    Yet under that seemingly unchallengable umbrella of cultural protection a pretty horrendous situation has been allowed to develop unchecked which is proving to be a very corrosive force against the core values which bind us together.

    Apologies for my even more error strewn post than usual last night by the way, after siting in on a board meeting at the company I work for for the first time and witnessing first hand the self interested slithering, manipulation and posturing going on under the guise of 'what is best for the company and the workers' I took solace in rum and coke.

  • Comment number 6.

    Just because it's a blog doesn't mean you don't have to proof-read it (swathes and swathes, etc). You handle the style game well, though Pynchon isn't so unique, isn't, after all, the only postmodernist-at-play. But it's a failing not to grapple with his view of the counter-culture - its possibilities and failings. So the Said is useful but you could have done more with it (reaction isn't only a formal trait in the old); the "move towards himself" is not. Or rather it's tantalising, and a little cute, because you don't put yourself on the line and say what you mean by it. Come on, cough up!

  • Comment number 7.

    So the absent blogger reviews the (forever) absent author , who is moving closer to himself - the better to know his children ?

    Careful not to move too close to yourself, death may stop drumming and start snatching, all the better to define the script.

    Thanks for this postcard - are you thinking up some more of the "right questions " to ask and blog ? (we can always work the usual magic with the wrong answers to the wrong questions just the same )

    By way of a postcard - we have just enjoyed the Rattonian Theatre production of The Producers. Excellent fun. All through I kept getting Bernard Madoff story flashing into my head too !

    Happy holidays

  • Comment number 8.

    "abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it". Sounds like the ideal candidate for a City regulator. Anyway what's all this to do with quantitative easing - enlighten us on your return.

  • Comment number 9.

    Ho hum

    Dont feel like I can step out of world

    It still needs me to fight.


  • Comment number 10.

    Great review Paul,

    book sounds dreadful

    won't bother buying it

    You've saved me a few quid, cheers

  • Comment number 11.


    You must be nearly back now, hope you had a good break, there is much work to be done! The BOE took advantage of your holiday to slip in another 50 billion of QE with little scrutiny from the press.

    Actually I am starting to like QE, not on a moral level as such but more for the sheer barefaced hypocritical cheek of it.

    The BOE buys back its own debt with 'money' it created from nothing and the pound has been going up in value!! The global economists in the money markets clear think UK plc are onto a winner here..either that ort they have a lot of shares in UK banks whom are having reward upon reward heaped upon them for thier moral and manegerial utter failure.

    One has to meerly admire the chutzpah of it all!!

    Imagine if we all follwed the BOE example when we got into financial trouble...I rather think the outcome an individual would be rather different. it would make rather an interesting legal case would it not.

    '' so Jericoa' you were caught with three photocopied £20 notes you tried to pay off your credit card with..what do you have to say for yourself''

    '' Just doing my bit for the economy sir following the lead from the bank of england, you should be applauding my public spirited behaviour, at least I went to the effort of making money rather than just spontaneously calling it into existence on my laptop'

    '' Go to Jail jericoa''

    '' I dont understand sir...why? i demand a trial by jury !!

    '' No chance this financial case is far too complex for 12 of your peers to judge you on...who knows they may find you innicent, we cant afford that now can we.....''

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    R.I.P. G.D.P.?

    Zencey rides again!

    Seems like someone at the New York Times is prepared to give airtime to challenge economic dogma.

  • Comment number 14.

    Well I just would like to say that you have opened my eyes a bit here. I "had" to read The Crying of Lot #49 years ago back in college. Didn't appreciate such satire when I was (25 years) younger. It is time to blow the dust off of some of my old treasures here and start anew.
    - - Don't Ever Antagonize The Horn - -

    Thanks for the reawakening...
    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]


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