Revolution #191, February 7, 2010

From a Reader

Inherent Vice

by Thomas Pynchon

(Semi-spoiler warning: I have attempted to convey what this book is like without giving away any key plot points.  It is a mystery novel, and I do not reveal who was killed or when or why or by whom.  I do "give away" some other things, but only with the purpose of encouraging people to check this book out.)

The reviews of Inherent Vice have been mostly positive, though some have been rather dismissive. Entertaining, they say, but nowhere near the depth of Pynchon's big books, such as Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon.  A good "beach read."  Some have also complained about Pynchon's nostalgia for the 1960s, specifically the late 1960s in Los Angeles.

"Inherent Vice reads like a workmanlike improvisation on Vineland."  "Compared with Gravity's Rainbow or V. or Mason & Dixon, this novel is Pynchon Lite."  (New York Times)

"Inherent Vice is not just one of the lightest novels Pynchon has ever produced. Judging by its slightly destabilizing surfer paradise cover at right, it could turn out to be his least weighty as well." (Wired Magazine)

"Indeed, despite its relative brevity, Inherent Vice is overplotted, overpopulated, and, ultimately, flabby." (Miami Herald)

"…a manically incoherent pseudo-noir hippie-mystery that should fit in nicely with the author's recent series of quirky late-career non-masterpieces." (New York Magazine)

"It's got some nice observations about the changes wrought by the death of the 1960s and the birth of the 1970s—the convulsive sprawl of greater Los Angeles, for instance—although the understanding of those decades is entirely leftist-conventional: dope and hippies, good; Nixon and 'flatlanders,' bad." (Wall Street Journal)

The Land and "The Man"

One thing that struck me immediately when I was reading the book is that Pynchon remembers a lot about the late 1960s in Los Angeles besides the dopers, surfers, oil spills, sunshine, rock & roll music, and smog.  He also remembers the LAPD, and "los federales" (as the FBI are usually called here), and how they spied on, bought off, and even assassinated people who seemed to be trouble-makers, lefties, and (of course) most especially Black revolutionaries.  As an FBI agent says at one point, "As you may know, most of the energy of this office is going to investigating Black Nationalist Hate Groups."

Doc, the main character, is not politically active.  The only time there's a mention of him going to a demonstration, it's a protest against NBC's decision to cancel Star Trek.  He's a pothead private eye, a long-haired hippie freak, and most of his energy goes to smoking dope and having sex with "hippie chicks," though he also works harder at his cases than it would appear at first.

But he's aware of a lot of what's going on around him.  He knows who George Jackson is, and Ron Karenga; he knows about COINTELPRO; and he's also aware of how Black people are systematically kept out of California beach towns like the one where he lives. And he knows about how this world works; for example, about the "[l]ong sad history of L.A. land use... Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium, American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Center, Tariq's neighborhood bulldozed aside for Channel View Estates."

Tariq is a Black militant who hires Doc, and who found recently, when he got out of prison, that his old neighborhood was completely gone.

"More white man's revenge."

"Revenge for...?"


"The riots."

"Some of us say 'insurrection.'  The Man, he just waits for his moment."

Of course, this is Pynchon, so Tariq's Black militant organization is called Warriors Against the Man Black Armed Militia—WAMBAM.  It's obvious from the plot that these "Warriors" being "Armed" is one of the things "the Man" fears most.

The carving up of the world by competing powers is a theme that has appeared in Pynchon's novels before.  Mason & Dixon is about the process of dividing up the North American continent into different colonies (and eventually into different states), and the second half of Gravity's Rainbow takes place in "The Zone," the chaos that existed in Europe right before and after the end of World War II, as the continent was re-divided and control was reestablished.

I should make it clear at this point that Inherent Vice is not a ponderous political tract or a misty nostalgia trip.  For one thing, the plot is tight.  By the end of the book, if you can see through the clouds of pot smoke, you will know exactly who committed each crime and why.  It's also really funny, and Pynchon remembers the goofy stuff as well as the serious: rumors about the psychedelic properties of banana skins, complex stoned theories about formulaic TV sitcoms, and so forth—this is the book where you learn about a theory that Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster is really a remake of Roman Holiday—which is an actual theory that film enthusiasts have proposed, long before Pynchon took this on.

(As often happens in Pynchon, the wilder something sounds the more likely it is to be true.  I realized that fact many years ago when I read in Gravity's Rainbow about the "Zoot Suit Riots." I thought, "Oh, that sounds funny," and then not long after I learned that these riots had indeed happened in LA, and other places, in the 1940s, mostly involving clashes between white servicemen and young Latinos, who often wore flashy suits called "zoot suits.")

John Garfield

Throughout the book, there are many references to John Garfield.  Bigfoot Bjornsen (Doc's LAPD nemesis) talks at one point about "the Hollywood blacklist you don't remember and the Watts rioting you do."  But Doc is aware of the blacklist, since John Garfield, a very popular actor who was blacklisted for his politics in the 1950s and who died not long after, is Doc's hero, and in moments of stress Doc sometimes tries to figure out how John Garfield would have acted in a similar situation.  But Doc admires John Garfield not only because of his acting, but also because he was true to his principles.  He did not become a snitch, unlike another blacklisted actor in the book (who ended up making films like Commie Confidential and I Was a Red Dope Fiend).  Doc frequently rails against Mod Squad, a late-60s police show about three juvenile offenders who, rather than go to jail, start to work undercover for the police.

In a key scene late in the book, facing an important negotiation with a very rich and powerful man, Doc wears a suit that John Garfield wore in The Postman Always Rings Twice (quite plausible, actually; MGM Studios did sell off a lot of their stockpile of old movie costumes in 1970, the year when the book is set) hoping there was some "mojo" left in its threads to protect him.  And in that meeting, when a large amount of money is offered, Doc's response is telling.

"Beware of the Golden Fang"

I am indebted to the London Review of Books for answering one question.  Throughout the book, Doc keeps running into different things called by the same name: the Golden Fang.  It is a boat (once owned by the blacklisted actor mentioned above and now used for smuggling—though it's never quite clear what is being smuggled); it's a shadowy heroin cartel ("They finance it, grow it, process it, bring it in, step on it, move it, run Stateside networks of local street dealers, take a separate percentage off of each operation.  Brilliant."); and it's also a tax syndicate run by some dentists—who, we find out later in the book, also deal in guns—operating out of a building shaped like a giant gold tooth.

The Golden Fang is also behind an upscale mental hospital that specializes in, among other things, drug treatment.  Sell people the drugs and also sell them a program to kick the drugs?  Why not?  "Get them coming and going—as long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers."

They are behind everything, it seems; and everybody, including the Mob, is afraid of them.

Most critics wrote off the Fang as more Pynchon Paranoia, but Thomas Jones, in the London Review of Books, said, "...ditch the silly name, and the comic-book headquarters, and it's hard not to agree that a system like the Golden Fang exists, only most people call it, more prosaically, capitalism.  And it's everywhere..."

Bob Avakian explained, in "Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism," that there can never be, under capitalism, even something as apparently basic as a right to eat.  And, as was pointed out in a letter to Revolution newspaper (issue #149, November 30, 2008), this applies to a right to shelter also.  There isn't such a right, to either food or shelter, and there can't be.  Inherent Vice gets into this, showing how, if somebody did try to give people a right to shelter, not only would it never work under this system but the attempt would be stopped cold.  You can't give people a right to shelter, and even raising the question and trying to resolve it shakes things up.  As Avakian said, "...there is a way that this system works, and if you don't act in accordance with that, you will be chewed up and spit out by that system.  Or you will learn to go along with it very quickly."

This scenario is played out, not in the foreground but very clearly, throughout Inherent Vice.

"Fascism for Freedom"

Doc's not trying to change the world, and he knows that a lot of his income comes from the misbehavior of the rich and powerful (PIs "can't get by on matrimonials and car thefts," after all).  But he will not take money from the cops (though it is offered more than once, and he could clearly use it), and he has no illusions about what they really represent ("they never pull in but the one direction," he says when someone suggests he seek their help).  He's dating a Deputy DA, but he has few illusions about her, even before she hands him over to los federales to protect herself.

And he knows that the LAPD and los federales have many unofficial channels, private contractors and rightwing zealots to do the things that the official forces would rather not be involved with.  There's an organization called Vigilant California, completely unofficial but directed and paid and armed by the police, which handles various kinds of surveillance, intimidation, and even paramilitary operations.  Nixon shows up at a "viggie" rally at one point, saying, "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!"

The slogan "Fascism for Freedom" by the way, brings up an interesting question.  The events of this book take place nearly forty years ago. Did Pynchon just suddenly feel like writing about that era, or was there a reason?  Did the events of the last few years: the ever-increasing monitoring of people here and around the world, the steady erosion of rights that people had accepted as foundational, the endless sound bites on the television and radio from people cheerfully willing to give up privacy and personal freedom in order to feel safe, did this give Pynchon the desire to draw a parallel?  No way to tell, of course.

Either way, there are a lot of serious concerns here, and a lot of real history, but most reviewers didn't see it for all the fun and games, all the zany names (Buddy Tubeside, Art Tweedle, Petunia Leeway, Rudy Blatnoyd), all the movie and song and television references (I can't count all the times Gilligan's Island comes up), the various drugs and groupies and bands.

And dead bodies, since this is a mystery after all.  Doc is working on a few cases at the same time (which end up connected, of course) and he does solve them.  But for all the constant haze of dope he maintains around himself, he is unable to completely inure himself to the larger direction of things, that "the sixties" are turning into "the seventies," that "the little parenthesis of light" is closing.  Is closing, but more important is being closed.  It is not just that, as Hunter Thompson put it in "the wave speech" in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that the wave crested and rolled back.  It's that there was a deliberate plan to buy off those who could be bought, to intimidate those who could be intimidated, to discredit and divide the rest, and even to kill the most dangerous.

This seemed to be happening more and more lately, out in Greater Los Angeles, among gatherings of carefree youth and happy dopers, where Doc had begun to notice older men, there and not there, rigid, unsmiling, that he knew he'd seen before, not the faces necessarily but a defiant posture, an unwillingness to blur out, like everybody else at the psychedelic events of those days, beyond official envelopes of skin.... Doc knew these people, he'd seen enough of them in the course of business.  They went out to collect cash debts, they broke rib cages, they kept an unforgiving eye on anything that might become a threat.  If everything in this dream of pre-revolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like this, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who'd make it happen.

Was it possible, that at every gathering—concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever—those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?

"Gee," he said to himself out loud, "I dunno..."

The dichotomy here is between the idea that the political and social changes of the 1960s reached their logical and inevitable limits, and then receded, and the idea that this upsurge was deliberately tamped down in various ways, and this dichotomy is expressed in the title.  "Inherent vice" is a legal term for things which insurance policies don't like to cover, because some items come with built-in flaws.  The example given in the novel is that it's difficult to insure a shipment of eggs against breaking, since it is in the nature of eggs to break.

So, the title, if applied to the dichotomy mentioned above, would seem to point to the first explanation, that the wave had inevitably reached its limits.  But the book itself, as I've indicated, appears to subscribe to the opposite explanation.

And the author himself, who never makes public statements and never gives interviews, is of course not saying anything either way.  So, we have to figure it out for ourselves, including the possibility that the situation was complex and the two scenarios are not mutually exclusive.

"The little parenthesis of light"

Doc is fundamentally a reformist, trying to fix what he can.  He's trying to locate a missing husband and father, reported dead; trying to locate a missing lover for a client; trying to help his own ex-old lady though she's now the mistress of a big-time land developer; trying to collect a debt for Tariq.  His current g-f (the DDA) turns him over to the feds and his main worry is for her, knowing she must be in big trouble to have sold him out like that.  He tries to help pretty much anybody who needs it, whether or not they can pay him.

He solves these cases, but he doesn't fix the bigger problems and he knows it.

This is what runs throughout the book, and leads to the heartbreaking final pages, where Doc shows that all the sex and drugs and rock & roll, and all the ways he tries to help people who need it, aren't changing anything fundamental, and he knows it.  He'll get stoned, but then eventually he'll sober up and see once again that things are really bad and getting worse, and that the brief glimpse of a possibility for major positive change is being taken away.

Because that is heartbreaking, when that possibility actually opens up, and it isn't seized, and then the "little parenthesis of light" closes again.



New York Times:

Wired Magazine:

Miami Herald:

New York Magazine:

Wall Street Journal:

Revolution on Brother George Jackson:

Ron Karenga and COINTELPRO:

Bob Avakian:

Revolution (letter):

"The wave speech":

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